Know when it's safe to let your dog off the lead

Written by Napo HQ
14th Apr 2022
6 mins read
If your dog has great recall and is in a safe space, feel free to let them off-lead. But if you encounter another dog on a lead, livestock, or busy areas, you should keep them on a leash for everyone’s safety. Loose lead walking is a great way to build your dog's on-lead etiquette.
Dogs love to run, chase things and hunt down scents in the town and country, and part of being a dog is running free. 
"There are many benefits of letting a dog off a lead; quality of life, welfare and exercise, " said Jane Williams, Secretary of ABTC (Animal Behaviour and Training Council). 
Although being off lead is fun and freeing for your dog, it isn’t always safe for them or the other people and animals around them. In this article, we’ll walk you through the etiquette of on and off lead dog walking, including the times your dog must be on a leash and when they can run free.

Controlling your dog when it is off the lead

Good recall is vital when allowing your dog off lead. “It very much depends on the dog. If you have a good recall, that makes a huge difference,’ said Blue Cross animal behaviourist Rachael Myers. 
Experts advise starting early with recall training. "We should promote good training from an early age among owners so that their dogs have a good recall," said Williams.
“People are reluctant to let young puppies off the lead, but puppies are naturally inclined to follow us,” said Myers. 
Kerry, who owns two young dogs, practised during the lockdown. "It was great fun for Finn and me," said Kerry of Finn. "I would have treats in my pocket that he would know were there. I would run and say, 'Where's mommy?' and he would chase me and get a treat.”
She added: “As Finn got older, the integration of a ball on a walk helped loads. In the house and garden, he’d play with a ball a lot and always brought it back all excited, so we introduced the ball on a walk, and he’d bring that back and get lots of treats and fusses. It was the same for Farrah. Now, their recall is amazing!”

Controlling your dog when they are on a lead

However, there’s no guarantee that dogs on a lead are “under control”. Dogs on a leash can feel vulnerable and lash out, said Zoe Blake, the vet behind a campaign to Respect The Lead. "People don't understand that when a dog is on a lead, they don't have the same ability to escape [perceived] danger," said Blake. 
"The natural thing for them [a dog] is to run away, which is what a dog would do in a fight or flight situation," she added. If a dog can’t run, it may fight. So, Respect The Lead encourages owners to recall dogs and leash them before approaching a dog on a lead.  
Rachael Myers, an animal behaviourist for Blue Cross, agrees. "If someone has a dog on a lead and your dog is off lead, it's good etiquette to put a dog on a lead," she said. “You don’t want to worry another person,” she added. 

How to train your dog to walk on a lead

You should train your dog to be on a lead, and starting young is a good idea. 
“Start from the very beginning, from the moment you get them at eight weeks; what it feels like to have a harness or a lead,” said Williams.  “Training not to pull is important.” 
“Dogs naturally walk faster than us, and there are scents and people to meet, and they are inclined to pull forward on a walk,” said Myers. “So, have something to compete, such as a high-value treat.” 
“Use loose lead walking and teach the dog where to be in terms of the owner. Use a cue and reinforce it; that’s all essential,” said Williams. 
Williams also cites negative behaviours to avoid: “What we don't do are lead jerking and lead popping. Those behaviours can be quite harmful to the dog's physical and emotional wellbeing of the dog; you can damage their necks by pulling the lead hard.” 

Lead walking: a harness or a lead?

Both experts favour a harness over a lead.  “We would always promote a harness rather than a collar,” said Williams. “Dogs can wear collars to put ID tags on. In terms of control harnesses, and where they're necessary head collars.”
“We recommend harnesses that enable them to turn their head more freely,” said Myers. 

Where to keep your dog on a lead: Environmental matters

Where you are matters in deciding whether to leash your dog. In the countryside, you may want to let your dog run freely but be aware of wildlife and animal stock. 
Blake, for example, keeps her rescue dog on a lead because he “likes to chase deer.” Dogs should not be allowed to “worry” livestock. That means chasing them, but the presence of a dog could worry sheep in lamb, so it’s good etiquette to leash them anyway. 
No blanket law says your dog must be on a lead in public spaces in the UK. However, there are a series of orders you should know, which may mean you need to leash your dog in areas such as children’s play parks and beaches. Many local authorities, for example, have Public Spaces Protection Orders that mean you need to walk a dog on a lead. 
Watch out for signs, as there may be a fine if you don’t comply. 
Also, consider the safety of your dog and the people around you. “In terms of safety, if you are near roads, on a cycle path keeping your dog under control is a good idea. It can cause an accident meandering in front of a cyclist quite quickly,” said Myers.

Will it harm my dog if I keep it on a lead?

While dogs love to run, they can also enjoy a lead walk,” said Myers. “Smell is the dogs' strongest sense, and we want to go to beautiful areas, but what they often want is to have a conversation by sniffing and peeing, so sometimes streetwalking is appropriate."
For more information, check out our handy tips on how to train your dog on and off-lead.

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