Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Off-leash romps can result in an encounter with a moose, a bear, or other wildlife. There is no way to 100% guarantee the safety of your dog off-leash. Why not keep our off-leash runs in the areas designated off-leash by the city? These areas involve a higher risk of exposure to aggressive dogs that are not under the control of their owners. The likelihood of an encounter with an unsocialized dog off-leash is far greater in a dog park just because of the high concentration of dogs there. In addition to this safety risk, the constant interruption of outside dogs keeps the pack from developing the cohesion that is necessary for us to keep my role as pack leader clearly delineated and pack dynamics operational. I would not be able to manage the dogs or correct unwanted behavior unless my role as the pack leader was clearly recognized. Instead of the off-leash designated areas, I choose trails where coming across other hikers is infrequent. Often when I can see a person up ahead, I can choose a different trail to avoid crossing paths. This not only reduces my risk of incurring fines but also reduces the chance of coming across a person who is unhappy about coming in contact with a pack of even well behaved off-leash dogs.
There are additional ways I minimize risks to your dog. First, I only allow dogs off-leash once they have a predictable recall. If a dog does not come when called, it stays on a short leash at first and I require 30-minute training sessions (after a scheduled 1-hour run) to get the dog to the point where they respond when they are called even when they are distracted. At this point, they can graduate to a 30-foot lead while I continue to work with them during the runs with the pack. I require them to stay within my eyesight at all times so that if the need arises because they are not coming when I call them, I can run and grab the lead to safely restrain them if needed.
Once the dog dependably comes when called, even when we encounter another person or dog, then I can trust them off-leash. I can then allow them to run off the trail as they often like to do, sniffing, chasing each other and playing. This is their best fun but includes the possibility that they may encounter a porcupine, skunk, moose, or other wild animals. Just the smell of dogs will often warn wild animals to move in another direction. However, sometimes they will stand their ground and dogs will encounter an animal that wants to defend its territory. A wise and cautious dog will usually turn around and run back to me if they encounter an unfamiliar animal. But a young, inexperienced, and curious pup will likely start to bark and approach the animal. When I hear barking, I am on full alert, and call the dogs using a whistle that is reserved for times when I am offering a high-value reward. Owners that want to take an added precaution can provide their dog with a vibrating or shock collar for situations like this so I can remotely get the dogs attention when they have fixated upon a wild animal. I would like to think that if we trained hard enough, or long enough, or with the right methods, that we could overcome all of the risks, that our dogs really could be completely reliable and safe. But the fact is that when dogs are off leash in an unsecured area, there will always be a chance that their instincts or desires will lead them into the path of danger.
So why train for off-leash skills? Why not keep our animals on a leash or in a safely secured area at all times? We could say the same thing for you. It is safer for you to live your entire life inside, right? But the fact is that, for a healthy, active person, this would be a miserable existence. A dog’s need to run freely and explore is many times greater than our need. Keeping dogs cooped up inside or in a yard by themselves may be safer, but it is cruel and will lead to a dramatic decline in their quality of life and health. Time spent off leash gives our dogs physical and mental exercise, keeping them healthy and happy. Unless you run or bike (or other similarly intense activities) with your dog on a regular basis, they are getting less exercise than they need.
There is no comparison to the enjoyment dogs have when exploring freely on the trails. Just like wolves, their wild cousins, running in a pack and using their incredibly sharp senses to investigate the outdoors is still a basic need of a dog’s nature. You will see these dogs come alive in ways you will never observe while they are confined indoors, in a fenced yard, or on a leash. Out there, they are free to romp playfully with other dogs and run full throttle to get out all their pent-up energy. While 100% reliability may not be possible, the risks associated with a dog being off leash will be greatly minimized through a combination of training and management. We think the extra effort is worth it!