Walking Multiple Dogs Off Leash

Sequel to earlier article about walking multiple dogs on leash. If your dogs are not under very easy control on leash, don't even think about walking off leash. If your walk environment isn't highly highly safe, keep even very well trained dogs on leash.

Walking Multiple Dogs Off Leash

(or walking just one dog off leash)

by Pam Green, © 2010

In an earlier article , Going For a Walk, I covered my ideas on walking multiple dogs on leash, starting with extablishing a calm leashing-up and exiting-home process. If your dogs are not exquisitiely easy to walk on leash, don't even think about walking any of them off leash.


General Safety considerations and good manners

There are two absolute MUST have conditions for walking a dog off leash, and these apply even more strongly when two or more dogs are off leash :

I could also include as a pre-requisite that all the dogs who will be off-leash get along well ; but that is also needed for group walks on leash. When off leash, dogs are less apt to annoy one another as they can spread out, but if they dog start a quarrel the lack of a leash gives you less ability to intervene and separate them.

It's also essential that they NOT consider one another to be hunting partners. Sometimes while each dog would stick with you if he were the only one off leash, a particular pair will scoot off the moment your attention isn't on them either to go hunting or just to go exploring. Two dogs will travel futher away than either one would alone..

You must be aware of livestock in your area. In every state in the USA , livestock keepers have a legal right to kill any trespassing dog who they think is "worrying" or harassing or chasing their livestock. Livestock includes chickens and ducks, as well as the more obvious sheep, goats, cattle, lama, and horses. So don't risk it. Recently a chicken raiser in my area started letting some chickens range outside the fenced area. So now when I go in that direction, everyone remains on leash. All my dogs are herding breed dogs, so livestock is always going to be a chase temptation. In the past, my dogs who were trained to herd and were very reliable to command around stock could be off leash near stock, but even then it would be only one at a time. Best never to have any dog seen off leash near anyone's livestock. Some stock keepers are very fast on the trigger .

You must be aware of wild animals that might appear or whose scent trail might be present. This can vary with time of day and with the immediate environment. Which animals are more of a problem can depend on your dog's ancestral work. Sight hounds are likely to chase any fast moving object or animal. Herding breeds too have a strong prey chaseing reaction. Scent hounds will become oblivious to everything else when they hit a relevant animal track, especially any mammal track, and may follow the track for long distances... Some of the bird dogs are bred to range far and fast ; these are not off leash candidates. Terriers are going to want to dig for many furred critters, but at least a digging dog has not run off very far from you. A lot of small breed dogs still have a lot of the instincts of their larger ancestors, but their small size can put them at greater risk of being hurt in an animal encouter or of becoming lost to your sight and hard to find.

Rabbits are likely to be chased by almost any dog, and can lead almost any dog quite a distance from you, but more so by some than by others.. The sight hounds, also called coursing hounds, are going to chase a rabbit and may well catch it. Other dogs may chase the rabbit but are more likely to give up after they are outdistanced.

Squirrels won't go far from their holes or from trees, so while most dogs want to chase them, they won't be going far.

A skunk seen by daylight is almost certainly in an infectious stage of Rabies. Get away as far and fast as you reasonably can. A skunk at any time is better avoided for obvious reasons. (If your dog should get sprayed, several professional groomers have told me that Massingill's Douche is the very best skunk spray deodorizer available ; you will have to drench the dog , soaking wet through his coat, several times to get the job done.).

Raccoon can attack a dog and do serious damage. Near water, a raccoon can drown a dog. Like skunks, raccoon tend to be nocturnal. Although there are many of them in my area (because I am near a creek) , I have never seen one during the day. Their distinctive tracks are numerous after any substantial rainfall softens the dirt roads.

Snakes might or might not be a problem in your area. If you know that poisonous snakes are in the area, you have to learn their habits and try to time walks for times so hot or so cold that the snakes won't be active. Probably wisest to keep dogs on leash if there is any risk. If you are in a rattlesnake area , you might wish to consider rattlesnake avoidance training. There are a few professional trainers doing this.

