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