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What you – and your dog! – should know before taking an off-leash walk or hike.

There is no doubt that it’s immensely beneficial for dogs to be able to run off-leash. Most dogs cannot even come close to getting adequate exercise on the end of a leash, and lack of exercise contributes to a whole host of behavior challenges. And adequate exercise can be a huge factor in the success of behavior modification programs.

But taking a dog for a walk or hike off-leash must be done appropriately and legally in order to prevent any number of risks to the dog, other dogs, or humans who may encounter the off-leash dog, as well as livestock or wildlife in the area. Off-leash dogs may run off and get lost, run onto roads and cause serious accidents, cause hikers to fall and bicyclists to crash, and chase or even kill other animals.

We assume that you, as a caring, responsible dog owner, are as concerned about the safety and well being of other dogs as much as your own. Before you even think about taking your dog off-leash anywhere other than your own safely fenced yard, you should be able to accomplish the following prerequisites.

■ Know your own dog’s personality and temperament well. Your dog must be dog-friendly and human-friendly if you are going to take her off-leash anywhere. There is too much risk, and too much to lose, if your dog attacks another dog or bites a human.

■ Teach an excellent recall. You must be able to call your dog back from any temptation – wildlife, small children, grannies with walkers, other dogs, etc. Even if she is dog-friendly, there may be other dogs who don’t appreciate her attentions. And – heaven forbid she chases a cow or deer deep into the woods, never to be seen again. Note that in some places, it is legal for anyone to shoot a dog that is chasing livestock or wildlife.

■ Know and obey leash laws. Regardless of how friendly and well-trained your dog is, you must obey local leash and control laws. The consequences of any incident that might occur are greatly magnified if you’re in violation of local animal control laws. Make sure your dog is currently licensed and wearing her tag!

■ Learn about the hazards in your potential off-leash hiking areas (and how to avoid or combat them) before you take off your dog’s leash there! We wouldn’t suggest taking off your dog’s leash in any place you hadn’t been before, unless you are with another dog person who is familiar with all the potential hazards and can alert you to them ahead of time.

Which Dogs Should NEVER Go Off-Leash?

There are a few canine behaviors that absolutely preclude off-leash options for your dog, other than your own safely fenced yard, including:

  • Strong, uncontrollable predatory behavior

  • Strong, uncontrollable scent-tracking behavior

  • Aggression toward other dogs or humans.

Unless or until these behaviors are modified and you have trained a superbly reliable recall, you have no business having your dog off-leash anywhere in a public or private place where you might encounter/threaten the safety of others or of your own dog.

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