If you are in an agricultural area walking on farm roads, you want to be aware of any spraying going on. Assume anything being sprayed is something to stay away from. Also watch for the warning posters at corners of fields that tell you to keep out because something has been sprayed with a chemical that remains dangerous for some period of time ("re-entry period").

On farm roads you want to spot any farm vehicles or other walkers or bicyclists before your dogs spot them. This is a good time to get all dogs back on leash. Likewise if you see someone else walking their dogs. When pack meeteth pack on the walk-trails, it's better that all be on leash. I may know that some or all of my dogs are OK with strange dogs, but I can't know about the other person's dogs.

I want good relations with the farm workers. I get my dogs back on leash when I see farm workers up ahead. I don't want my dogs to run up to them and possibly frighten them, especially not when the worker has a shovel or hoe in his hands. Wave and smile to all farm workers. Sometimes they want to chat, which tends to put a strain on my very limited Espanol, but at least I know how to say "perro no pelegroso, perro amigo" ("dog not dangerous, dog friend") The other topic is the weather , which is either "caliente" ("hot") or "mucho caliente" ("very hot") and "manana mas caliente" ("tomorrow more hot") in the summer , the season of main farming activity.

All my local farm vehicle drivers are very nice about slowing down and watching for dogs getting into their path. I have trained these drivers. When one is approaching too fast, I step into his path. The moment he slows down, I wave to him and give a big smile. If the driver is already going slowly, he gets the wave and smile. . However during harvest, the drivers of tomato trucks, corn trucks, and wheat trucks are often temporary hires and some of them drive like maniacs. All the dogs stay on leash during harvest periods, and I try to choose walking paths away from active harvest areas.

Never let your dogs trample or run through crops, especially young seedlings. You and your dogs will no longer be welcome if you are a problem to the farmer.

Creeks and rivers can be very pleasant to walk along and can be enjoyable to dogs as a place to drink or to immerse themselves in on a hot day. But be very aware of the risks of fast flowing current and other potential drowning hazards. Just as a person could be swept away, so could a dog. Some breeds have little or no ability to swim and can sink like a stone. Even breeds that swim well need some experience and may not be able to handle turbulent streams. If the bank is steep, the dog may be unable to get out without human help. (On two memorable occasions in the past I have had to wade in for a fair distance in order to rescue a dog and help him back out.) Finally, many creeks are full of unpleasant bacteria and parasites, of which Giardia is probably the best known. In the Pacific Northwest, including Northern California coastal areas, there is something called "fish poisoning", which is due to a rickettsia that lives inside a fluke that lives inside trout and salmon . Eating even a speck of raw fish affected by this can make your dog extremely ill , can be fatal if not treated.

Wherever you walk in rural or wild areas, dogs are likely to find something interesting to roll in. My own policy on this, a policy I don't intend to repeal, is "Don't Ask, Don't Smell", meaning that I really don't want to find out exactly what the dog has rolled in.

In public parks or wilderness areas, you must obey the rules about whether dogs may be present at all and whether they must be on leash. In any hiking area, remember that not everyone is comfortable with strange dogs, so get yours back on leash if you see any other hikers in yourr vicinity.

In any of the wilder sorts of areas, make sure your dogs are instantly identificable as being domestic dogs, rather than wild animals. The best means of doing this would be that the dog be wearing some kind of partial body cover in blaze orange, flame red, or vivid yellow. A backpack would be ideal, with further advantage that the dog can carry some needed supplies. At minimum, a neckerchief in those same colors would be of some value. Instant identification as dogs can be critical if your dogs have even a modest resemblance to wild animals. A number of breeds have some resemblance to wolves or coyotes, for example Malamute, Husky, and some of the Belgian Shepherds look rather wolfy to people who may not be all that familiar with the appearance of real wolves, and the Belgian Malinois could be taken for a coyote. Several breeds look rather foxy. My own breed, Bouvier, are well known to resemble bears in appearance and lumbering gait. One of my net friends had the experience when hiking with Bouvs of being told by other hikers that they had been under the impression that my friends were being followed by a bear. Just think how disasterous that might have been if those hikers had been carrying firearms !

