For nearly 15 years I have been recommending that my clients find ways to increase their dogs’ off leash time in nature. During large portions of that time, this was not easily accessible to me. When I worked three jobs and barely had enough money to feed myself and my dogs I could not afford the time or gas to drive to where this was legal or (relatively) safe. Before I reformed my feelings about other folks’ off leash dogs, walking my dogs in public on or off leash caused me a great deal of anxiety. For a stretch of time in my early 30s I suffered a bout of agoraphobia that didn’t allow me to go to the grocery store, let alone drive 30+ minutes to a trailhead.
And yet, I encouraged my clients to do what I barely could. Why? I knew it was best. I saw the results in every single dog. I saw the results in my own. Whether or not something is easily accessible to us is not the deciding factor in its efficacy.
Today I not only make this recommendation with my clients I sing it from the rooftops on my podcast and on any platform where I have a voice. The clients, colleagues, and people I don’t even know who have been to the the decompression walk revival have seen the light: letting their dogs move their bodies freely in nature improves their behavior in daily life, full stop. The list of people who have reached out to me, shared that they were initially angered or frustrated by this advice, and went on to tell me they eventually tried it and will never go back, is a long one. Equally long are the hate mail and ugly comments from the people still in that anger and frustration phase.
So, whether or not you can provide off leash time I still wager it is a need that must be either met or simulated in other ways. Let’s look at some common areas of concern regarding this recommendation.
The restriction hierarchy: fences, leashes, aversive tools
Is off leash better than a long line? Are fences always less restrictive than leashes? Is a long line less restrictive than an e collar? Are any of these things less restrictive than voice control? If the goal is “less restriction” what should our choices be here? The frustrating answer is “it depends.” For some dogs, a long sniffy meander on a long line will serve their behavioral health needs just fine, while another dog might be frustrated beyond belief by that tether and do much better in a smaller space, restricted by fences. Some dogs are easily decompressed while being controlled verbally and yes, plenty decompress while wearing an electronic collar. The only way to know what actually works is to try it and see. I know that for my dog Felix he decompresses best in an area safe enough that I am not needing to verbally manage him much, and that water spirals him higher, serving as a barrier to decompression. I know this by looking at his behaviors after the walk. Does he sleep hard? Is he tolerant of other household dogs? Is he able to brush off the noises of suburbia? The best effects for him are off leash, mostly unmanaged, in the woods or mountains, with dogs he likes. I only know that from needing to walk him on a long line, in fenced Sniffspots, on beaches, and in suburban areas. I know what works for him because I have tried each option that is available to me, and that is what I coach my clients to do as well.
A good place to start is with whatever your dog “fights” less. A dog that is straining at the end of a line is probably not getting what they need. A dog that is running fence lines is probably similar. A dog that has to be called back constantly or corrected frequently on the e collar is being restricted too much. As with all things, do what you can.
The question of why “in nature” has actually been researched really extensively in humans, and I extrapolate it here to dogs. If humans decompress best in nature, I think it only makes sense that dogs–arguably less evolved to inhabit urban spaces–do too. Some of that research and a great podcast episode on this topic can be found HERE. In short; it is good for us to be outside, and best for us to be under and on top of natural substrates and surfaces. Anyone who has seen the look on a dog’s face as they frolic through a meadow or weave through forest knows the truth; the same joy does not exist on concrete.
There are very real systemic oppressions in place that act as barriers to providing this basic need for our dogs. Racism, misogyny, poverty, and ableism, to name a few big players, are real roadblocks to accessing natural spaces safely and freely. Having close access to natural spaces is a tenet of white privilege. If I unclip my leash in an area that I am not legally permitted to do so (which is not what I am recommending), I should recognize this, too, as my white privilege. If I am caught breaking leash laws as a white person, I am only risking a citation, and am unlikely to be unjustly jailed or the victim of police violence.
While the privilege of allowing dogs off leash time could be a ten page dissertation all its own, I will leave it at this: the systems of oppression are to blame here, not the needs of the dogs or the recommendation to provide as much off leash time as we can.
Do ALL dogs need this?
A few years ago I raised a pug mix for my sister and her family. I adopted the dog when she was four months old, raised her until she was just under a year, and then passed her on. When she was with me she had a lot of off leash exercise because she went with me when I walked my border collies. I knew that once she went to live with my sister she would have occasional long line walks but she would not have nearly the exercise she had with me. If I thought that was a major welfare concern for her, I would not have placed her with my sister. Her needs hierarchy is different from my border collies; she functions just fine in her suburban townhome with no fenced yard and a couple of long line walks on mixed substrates each day. She camps and hikes when it is possible, but it is not a regular occurrence. My point is this: all dogs benefit from off leash time in nature, and some need it more than others. When maladaptive behaviors are present and off leash exercise is not, this deficit needs to be of paramount concern. My Icelandic sheepdog and my border collies both need off leash time in nature to be their best selves. The amount of exercise needed is different, and so is the fallout when the need is not met. As I did with Felix, I have learned what Rayya (my Icelandic) needs as I have raised her through experimentation. June Bug (the pug mix) has some behaviors that are a little annoying to her people that I believe would be eradicated with off leash exercise. But these things are just annoying, not life-altering, and so she is fine with the level of exercise she is provided. When trying to decide what your dog needs, considering what your dog was bred for is a good place to start (a breed that is designed to move their bodies in nature for their job probably has some high needs in this area) and we can all adjust from there as we see what is working.
