On worries, trust, and off leash aspirations

For once, this post isn’t about how Nala can be a worrywart.

“Who, me? Should I be worrying about something?”

Instead, it’s about something that’s been worrying me lately. Namely, what if my insufferable paranoia is all that has been keeping Nala from enjoying the pleasures of off leash walking?

You could just take that leash right off!
This dog looks pretty trustworthy, right? Look at that nice little check in!

After all, I can think of a host of reasons, some of them better than others, that I’d like to just give Nala this privilege already.

  • Managing the long line is a pain in the butt: Obviously this is the worst reason to stop using a necessary tool. But, seriously. Coil, uncoil, coil, uncoil. Untangle from Nala’s legs. Apply salve to rope burn. Attempt–and fail–to avoid clotheslining any walking partners. Aside from occasionally being clotheslined, this is mostly not my problem–my partner manages the long line when we hike. But I still feel guilty that I just get to stroll along and hand out treats while he has to manage twenty feet of cotton rope.
  • For the most part, she sticks with us: Nala tends to stay on the trails rather than attempting to forge her own path in the woods.
  • She worries when she loses sight of me: and runs at top speed until she can see me again.
  • If we keep moving, so does she: even when she stops to greet a dog, if I praise her and say “Let’s go!” she follows me, not her new best friend.
  • Her recall is pretty great: Nala comes when I call her when she’s walking, when she’s trotting, when she’s running, when she’s playing with other dogs, when she’s crashing around in a creek–that sounds pretty good, right?
  • No major behavior issues: Nala isn’t fear aggressive. She loves kids, is neutral to strange humans, and is not only dog social, but has the kind of social skills most of us can only dream of. She is kind and gentle toward small, hyper dogs and does her best to appear non-threatening to dogs who seem nervous about her.

Lately, Nala has seemed really in tune with us on hikes–as though we really are all moving to the same soundtrack, walking with the same notion. It’s seemed sillier and sillier to inconvenience all of us with twenty feet of cotton rope when she’s such a good, good dog.

But. The thing is, that’s not the whole story.

I’m…less sure that I can trust this dog, though.
  • The long line isn’t that bad, and it affords Nala quite a bit of freedom. Much more than a leash!
  • Nala has a tendency to fall behind and lose track of us when she’s sniffing.
  • …and that’s also when I usually have to walk far enough ahead that she isn’t sure where I am, and ask, “Where’s my puppy?” the magical phrase which usually causes her to gallop up to me–then barrel right past me in search of new smells.
  • Nala gets less responsive as she gets more tired–but then, she also sticks closer to us when she’s tired.
  • The predatory sequence is not always our friend: I can mostly call Nala out of a full predatory charge, and the only thing she doesn’t drop on cue is cat poop. But the sniffing and especially the stalk/freeze portions render her semi-deaf.
  • And Nala has two behavior issues that do make me wary of relinquishing physical control over her: she’s still somewhat environmentally sensitive, meaning she occasionally gets too aroused and shut down to respond to me in new places (although it rarely happens in any of our hiking spots where I could let her off leash legally). And she has a tendency to piss off dogs who are obsessed with playing fetch by trying to play “You be the sheep and I’ll be the german shepherd” with them. She is the only one who finds this game fun, and the fetching dog often gets loud and snappy–which is totally fair. With the long line, I can prevent this jerkish behavior. Off leash, I’d better be pretty darn sure that she’ll come away when I call her and walk away with me when I need her to.

What it mostly comes down to, though, is that I’m scared and uncertain.

I’ve never trained my very own dog to the point where she was safe and reliable off leash. I’m not even sure how you do that, really.

I know how you start training a recall. I know how you gradually add distractions in the house, then move to the yard, then work on harder and harder things out there. I know games for building drive for recalls and ways to deliver reinforcements that encourage your dog to come close and stay close and ones that play into her love of chasing prey…

But how do you get to the point where you just take off her leash out in the world?

it's a long road ahead, puppy girl.
What if she just…keeps walking?

On our most recent hike, when Nala was still fresh and bushy tailed and bouncy but there was a lot of trail and a full, wide creek between us and the parking lot, I paused. She checked in and got a jackpot, then a treat toss to release. She came back, and we fell into a familiar pattern–behavior, treat, release, she comes back, behavior, treat, release–and then I reached down and unclipped her line and we kept working.