Photograph of Chelsea carrying backpack standing on a large fallen tree trunk at Cosumnes river.

In urban or sub-urban settings, don't even dream of walking your dog off leash. There are just too many risks. You are always near car traffic and there is always the risk that sight of another dog or a fleeing cat or some other temptation could take your dog into the street and to his death. Plus, usually, you would be in violation of local Leash Laws and subject to a large fine. If other people's off leash dogs are causing problems, whip out your cell phone and record their photo so that you can provide evidence if these owners are cited. Avoid walking in areas where threatening or aggressive dogs are likely to be off leash, as these can be a danger to your dogs or yourself.

Finally, on leash or off leash, always be aware of weather, especially temperature. Heat is the most serious problem, and always an issue in summer in my area. Dogs are far less heat hardy than people, and the squashed faced breeds are considerably more at risk from heat than are normal headed dogs. Never risk heat stroke and know the symptoms and the first aid for it ; heat stroke is always a veterinary emergency and can brain damage or kill your dog. Dogs walk barefoot , so their feet can suffer on hot ground. Really cold, wet, windy, or snowy weather is quite agreeable or even delightful to some breeds , those with medium to larger body size and double coat such as Bouvier, but can be uncomfortable and even a risk of hypothermia to those of small body size and short coat.

Long line work : making the transition to off leash reliable recall

I hope you have already taught each dog to Come when called, at least taught the dog to come when he has nothing better to do. Ideally teach it to a voice command and to a whistle (ordinary sports whistle). The whistle will carry further and carries better against wind than your voice. The whistle also will not show the anxiety or annoyance that might sometimes show in your voice.

I hope that you have already done some individual long-line longer distance recalls. You must know how to use a long line, also called check cord, also called drag line. This is 20 to 50 feet of cord or rope or webbing with a snap on one end. Might have a hand-loop on the other end or several knots , and it might (probably should) have a high-visibility colored rag knotted into it about 10 feet before the non-dog end of it.

Initially when you use a long line, you will keep your end of it in your hand

Many active dogs love being allowed to run foreward, run back to you, run ahead again, or maybe lag behind to sniff something, run to catch up to you, and so on. An active dog can easily run 5 miles while you stroll one mile. That's the real reward to you for doing your long line training : you get to come home with a dog who is tired and for the next few hours will prefer resting to looking for something to do, something that you might not want him doing.

Next step from having the end of the line in your hand is to let the line drag on the ground. Now before the dog whisks the end of the line past you, probably before that visible bit of rag has gone more than a foot or two past you, you will get your foot onto the line and call the dog back to you. You may need to pick up the line with your hand so you can guide the dog back to you or just give a bit of a tug to get him headed your way. Same process of praise and reward when he arrives. You can also have him Sit right near you before he gets his rewards. Sit and let you reach for his collar as if to re-attach the leash. Sometime snap the leash on, walk a few feet on leash, then unsnap the leash again and tell him "OK" or "go play". At this point the drag line is still attached.

Note : don't do drag line work in areas where a dog running off might get the line wound around something and be stuck there out of your sight. You could have trouble finding him unless he barks up a storm. Worst risk is that he could manage to hang himself. So don't start drag line work until you have had a lot of sucess with the long line still held in your hand.

Note : when doing any kind of long line work you may want to have a glove on your usual leash grabbing hand. That protects you from rope burn if you are using a nylon rope and it moves through your hand fast. Likewise for any thin cord.

Unless you are a pretty experienced dog trainer, I'd advise you do your long line and drag line work with each dog individually untill that dog is very responsive and until you can easily predict the dog's behavior.

