Off Leash Dog Training: How we taught our dog to walk nicely in the city

labrador retriever is standing off leash in the middle of a pathway of trees
Training your dog not to pull at the leash is a basic requirement for a harmonious relationship with your dog.  Leash training is a great way to work on your dog’s manners and the results are so worth it.  Off leash dog training is the next steps to take your training to the next level. If your dog is walking nicely next to you, you will feel AMAZING.
Picture this: you’re walking down the city streets surrounded by chaos, honking horns, barking dogs, lots of people. You look down to your left, and your dog is right there – not one step in front or one step behind you. It’s as if there was an invisible string connecting you. You feel his presence and warmth. He’s stopping with you, starting with you – he is part of your every move. It feels like you are in a movie scene where all the focus is on you and the rest of the sounds just fade away. 

Succeeding at off leash K9 training

If this is one of your training goals, then read on for what worked for us and how we trained this with professionals. For our family, training was our top goal – we live a busy, sometimes hectic life in a big city so our dogs need to be disciplined to stay in sync with us. Additionally, our dogs have certain service dog tasks that require them to be off leash at times. Achieving “off leash freedom” has no impact on whether or not you are a worthy dog owner. We like to add this disclaimer because we do not want people to feel guilty for not teaching their dogs certain behaviors, that is not our intention.  Every dog fits into its family in a different way and we each have different priorities for the relationship we have with our dog. Some dogs are meant to pull forward with momentum to help their handler. Drug dogs are supposed to be constantly looking for a new sniff. Some breeds excel at agility and others love to work.  Hunting dogs need to be able to go after a bird to bring it back. The list of potential things our dogs may do goes on and on, so the most important thing is setting up your individual goals.
We did work with professionals and are NOT trainers so please consult with professionals first. Additionally, unless your dog has a specific job that requires it to be off leash please check with leash laws in your area.
dog standing off leash in front of red trees

Off leash dog training: What we mean by “off leash”

 Off leash in this post means something different than a dog running around in a grassy field without a leash on- It doesn’t mean allowing the dog to do its own thing on the sidewalk. A wandering off leash dog may be under control but it is not under the same level of control as a dog that is stuck to your heel.  In this post, “off leash” is more of a concept that means that the dog is so in tune with its handler that it’s not clear that there is nothing physically connecting the two. Calvin ALWAYS wears a 9-12 inch traffic handle on his collar that is at arm’s length in case it needs to be held. Even with a long leash he stays at the heel so we prefer the 9-12 inch handle so we don’t have extra leash dangling at our side. We hold it most of the time, but not to keep him controlled.

Setting yourself up for success with OFF leash training – first make sure your dog is trained to walk perfectly while ON leash

This post assumes that the dog is already well trained and walking perfectly while ON leash. See our posts about cracking the walk and training with the gentle leader before this. Hopefully you can find some useful resources on our site about training your puppy.
  • 100% consistency and commitment: This type of goal isn’t like going to the gym after New Years because the truth is that it cannot be achieved without 100% consistency. The dog can’t ‘sometimes’ ignore other dogs on the street or ‘sometimes’ not chase birds.
  • Boundaries: This type of training goal isn’t for dogs that do not have boundaries with their handlers. In other words, dogs who run their home won’t be able to do this since they have no real reason to listen to their handler if they run the house (totally cool if that is the nature of your relationship with your dog but it won’t work for achieving this particular goal).
  • There are no shortcuts: A dog who doesn’t already heel perfectly while connected to a leash on a flat collar, wait at doorways, stop at crosswalks won’t be any better when there is no leash connecting you….In fact, they’ll walk right into the street. There’s no going from 0 to 60 overnight.
  • Patience: We NEVER thought this day would come. It wasn’t even our goal until we realized how we had already been setting Calvin up for success for months. At the end of the summer 2018 we noticed that he spent his leash time with his eyes glued to us and that’s when we realized all the things that had led us to that point. Here’s how….

dog wearing a red striped polo in the fall time

How we taught our dog to walk nicely

Again, this is how we were able to succeed with the help of professionals, but every dog is different and has different needs.