I’m not sure Nala even noticed. At one point, she must have seen something furry in the trees, because she froze and stared–then looked back at me, bopped my hand with her nose, treat. We did a few more, even walking away from where her leash lay on the ground, then I clipped her leash back on and released her to go explore.

Am I doing it right? I don’t know. I’m scared. And trusting my dog and our training is hard.

At the end of our walk, I stopped to look at the map of the trail, for some reason, and saw a flyer that said “Lost Dog!” Her name was Millie. She’s a one year old Brittany spaniel. She looked sweet, in her picture.

So, you know, we might try this again in like five years.

For those of you who let your dogs off leash, what convinced you to take the plunge? How did you get started? And for my fellow cowards–what are your perfectly good and definitely not paranoid reasons for not letting your dog off leash?

7 thoughts on “On worries, trust, and off leash aspirations

  1. I think it’s awesome that you’re trying to give Nala some more freedom. And also that you’re worrying about it and taking it so seriously. I went through a similar process with Honey.

    One thing we do that Nala might enjoy is playing hide and seek. If Honey gets distracted by something off leash, I duck behind a tree. When she looks up, she really wants to know where I am. It makes her even more attentive to me on a walk.

    Rather than sharing all my worries and decision-making process here, can I share two posts I wrote?



    It sounds like thanks to your bond and all the training you’ve done Nala would do very well off leash. But there’s no such thing as eliminating risk. And sometimes you just have to take a chance and try something out.

    I can’t wait to hear how it goes.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing! You are so wise. And we’ll definitely be checking out some graveyards. We also have a legal off leash trail with a setup similar to your gorge that we haven’t tried–we’ll report back soon!
      Incidentally, I will feel very lucky and happy indeed if Nala and I do even half as well as you and Honey.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the off-leash decision is taken out of my hands because it’s illegal in 99% of the state (unless we go to a dog park which we avoid). Even if it were legal, I doubt I’d do it. I also use a 20 foot training leash (I have to replace it every year it gets so ragged!). I’m used to the leash and clip it to my belt loop so I can have my hands free although I do pick up the slack when there are other hikers and dogs in the area. I have never found it that cumbersome – it’s an extension of me now and you are right, it allows enough freedom that a 6 foot leash doesn’t and is safer than one of those flexi-leads. I’ve been handling a hiking stick and the 20 foot leash for a few years now so I feel like a pro.

    While I see Blueberry checking from the corner of her eye to make sure I am still right behind her – I know that all bets would be off should she see a coyote or rabbit. I just don’t think it is worth losing her over that little bit more freedom that I am really not comfortable with. I think if I had another human with me – one that Blueberry loved – I’d probably try it a time or to and see how it went. At least I’d have another person searching for B should she take off. But I just see too many lost dog posters and hear too many stories of dogs that “are always off-leash and oh my this has never happened before where he/she ran away”. To me, it’s kind of like driving around on a motorcycle without a helmet. Sure, you will probably get away with doing that, accident-free, for quite some time. But all it takes is once, and then your scalp is spread across the asphalt.

    To me, the longer leash is a good, safe alternative and Blueberry also gets to run around in a fairly sizable backyard so she can still get her zoomies in. 😉


    1. It sounds like you guys have some seriously challenging geography! And the long line is well worth the trouble and learning curve for us, too.

      Nala was picked up as a stray a county over, which is definitely a source of my terror–was she dumped? Or did some idiot just let her off leash and lose her? Their loss has been our gain, but I am terrified of losing her, just as you say. I definitely will never attempt it on a solo hike in an open place–two people, lots of cheese, and perhaps someday a dog friend will be our insurance policies.


  3. From the point you are at in your training, I start in a large, open, deserted field, and drop the long lead while playing with my dog. I let him go a little ways, then call him back to a big treat; repeat. Walk a few feet, turn away from him and call him to me to a big treat; repeat. After a few days of that, I will switch to a 6 foot lead and do the same thing: practice dropping the leash and doing recalls, alternating with picking up the leash. This last dog, I even used a very thin leash one day, so he had the feeling that he was “free”, but I could have grabbed the dragging leash if I needed to. Then, after several days of practicing dragging a short leash, unhook the leash and repeat. Always, I have eagle eyes, 360 degrees. If I see any person/dog/anything as a speck in the distance I pick up the leash or hook the dog up until we’re without distractions again. As you practice seeing your dog return to you even though she is off leash, you will gain confidence in your training. All three of my dogs are allowed to walk off-leash in safe, legal areas, as our prior dog did for 14 years (including in the city!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s