Now go for a walk with two or more dogs, but work one at a time on the long line while the rest remain on leash. In some ways it's often easier to get a dog to come back to you when his pack-mates are on leash right with you. Some dogs really are not comfortable going far from their buddies ; others are quite willing to do so. Work one dog on long line for a while, then switch that one back to the normal leash and work another on long line.

When all of them are real good being on the long line one at a time, then you might have two dogs on a drag line at once , then maybe graduate to one on a line and one free. Pick the two who seem most willing to come back, least comfortable going really far away from you. Be sure you are in an extra safe area. The safest place for your first attempts would be the Dog Park at a time of day when few others are there (few others because you don't want dogs getting tangled in your lines ; but then in a safe place you would probably be OK with a short line if your dog is highly likely to come when called)..

Now even with well trained dogs, it's probably safest to have no more than two off leash at any one time, and likewise safest if not more than half the total dogs are off leash at one time. You have to know your dogs as well as the situation. I admit I've had as many as four dogs off leash, but some of them were on remote collars and the rest were very well trained and very reliable.

I'm more likely to let dogs off leash on the last half mile back to the house. Those are places where I have good visibility, and where we are furthest away from any paved roads. Also if a dog gets too far ahead , that dog is going to simply reach the house ahead of me and will be waiting for me and the other dogs to catch up open the door.

Some dogs simply are not going to ever be reliable enough about staying with you throughout the walk. For example my Shady sometimes goes wandering off, so for the past few years he is always on leash. If I have Grover and Velvet both off leash at the same time, they are likely to run further and be less responsive to recall , so I usually don't let that happen. Know your dogs and be realistic about when they can be off leash. Some dogs can be off leash most of the time, some can be off leash none of the time, and some can be off leash some of the time. Some dogs will never be safe off leash.

Also old dogs probably should stay on leash because you want to be keeping a very close watch on them, in case they are getting tired or too hot or any other problems. As mentioned in the earlier article, your old dogs probably need a shorter walk than the rest. The same goes for any dog with a disability or illness. For dogs who might "stall out" or "run out of gas" during a walk, if the dog is too heavy for you to pick up and carry, you might want to take some kind of wheeled cart with you so the dog can ride home. Also I'd keep old dogs on leash any time they are near a steep bank that they might go down and then be unable to get back up. I've had to wade into the creek to rescue a dog who went down the steep bank into the creek and then couldn't climb out again.

Teaching dogs to keep in range

If you normally call your dogs back somewhere between 30 yards out and 40 yards out , they are likely to start thinking of this as "range". Likely to be ready to be recalled as they get to this range. What is a good range for you probably depends on the visibility conditions where you are walking. I would rather my dogs didn't get out of sight. If you carry treats and when you call dogs in, only the first one to arrive gets a treat, that can be a big incentive for all of them to range in closer and to come at greater speed. Or give treats to all but the last one or last couple to arrive.

Turning around and walking the other direction is one more way to bring back a dog who is getting too far ahead, especially if you combine this with rewards for "checking in" (see next paragraph)

Teaching dogs to "check in"

If you carry treats, every time a dog comes up to you, praise him and much of those times give him a treat. If you stop walking and every dog who comes and sits around you gets praise and treat, they will all start to notice whenever you stop and other dogs gather around, and the further out dogs will hustle over to see that they get their share. On longer walks you are probably going to stop in the shade from time to time anyway, maybe even sit down to rest. Stops are a good time to double check that everyone is in good condition to go on.