How do we know its enough?
I have mentioned several times that experimenting, trying different iterations and observing your dog’s behavioral effects is the method to use here. This is the only way to know if we are providing “enough” and there is no right answer. Some general guidelines are: younger dogs need more than older dogs, gundogs and herders need more than seems reasonable–again, especially when they are young–and dogs with higher-stress personalities tend to have some of the biggest positive outcomes. Companion and service bred dogs of many breed varieties need the least (and this is on purpose!). “Enough” is a moving target, and constant evaluation is required. If you are a behavior professional making off leash exercise a part of your behavior change plans, measure the behaviors you are trying to reduce and take good data on the progress. Your clients will be best motivated by results.
Free roaming dog populations
There is growing information on the behavior of free-roaming dog populations and I am no expert. What anecdotally, and quantitatively appears to be true is that dogs who are free-roaming do NOT require huge amounts of exercise/movement, which would suggest that it is the restriction we place on our dogs (and I would argue, our selective breeding, as free-roaming dogs tend to be generic mixed breeds) that creates the deeper need for free motion in nature. Our dogs bounce between bored and restricted to active, and it seems to be less than ideal for them. If we see “freedom of movement” as an empty container that must be filled on a weekly or monthly basis, the free-roaming dog’s container is filled just by his daily life while the crated, leashed, and fenced dog who is owned by a person needs those acute bouts of free roaming opportunities to fill that container. Interestingly, and again anecdotally in my work plus quantitatively in the research, free-roaming dogs do not display maladaptive behaviors like reactivity or separation anxiety, but they do when you take them off the streets and put them in homes. Rather than taking the research on free-roaming dogs to mean exercise less, I think we should take it to mean restrict less.
Alternatives for dangerous or untrained dogs
If your dog is a danger to other people or their dogs, obviously their world will be smaller. A dog that is truly dangerous can not be allowed off leash exercise unless they are in secure and private areas (think rented space, owned space by friends of yours, etc.) and certain safety measures (muzzles, long lines) should still be considered depending on the extent of damage the dog might do if there is a mistake (fences have holes, people show up at wrong times, etc.). That dangerous dogs (dogs who have severely harmed people or other dogs) can’t always have all of their needs met fully due to restrictions that must be placed on them is a welfare concern that needs to be examined by these dogs’ behavior teams. It does not negate that these dogs would surely benefit from off leash time.
Dogs that are untrained but not a danger to others have a simple solution: training. Yes, it will take time and effort and it will never be perfect. But training that supports our dogs’ overall welfare should always be the first and most important training task on our list. That goes for all welfare; being alone, eating reliably, and receiving veterinary and grooming care, should all be top of mind when we go out to train. If your dog has running contacts, killer weave pole entries, and a glorious indication on odor, but can’t be walked off leash, I’d argue you might think about how you allocate your training hours. If you are unsure how to get off leash reliability with your dog, you’re in luck. There are countless professionals selling courses, self-study material, and private training on this subject.
What about *other people’s* dogs?
It is simply a fact of life that you can’t control other people’s dogs. The second you accept that the general population at large will A) have their dogs off leash where they should not and B) be unable to recall them is the second you can start to look at real solutions. Other folks’ dogs will approach yours and this will not always be ok or safe. Plan for it, prepare for it. Train your dog, and carry protection for the rare event that these off leash dogs are hostile. I like Spray Shield and also this device for protection. Small dogs can be protected with a coyote vest. An umbrella can be a good deterrent, and the friendliest way to stop an off leash dog is to throw food at its face. Just like other dangers of the world, you and your dogs will never be entirely safe, off or on leash. Consider your own risk aversion when making choices about where to be.
At the end of the day, especially as behavior professionals, we must always consider the contextual fit of a recommendation we are making. Contextual fit is the match between the strategy (in this case, off leash exercise) and the values, needs, skills, or resources of the individual meant to utilize the strategy. I recommend off leash exercise in almost every behavior case I take, but that doesn’t mean it is accessible for every client I have. It is my professional responsibility not to withhold information due to poor contextual fit, but rather to provide alternative strategies.
In a current case, true off leash exercise is poor contextual fit: the dog is not yet safe around moving vehicles or wildlife, so we are filling this gap other ways (with long line walks, tracking, and other forms of motion-based enrichment) as we work through the dog’s issues and build off leash reliability. Another case of mine is a dog for whom off leash exercise is an absolute game-changer, and is the key component of the entirety of our work together. Without it he slides quickly back into maladaptive patterns, and his owner is able to provide it with a few adjustments to her life and a reasonable amount of sacrifices. Each case involves nuanced considerations, and it would be a shame if I had not recommended off leash exercise to the latter client because of the former client’s poor contextual fit with this strategy.
If at all possible, even with alterations or adjustments to the ideal, go on a decompression walk. You won’t regret it.