I get this question quite often. First, let’s talk legalities.
California law states that all dogs shall remain on leash at all times, except in designated off-leash areas. Some cities changed the law for themselves (Berkeley is — or was — an off-leash city), but overall state law says No Off Leash Dogs. You’ll have to look up your own state!
“Yeah, yeah,” I hear you cry. “But really — when is it safe to walk my dog off leash if I live in an area where I’m allowed to, or I don’t care about the law?”
All right, in that case, here’s when you can walk your dog safely off-leash: when you are walking them on leash and you NEVER have to tug on the leash, it’s always loose and droopy, and other dogs, cats, and squirrels run right by and your dog stays with you.
The usual response I get is this: “But my dog always chases squirrels!”
Then your dog isn’t ready to be off leash. If your dog can’t be perfect on leash, what makes you think they’ll be any better off leash? On leash at least you can stop them from following said squirrel into the street. Off leash you can’t.
That said, if your dog is perfect and ready to be off leash, here’s how you do it:
1. Work on recall. This is in case something dramatic happens, and your dog bolts.
2. Now, as you walk, drop your leash and let your dog drag it. When you have less/no control over your dog, human body language changes, and our dogs react differently. We need to get your dog used to altered body language and you used to your dog being off leash. If your dog is dragging his leash (or a rope, if you want extra length) then you can step on it if anything goes awry. Do this for at least a month. Do it in areas that aren’t just your neighborhood (unless you’re planning on only walking your dog off leash in your neighborhood). They need to generalize walking off leash to everywhere, you need to learn your dog will stick with you everywhere so you relax, and you can only do that if you practice — you got it! — everywhere.
3. Take the leash off. Start in calm areas with few distractions. Even better if there’s some giant fence (dog park, pasture, kid park, etc) to give you a little extra security. Do this for another week.
4. Walk off leash!
Throughout all of this, continue practicing recall. Recall is one of the most important commands your dog will ever learn! I walk my dogs off leash in the neighborhood or if I’m working with an aggressive dog (because I WANT my dogs to be able to escape if the aggressive dog attacks). After three years of perfect behavior walking off leash, Lily took off after a squirrel. Chasing her will only drive her on: I stopped walking, bellowed, “LILY! COME!” and she hit the brakes and came slinking back. You need an excellent recall! You also need to practice your recall in a firm tone of voice. When in a panic, you’re not going to sound friendly, so your dog needs to know to come to a firm voice!