  1. A rock solid “leave it” with your dog – Ultimate success comes down to a solid, no treat “leave it” where the dog immediately redirects with eye contact after one command. We realized that this had been proofed when Calvin  began immediately looking to us when he saw interesting items on the street.
  2. Getting the dog to listen without treats – We used treats for things like sidewalk boundaries but weaned off of them once taught. Treats won’t keep your dog from bolting if they see something more awesome – Treats won’t work as bribery when something better comes along.  The training school we worked with abided by the policy that “leave it” and “heel” were non-negotiable proper behaviors, and therefore no treats.  This is what worked for us even though we respect that many people do it differently.
  3. Removing prey drive from the dog – Labs are hunting dogs. They LOVE birds. Can your dog walk through a flock of pigeons and keep their eyes focused on you without treats? That’s what will need to happen for this goal. As a puppy, Calvin once chased a bird at the beach almost to the parking lot. That was when we realized we had to train him to ignore his potential prey. There are birds all over the city….mice, rats, and squirrels are also not uncommon. Calvin’s purpose is not as a hunting dog, so there was no need for him to care about chasing potential prey.
  4. No on leash dog greetings – EVER. Literally Never. I’d like to keep it at that but I’ll elaborate. There are many, many reasons why someone would want to avoid having their dog greet other dogs while on leash – Reactivity, working service dog, needing to get somewhere….ect. Calvin is great with on-leash greetings when they are unwillingly forced upon us so our decision has nothing to do with behavior.  If your dog gets enough socialization time when at the park or in a play environment, it doesn’t need to stop and sniff everyone on the street. Dogs are not great generalizers (Calvin definitely isn’t) – they won’t understand why they need to ignore some dogs but not others. We made it our rule very early on to never allow on leash greetings so that Calvin would learn to absolutely ignore other dogs outside of playtime. If you are someone who gets offended when dog owners walk right past you and ignore your cute pup, don’t be offended. There are many personal reasons that people do not allow on leash greetings and a great pet peeve of ours is when we see strangers going out of their way to force the dogs to meet. A plus side of having a dog that ignores others when outside is that you can have lots of great walks with other Service Dog and Guide Dog handlers since both dogs can walk side by side entirely ignoring each other! We’ve had a great time getting to know members of our neighborhood this way. Your dog can’t be off leash if it runs up and rushes to other dogs….there are more reasons than we can count for why this but the biggest is common sense and decency. Your dog can’t be successful off leash if it thinks that walk time is socialization time.
  5. Human Greetings need an “OK” – The other day we were walking on the street and someone called out to Calvin. He looked at me first and the woman said “thats so cute your dog is asking for permission.” I gave Calvin the “OK” and he got some head scratches. We love sharing Calvin with ALL humans and as part of his therapy dog training we worked on only allowing him to say hi if given permission. We always give him permission for this but first he must wait for the “OK”. There are a few reasons this rule is so important. First, some people don’t like dogs coming up to them and that must be respected. Second, if your dog is off leash, its focus is on you, not others.  Imagine walking down the street and having your dog run off to bother a passerby. Nope. Not ok for this training goal.
  6. Off leash training the dog means no stepping ahead – If your dog walks ahead of you or ever tugs at the leash you aren’t ready to work on “off-leash”. First, the dog needs to be able to walk as if off leash while attached to the leash. That’s all I’m going to say about this.
  7. Sidewalk Boundaries – This is a necessary part of all training for Guide Dogs for the Blind but something that can be taught to others dogs as well. The dog must know where the sidewalk ends so they do not ever overstep into the street.
  8. Immediate stay, stop, go – Abrupt stops are very common: Driveways, crosswalks, crowds. There isn’t time for delay with these commands. If the dog is in tune with how you are walking, you won’t even need to say anything.  If necessary, they need to be able to immediately stop on command without walking ahead of you.
  9. The dog becomes your shadow, literally – He’s glued to my heel to the point where I can almost feel his warmth and that’s right where I like him. We know that many people have different leash expectations but for our big city purposes, a perfect heel is necessary.
  10. Teach the dog to go to the bathroom on command – Potty training a puppy already seems hard enough but teaching potty on command is super useful. If your dog can stop for potty whenever they want, this will disrupt the harmony you have while walking off leash. We have designated sniff and potty time when we go on walks but the rest of the time is back to the heel.
Our commitment to our “off leash” goal has been one of the most rewarding parts of our relationship with our dogs. We move together, make constant eye contact, and feel the rest of the world fade away while we are out on our walks. We get stopped at crosswalks at least once a day by people who have been watching us walk down the street. They’ll ask “HOW?” Hopefully some of our “rules to live by” will help you achieve your goals.
I only listen to mom though. Cheers!
Your Pal Cal
dog holding a red leash while wearing an orange and red bandana
labrador sitting while off leash in a striped red and white polo at stanford university

