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About off-leash Obedience

Three dogs off-leash with cows in the background

About off-leash Obedience

What is off-leash obedience?

What is off-leash obedience and what does it mean? Ask anyone and you will get quite a wide range of answers, but rarely a definition. So here's my definition.

Off-leash obedience means that your dog will listen to you, respond to you, and obey your commands and directions without needing a leash, treats, or an electronic device. Naturally, this will look different depending on the dog, type of training, and the situation.

For instance, with a police dog in a working environment, those commands are quite specific to the job of police work. Search, bite, release, guard, etc. are a few of the things police dogs might be required to learn and do on command with or without a leash. Generally speaking, the dogs are very good at responding to the relevant commands, although there are certainly situations where the command has to be repeated and sometimes the dog physically controlled. This is to be expected, as the dog will be quite excited when involved in a chase or taking down a suspect. Excited dogs, like excited people, can be difficult to communicate with sometimes.

Another example might be a service dog trained to accompany his owner and help with things like opening doors and retrieving fallen objects like keys, etc. This dog will respond well to known commands and generally remain calm while performing. Having been screened for temperament, taught to ignore others, and trained very carefully to be attentive to the owner, the obedience will often look quite different than that of the police dog. You will likely not see bared teeth, or hear barking ... the dog will not be stimulated and showing pilo-erection (raised hair), etc.

What I'm referring to in this article is the typical family pet dog. This is a dog not necessarily trained to do any working tasks, but trained to be calm, peaceful, respectful and obedient. In general, this will look quite different than the police dog, but very similar to the service dog - minus the retrieving and door-opening.

Generally speaking, a dog that is off-leash obedient will hang around the owner, not harass passersby, and not run off. With this dog, you should be able to eat at an outdoor restaurant and have the dog lying peacefully at your feet. You should be able to go to the beach and have your dog stick close by and not chase or harass strangers and other dogs. You should be able to trust your dog without the need to carry electronic equipment, treats, etc. So how do you get such a dog?

Attitude and Honesty

The first thing you need is to be able to gain your dog's attention and response. Your dog needs to focus on you in such a way that your words and movements will get a noticeable response. By 'focus' I'm not talking about having your dog stare at you. Indeed, in some situations, your dog doesn't even need to look at you. For example, imagine a dog staring at a squirrel as though he wanted to chase the squirrel. Now imagine speaking to the dog calmly, saying "no" ... does the dog respond in any way? Perhaps an ear twitches, or the tail wags a bit in response to your voice. That is response. While it is not the end of the situation, it is definitely the first sign that you have your dog's focus and attention in a general way. On the other hand, if your does not respond even in the slightest way to your voice or movement, you do not have your dog's attention. You will need to do something that gains the dog's attention immediately.

Dogs respond to attitude and energy. If your voice and posture don't convey authority, your dog won't pay any attention to them without a lot of effort on your part. Authority doesn't mean 'loud' ... it means that when you speak, your voice is filled with the right attitude. The right attitude means that everything is pointed in the direction you intend. Your voice, your posture, your movements, your touch ... all are clearly expressing the true meaning of what you intend.

An example of the wrong attitude is as follows: The dog is pulling and lunging at a passerby or guest, and the owner is behind the dog, holding tightly on the leash and speaking in soothing tones, saying things like "it's ok, look at me", etc. while the truth is that the owner is annoyed, or frightened, or worried.

Your words and actions need to be aligned with what you really intend and how you really feel about the dog's activity. This is what I refer to as being honest with the dog. Pay attention to yourself and see if you are truly expressing how you feel about the situation.

Freedom and Choices

Initially, the dog should be on-leash so you can communicate with the dog and prevent unwanted behaviors. You must be able to 'touch' the dog when you need the dog's attention and he doesn't respond to your voice. Instead, what often happens is that the dog is allowed to make wrong choices without any meaningful consequence and is thus 'trained' to ignore the owner's directions. Actions always have consequences, seen or unseen. The point is that you must control the consequences for your dog's actions. Unwanted actions (by the dog) must be followed by unwanted consequences (from you to the dog). Depending on your relationship with the dog and your general honesty to the dog, the consequences may be as simple as a sharp 'no' or as physical as a sharp snap of the leash, or even a swat on the snout. What counts is that the dog gets the actual message that you intend. Your dog should be able to clearly understand when you are pleased or displeased. By following this general protocol, you will notice your dog beginning to respond to your voice with no need to engage the leash (the leash remains loose and is not engaged in the transaction). This is the rudimentary beginning of off-leash obedience.

Knowledge and Training

What should the off-leash obedient dog 'know'? Generally, the more commands you teach your dog to respond to and obey, the better. But I focus on three very important and even life-preserving behaviors. They are:

  • "go on" which means to move away from me or any object I choose;
  • "stay" which means to remain where I tell them to; and
  • "here" which means to come to me.

These three behaviors are drilled until they happen in any situation. These three behaviors, by themselves, will change most peoples' lives with their dog immeasurably for the better. They are what I call the "life trilogy" because these three behaviors can literally save your dog's life when used appropriately. A beneficial side effect is that once your dog responds reliably to these three commands, your dog has learned to trust you and obey you as their leader.

The best place to train these commands is at home during your daily life with your dog. "Go on" can translate to "leave my guests alone" and "go to your place", for instance. "Stay" can translate to "go to your place and lie down", or having the dog lie down peacefully in the yard while you garden or wash your car or even mow the lawn. "Here" which means "stop what you are doing and come to me no matter what" hardly needs more explanation.

Once these behaviors are reliably in place, it is a relatively simple matter to teach your dog to walk at heel or even behind you on-leash and out in public. When you can count on your dog to respond to these commands without needing to engage the leash you can begin to practice without the leash. You should practice in safe environments until you are comfortable and sure that your dog is responsive to you. At that point, it's time to remove the leash.

Chances are, the first time you give your dog a command off-leash, you will need to repeat the command. This is to be expected. If your dog is still not responding correctly, simply put the leash back on and continue practicing for a few more days with the leash.

The Leash

Proper leash handling is essential. Be attentive and alert, but relaxed. The leash must be loose and swinging freely at all times. In fact, the only tension on the leash should be the split second that you are correcting the dog (leash pop), or the very brief tugs for directional guidance. The more tension and the longer it is maintained, the longer it will take to get your dog off-leash and the less likely that your dog will be responsive to your voice. Think of the leash as a temporary communications device, there if you need to use it, but not the primary means of communication.


While this is not a complete and comprehensive guide to off-leash training, it is intended to give you some insight into how to get started. You might find that once you have the three basic behaviors outlined above reliably trained, you don't really need more. But if you do want more, you will have a great foundation for further training.

Good luck!

A Note on Responsible Training and Behavior

It is important that you, the leader, are responsible and situationally aware. Most cities and neighborhoods have leash laws and your dog should be leashed at all times when out in public. Still, having your dog trained to be obedient and responsive off-leash will be of great benefit. There are times when you may need your dog to be responsive and the leash is not on the dog ... getting out of the car for example. The dog that is responsive to "stay" will easily be trained not to hop out of the car without permission or command. Your role is to guide your dog with common sense and to avoid putting your dog in dangerous situations.

Shawn Hines

~ Dec 28, 2021


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