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Mastering Off-Leash Etiquette: A Dog Walker's Guide

Mastering Off-Leash Etiquette: A Dog Walker's Guide

The off-leash dog. It’s a dream for most and a nightmare for many. Walking out in our woods with Manzo off-leash exploring whatever his nose desires is one of my favorite things in the world. Piper, on the other hand, is always dragging her long line. This is for her safety, the safety of others, and for our peace of mind. She still gets to explore, roll in the snow (or mud!), and have the best time. Both of them however are on leash when we go out on public trails. Once again, that is for their safety, and the safety of others. Of course, they would be happy, romping wherever they want as they do in the woods around where we live, but for Manzo and Piper, being off-leash on a busy trail would be inappropriate. As I’m sure some of you have experienced, in these situations, the last thing we or our dogs want is an off-leash dog charging up and into our dog’s bubble while the dog’s human calls out ineffectually after them, or maybe even worse, looks down at their phone not noticing or caring. 

Having an off-leash dog is a freedom many of us aspire to, but a careless few can ruin the time for the rest of us. People who are afraid of dogs deserve to feel comfortable out on trails. Dogs who can’t handle other dogs in their space have a right to enjoy nature safely as well. I absolutely love having an off-leash dog, but there should be an etiquette, that if everyone would follow, the local trail would be a much happier and frankly safer place. 

How to have an off leash dog

First off, an obvious place to start is thinking about your dog’s recall. If they don’t respond to you when faced with distractions, they shouldn’t be off-leash in a public place. Simple as that! Not only can it ruin another hiker’s day when your dog ignores you and rushes them or their dog, but it just plain isn’t safe. Dogs disappear all too often while chasing wildlife. They can get hurt tearing through the woods or running into the road. If your dog can’t listen, they should be on a leash!

The worst sentence in the world is ‘Don’t worry, he’s friendly!’

Now what is the proper etiquette when your dog has earned their off-leash privileges and you are approaching another dog or person? It’s never a good idea to assume that whoever is approaching wants to meet your dog. The worst sentence in the world is ‘Don’t worry, he’s friendly!’ Call your dog back and either set them up on a leash or in a “fall back” or heel position if you have practiced that a lot. Once they are there you can ask whoever is approaching if they like dogs or if their dog is friendly. If they are, and the owner gives permission, let your dog go and say hi. If they say no, move on. Keep an eye out for obvious signs like pulling off the trail or changing directions and help them out with their training journey by moving on quickly. Want to learn how to teach your dog to "Fall Back"? Click here to get a free bonus lesson plan.

Okay, so how about those things we can’t predict as well? Maybe turning a corner and suddenly there is something or someone right there. Or at the crest of a steep hill. I love the practice of teaching your dog a ‘Fall back’ cue. A cue that has them fall in behind you and hang out here until you release them to go explore again. That way you get to see what is coming around the corner before your dog does so you can decide the best course of action before it’s gotten out of hand. 

At the end of the day, off-leash etiquette means allowing everyone else who is trying to enjoy the trail you and your dog are at to have a safe and enjoyable experience. If your dog can’t respond well around distractions, they shouldn’t be off-leash. Respect the space of other trailgoers and their dogs and as always, make sure you have fun! If you feel like your dog isn’t quite ready for off-leash freedom, check out our free mini-course, The Distracted Dog Reset. This class will help you learn attention skills and our favorite, the emergency u-turn Sign up and start training today by clicking here. 

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