Come, Sit, Stay: Train Your Dog to “Stay”

dog doing the stay command while wearing a blue plaid dog bandana

Teach a Dog to Stay: Training Your Dog to Stay

Training your dog to stay reliably is a great way to enhance their training. You can start teaching a puppy to “stay” as soon as it comes home. Once your dog masters the “stay” command, it will be able to stay through distractions and for as long as you want. The “stay” command isn’t too glamorous but is one of our most frequently used commands. Today, we’re going to look into the “Stay” command and how we proofed it to teach our dogs to stay with distractions.  This post assumes that the dog already knows a basic sit, stay, come. We found that the hardest part about teaching stay is using it in the real world and extending it to long periods of time. We can practice “stay” at home but out in the real world it is important to proof the command around distractions and not have to be concerned that the dog may get up once we’ve told them to stay.

When To Use Stay

Stay is a versatile command – when mastered, it is useful everywhere and the dog knows not to move until released. Stay can be taught to mean different things, so we will only be sharing how we use it. We use stay to indicate to Calvin that we don’t want him to move until he has an “ok.”  Stay is generally taught with the handler walking away from the dog – but in reality, we only use that example when we fly at the airport. Our most common use for stay is for Calvin to plant himself wherever we ask, even if we are remaining next to him.
Here are some of the ways that we use “stay”: At pet friendly stores, Calvin will “stay” at my feet as I sift through racks of clothing without sniffing around or exploring. At the office, Calvin will “stay” under the desk until released.  At home or restaurants, Calvin will “stay” on his bed during human meals. At crosswalks, Calvin will “stay” in place until it’s time to move. Of course, we can’t forget that Calvin holds a “stay” for every photo we take. We weren’t as concerned with Calvin doing a “Down Stay” vs. a “Sit Stay” – we don’t really care if he’s sitting or lying down as long as he isn’t moving. The actual position is up to him, and we are ok with that. Everyone’s needs are different, so for some people this distinction is important.
photo of san francisco from the top of bernal heights off leash dog park
dog running with human down the hill

Teaching your dog to stay for a long time

Once you can walk away from your pup while they are holding a stay, it’s time to take the command to the next level.  The next level means your pup will only need to be told one time and you will be able to go about your activities (including leaving the room) without them moving.

What you need

  1. Understanding of the basic stay command with a release word
  2. A Mat or towel
  3. High value treats
  4. A leash

Get Started & Practice

You will start small but eventually build up endurance so that your pup can hold an indefinite stay.
Find a way to fit practice into your daily activities and use a mat or towel to indicate where your pup needs to stay. Some good times to practice are when you are getting ready in the morning, preparing food, or during human meals. Weave the practice into your daily life – If you have a consistent practice schedule, your pup will soon master the command.


When your dog breaks a stay, bring them back to their mat and repeat the command “stay.” Do not reward them if they have broken the stay. If you find that you need too many corrections, go back to holding the stay for a short period of time (1 minute). Another option is to use a leash to restrict the dog to a certain area so they cannot break the stay.
dog using the command stay in front of a city landscape

Build up training your dog to stay for a longer

You won’t be able to go from a basic stay to 30 minutes overnight. Practice in increments until the command is mastered. Start with holding a stay for 1 minute….then 5……10…..15 ect.

Master the “Stay” Command

Check off all these scenarios to proof your prolonged stay:
  1. Hold a stay in a pet friendly store around distractions, loud noises, and passersby
  2. Hold a stay for 45 minutes at home while the humans go about with their daily life
  3. Hold a stay at a restaurant (pet friendly patio)
  4. Hold a stay during human meals at home
  5. Hold a stay outside a coffee shop (make sure you can always keep an eye on your pet)
  6. Hold a stay for 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour
  7. Throw a toy or food around your dog while they are holding their stay
  8. Hold a stay on the street while other dogs walk by

Enjoy your stay
-Your Pal Cal

training a dog to stay with a city landscape behind him

Heel Training: Training Your Dog to Walk Nicely on a Leash


dog sitting in front of a letter board sign while wearing glasses

labrador dog sitting in front of a letter board sign


Walking your dog on leash at a heel does not have to be a constant battle.  In fact, with a few simple steps you can teach your dog to stop pulling on the leash and walk nicely at a heel.  Teaching your dog to heel while on the leash will help eliminate the tension of them walking ahead of you. We have found some pointers effective for teaching our dogs to walk on leash without pulling and would like to share them!

