Want to hike your dog off-leash, but have too many worries to do so? I used to be the same.
Some people can unclip the leash without too much thought or anxiety, but after one of my dogs disappeared for three hours, that wasn’t me. But about a year later, Oz wiggled his adorable little self into my life (and heart). With all of his anxiety, it is incredibly important that Oz gets to be carefree out in the woods, gets to move his body freely, gets to let go of his anxiety and just be a dog—for that bit of time once a day. So, as Oz grew up and it became increasingly clear that hiking was a necessity for both of us, I came up with a plan.
I knew I didn’t want being off-leash, having full freedom in the woods to seem like a novelty for Oz. I didn’t want going from a six-foot leash or a 30-foot lone line to no line to seem like a giant change. At the same time, I recognized Oz’s need for full freedom. Both of our need for that freedom.
So we started slowly. I picked our areas carefully. Pretty remote. Lightly trafficked. Not too vast. Good sight-lines. And we started our journey.
Step one: 15-foot long line.
I gave him as much freedom as he could have within those 15 feet. Rewarding for every check-in on the long-line. Oz has never been a serious puller on leash, but I could still see him settle in more and more to his new 15-feet of freedom in different ways. His body would stay relaxed and his trot would stay pretty even, unless there was a particularly good smell to enjoy, of course.
Step two: 30-foot long line.
It was time. We started off with the same process at 30 feet. Same locations. Still just the two of us. Still rewarding check ins. But I started adding in cues.
So, step three: adding in verbal cues.
The first we added was “this way,” which may be one of our most used cues, to mean walk in the direction I’m walking. A soft recall cue of sorts. The next we added was “hold,” a stay in place until I catch up with you cue. Then eventually, “leash.” And of course we practiced our recall on the long line. When all of these were going well, it was time to start being a tiny bit more brave.
Step four: dropping the long line.
I didn’t want dragging a long line to feel any different than holding a long line or even having no line. I didn’t want to rely on the long line for any control. I never wanted to have to use the long line in a “leashy” way. I wanted to communicate with Oz the same way I would communicate with him if there were no line attached. So I used our cues, never stepping on the long line or directing him through it. Always paying him heavily.
Step five: new locations.
It was time to bring our progress on the road. So, we started going to places we didn’t know well or even at all. Places that were slightly less remote, slightly larger or less predictable. We practiced our cues, still paid for our check-ins.
Step six: unclipping the leash for short stints.
It was almost time to be free. But I still didn’t want the freedom to be a novelty. I wanted it all to have a similar feeling, a similar joy. So we randomly alternated between Oz’s dropped long and having no line. And to this day, if Oz and I hike alone, he finds it most comfortable to walk about 30-feet or closer to me—of course, still chasing the occasional deer, chipmunk, or just plain good scent—but never leaving for long and barely ever going out of eye-sight.
Step seven: GPS collar, muzzle, bear bells.
Vital and important. I know I wouldn’t be off-leash hiking every day without them.
Step eight: walks with friends.
First adding in our family dogs for our dropped long line and short stints off-leash. Making sure our skills still held up. And eventually, when we were ready to go full off-leash, adding in other dogs to walk with and strange dogs to meet on the trail.
Step nine: full off-leash.
It was time. Finally. We had all of our cues, all of our gear, and we were ready. We started off in very safe locations—not too close to roads, still very remote. And slowly, we expanded our locations. We added in size first, and eventually traffic frequency in human, domestic, and wild varieties. We faded our rewards for check-ins and checked our ability to recall. We tasted true freedom, we let go of our need to constantly be in each other’s eyesight, and we loved it.
Step ten: have some faith.
But maybe most importantly, we trusted. I held my breath and trusted the first time Oz ran off after a deer. I held my breath and trusted the first time Oz’s GPS clocked him over .5 miles away. I held my breath and trusted the first time we ran into a strange dog. I trusted that he could handle it, that he would come back, that he would be okay. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been worth it.
Every day we go out and we trust. We deepen our bond. We let go of our anxiety, of our worries, if only for a short while. We feel finally free. We allow ourselves to live in the moment.
And through the help of our brilliant trainer, we have added more cues and steps that have become vital to us, but maybe that’s for another time. For now, I know our drawn-out process may not be for everyone, and that’s fine. You may feel comfortable just unclipping the leash and your dog may feel the same. But if you feel like you may never be able to let go, perhaps this can help, perhaps this can get you started. Give you a way to start to let go of those what ifs. And leave you with just one: what if it all goes right?