My own life with my dogs

Here is a map of my walking area. My favorite paths are in an orange-brown color. The blue is the creek with green bank above it. The levee, well set back from the creek, is in dark grey ; it is graveled, and firm footing after heavy rains. The dark black is paved road, not heavily trafficed. All the other paths are dirt or dirt with some gravel. My house is a mile back from the paved road and about half a mile from the creek. Not everything is accurately to scale. I've done the fields in different colors and patterns, as they are likely to have different crops. Our most common crops are tomatoes, corn, and wheat. Other crops include sunflowers, various melons and squash, beans, and various peppers. In the past some of the fields were in alfalfa hay.

map of my dog walking area

I like to take the dogs for at least an hour's walk at least most days of the week (I confess that with age I've become more inclined to shortchange the walk when the weather is very hostile, either really really hot or very cold wet and windy.). A human being needs and benefits from an hour of walking a day, and so does a dog, so long as both are in reasonable good health. Many dogs would like more than that. Most days I walk two to three miles. I tend to stroll rather than really hustle along. I like to enjoy the natural beauty of the plants, animals, birds, and insects along our route. The creek is probably my favorite walk because the big trees give shade to over half the route and because there are glimpses of interesting animals and birds to be seen most days. There are turtles sunning themselves on a half sunk log. Egrets and herons, hawks and (in evening) owls. Beaver in one area of the creek, not often seen. On a few memorable occasions, I've seen river otters playing as they migrate through. I take much the same pleasure in nature that Thoreau wrote of experienceing during his year and a half at Walden Pond.

For the dogs of course the wonderful smells are even better than anything they might see. The biggest pleasure for them of being off leash is that they can go at their own pace, stop to smell anything interesting (or , alas, roll in it) and then catch up again. They love to immerse into the irrigation ditches on a warm to hot day or in mud puddles in the winter. They like to go into the creek , but lately I have been less willing to have them do so , out of concern for whether the water quality is really safe for them.

One of the things that keeps me in my current location, even though the old farm-house lacks many modern comforts (though luxurious by Thoreau's standards), is that there are such good places to walk my dogs. Of course in any event I would stay within easy drive of Davis in any event because of the Vet School , especially for the 24/7/366 Emergency Services. Several of my dogs got to live months or years longer because of the superb care available at the UC Davis VMTH.


In the past when I did walk 4 or more dogs off leash, most of them (Bones, Sweetie, Chris, and Pixel ; earlier Chelsea and Bones) were very highly trained in herding, thus trained to be highly controllable under excitement. (Chelsea and Bones were also highly trained in Protection sports, which requires enormous control under very high excitement. Also both of them were extremely unusual dogs.) If I had foster dogs along, until those dogs were very reliable off leash, they were either on long lines or on remote training collars (after considerable training with such collars). So I really had a lot of control.

Nonetheless, there were a few occasions when one dog or two dogs got separated out and went on little expeditions of their own. Now my own dogs know the area very well and would come back to the house fairly soon. So did any foster who'd been here a couple of weeks. But on a few occasions I had to go out looking for a missing dog. Sometimes that resulted in the dog hearing my car engine and coming running to get a ride back home. Other times I couldn't find the dog, but the dog was home before I got back. There were a couple of occasions in 20 years when I really got scared I might have lost my dog. In one case Chris and foster dog Hamilton must have chased a critter accross the creek, then couldn't figure out how to get back. That time I had to go out with flashlight and search up and down the creek, calling out for them, finally giving up with great sorrow. But they must have heard me and homed in on that, finally catching up with me. I greeted them with great warmth and praise even though I felt like wringing their necks. Another one time a mother and son pair of fosters wound up a few miles away and I got a phone call from the nice farmer who found them (my dogs always have their phone tags on their collars. always always always) to tell me where to come to pick them up.

So nowadays, when the area is a bit less totally rural and seems less safe than it used to be, and when I am less willing to take risks, and don't have that super-high level of training in my higher ranked dogs, I am a lot more conservative about who is off leash, when they are off leash, and what combination of dogs are off leash. Also for the foster dogs, I think their adopters need good on leash behavior a lot more than they need an off leash responsiveness that they probably don't have the training skill to maintain.

I urge you all to err on the side of caution when it comes to walking dogs off leash. You must really know your dogs, know your area, and weigh risks very carefully.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/15/2010 revised 8/24/2010
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