Are you walking the dog, or is the dog walking you? For many, this is the hardest nut to crack.  Luckily, there are many training tools that can help you master the walk. The process is very long, and may even take up to a year! With consistency & persistence, even the most distracted pups can learn to move with you. Please note, we are not professionals in any way and we highly recommend that you work with a professional about your particular issues.  We are sharing our experience but this may not work for everyone. 

How do you know if your dog is walking nicely on leash?

Dogs are curious creatures – they love to sniff, they love to look at birds, and they love distractions.  Each time they get sidetracked, they are signaling that you no longer have their attention.  While on walks, you ought to be seen as the your dog’s role model.  Your dog can do their business, sniff a thing or two, but they don’t need to stop and sniff every few minutes.  You (the human) have places to go! Places to be! On the ideal walk, your pup remains focused on you as much as possible.  They walk by your side (on a flat!), and look to you for guidance whenever they hear a loud noise, see a distraction ect. A great goal to work towards is to be able to achieve this all with a handsfree leash!

Choose your training tool for leash training your dog

We tried a few training tools before we found the best one for our needs.  Our tool of choice ended up being the gentle leader which has now transitioned into the martingale collar.  This allowed Calvin to know when he had walked too far without putting any strain on his neck or hurting him.  Please investigate pain free training tools available to decide which you think would be best for your needs.  It is important to note that training tools are just TOOLS, they must be used with some sort of positive reinforcement to ensure that your dog understands what behavior you want from them.  With the gentle leader, the first “correction” we used was just stopping in our tracks every time Calvin got ahead.  Sometimes, we would pull the leash just one quick time (be gentle, don’t hurt!). Now, we use the word “nu uh” to let Calvin know when he has walked too far and he corrects himself.  Be sure to praise your pup when they do the right thing – treats can work great, but for us, Calvin responds a lot better to praise and “yes” to know when he has done something great. Treats actually make him more excited and likely to pull ahead after he has popped one in his mouth.  Lucky for us that keeps the weight off since praise is enough for him.

Practice, practice, practice

There’s no trick – new behaviors take a LONG time to learn especially if your dog has been wired to behave a certain way.  It’ll take a lot of practice to rewire them to walk the way you’d like.  This means endless hours, maybe some tears, and potentially a lot of frustration.  If you are aiming for the ideal walk, you may be looking into almost a year of practice.  Even though Calvin now knows what we expect of him during walks, there are times where we need to remind him that he has gone “too far.” We expect this process to continue for at least a year before he is near-perfect in all situations.

Don’t allow failure

This is the hardest part because it can take FOREVER to get places.  When we committed to fixing Calvin’s walking on leash we began with very short walks to ensure that he didn’t fail.  It once took us a whole hour to walk a few blocks.  Every time that you allow your dog to step in front of you, you are reinforcing that they are allowed to do so.

Don’t let your dog pull on the leash: Walking is non-negotiable

We followed the non-negotiable mentality on the walk.  It was all or nothing and Calvin could not make the decisions on his walks.  To go on a walk, he was expected to walk by our side and check in with us.  After TWO MONTHS of our non-negotiable attitude towards walk and support from our trainers, we have a dog that walks on our side on a flat collar and self corrects if he walks too far ahead.

Start transitioning away from the training tool

Once your dog understands how to walk using the training tool, start transitioning to a martingale collar.  This collar will tighten itself as the dog gets ahead letting him know he has gone too far.  If your dog is having a bad day, stick to the gentle leader so they can have a successful walk.

Pre-empt exciting situations and set your dog up for success

We have transitioned 85% of the time to the martingale/flat collar and the other 15% we use the gentle leader.  The gentle leader is kept for exciting situations such as the beach, waterfront walks, the airport, or if Calvin is having an off day.  As a rule, he has stopped pulling but will sometimes forget if he is in a very stimulating environment.  To not undo any training, if we pre-empt an exciting walk, we use the gentle leader.  Even though we will start with the gentle leader, if he is being calm in the exciting situation, we finish the walk on the flat collar.

Persistence & Patience,
Your Pal Cal

calvin the dog sitting in front of a felt letter board sign