When can I walk my puppy off leash?
At 8 – 12 weeks old, when your puppy is like velcro, let them off leash as much as possible.
Go back and forth, be unpredictable, and make the rewards when they return to you enormous.
It’s always okay to go off leash in areas that are securely fenced. Although you must be mindful of their vaccination schedules.
But what about areas where they could potentially roam free or get to a road?
For older puppies you can walk them off leash when they can be called in new environments amidst distractions with 99% surety.
The longer answer involves a discussion of growth phases and maturity levels, training techniques, health and safety considerations, and environmental distractions.
THAT’s what you came here for, right?
So then, let’s dive in!
Consider the Age of Your Puppy
The age of your puppy plays a factor in whether he or she is ready to for off-leash walks.
At 8 weeks, a puppy is just old enough to leave its mother to go to a new home.
At this age, puppies tend to be curious, but a little hesitant.
Off the lead, they remain very close to their new owner.
From an evolutionary point of view, staying close to their protector could be a matter of life or death.
So if your puppy is this age, the best possible approach is to let them off the lead in a puppy safe place as soon as possible.
For most puppies, that is when their vaccination schedule is complete – unless you have access to a privately-owned space where you are certain no unvaccinated dogs have been.
Your young puppy will instinctively stay close to you, and by reinforcing that behavior with food rewards, you can lay the foundations of a solid recall in future.
Once your puppy reaches around 16 weeks old, their instinct to stick to you like glue off the lead is starting to fade.
The sights and smells of the world beckon, and they’re gaining confidence to go and explore them independently.
Now the situation flips around, and you’ll need to work on a recall response before you let them off the lead, so you can stop them walking into trouble.
Preparing To Walk Off Leash After 16 Weeks Old
A benefit to training at this age is that pups are usually quite motivated by food treats during training sessions.
A drawback is that when you take your pup out in public, he or she will likely be very excited to meet other dogs, people, and anything that moves!
Another reason why this is not an ideal time to start off-leash walks.
This is, however, an important age to focus on socialization in public on leash.
Your puppy should be fully vaccinated by now. He should be meeting other dogs regularly, being handled by strangers, and introduced to new places, buildings, cars, and natural areas.
Training at 16 weeks
I recommend practicing the Name Game and Target to Hand in places with higher distractions, such as the front yard, driveway, or during walks around the block.
Also, try Follow Me within a fenced-in dog park or on a long training lead dragging on the ground.
I’ll provide instructions for all of these games further down this article.
6 months onwards
Between 6 months and 18 months, dogs enter adolescence.
More hormones contribute to a whole new interest in the smells of the world – especially other dogs.
Often, we find that dogs in full adolescence are less interested in treats in public than everything else in the environment.
Training from 6 months – 18 months
I recommend practicing “Here” at further distances at home and at close range in public.
Starting your “Heel” at home and in public are important now, too.
I recommend using a long training lead dragging the ground for initiating your off-leash training at this age.
This way, you can step on or grab the end of the lead if Fido bolts in the direction of a cute Fifi or a threatening Rex.
Consider Health & Safety Before Taking Your Puppy Off Lead
Whether your puppy is walking off leash for the first time at 9 weeks or 6 months, there are some common safety precautions to consider.
Has he/she been fully vaccinated?
You wouldn’t want your puppy to be wandering off to meet other dogs if she hasn’t been fully immunized.
What if other dogs nearby are aggressive or poorly trained?
Will you be confident enough to get your dog out of a dangerous situation without a leash?
Are there bodies of water nearby?
If you don’t know whether your pup can swim well enough to get back to land, you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where he has run out after a duck or a ball in a pond and can’t get back to you safely.
Or, what if your dog runs off in the distance out of sight and drinks unhealthy pond water?
Finding out what the environment holds is important before going on off-leash walks.
Has your dog been properly socialized to humans and other dogs?
If your pup comes across a stranger, will he behave well when petted?
What if a child runs over and tries to pet him/her?
Children have a very different sensibility around dogs than adult humans, and not all dogs handle themselves appropriately.
Be sure you’re confident with your pup’s social skills before going off-lead.
Phases of Training Off-Leash Handling
There are several training exercises you can work through on your path to having a well-behaved dog off leash.
- The Name Game
- Target to Hand
- Follow me
The Name Game
For me, teaching your dog’s name is actually about teaching your dog to look at you when you say his name.
That way, when you’re off lead and you need to get his attention, you can call out his name, and he knows to check in with you for further instruction.
To play Name Game, all you do is say your puppy’s name and wait.
When he looks at you (or more realistically, comes bounding toward you) say “good boy!” and give him a treat.
Wait silently for him to walk away and repeat.
What if your puppy doesn’t leave once you’ve given him the first treat? How do you start the game over?
Simply stand up and ignore him. Turn your back and stand still. Look off into the distance. Wait in silence for him to get bored and start sniffing the ground for more treats.
Then start the game again.
Target to Hand – a Precursor to “Here/Come/Recall”
After your pup has learned to look when you call his or her name, you can move on to targeting.
“Targeting” is a training term that means teaching an animal to touch a specific target.
For example, you can train your pup to “target” his nose to the open palm of your hand.
It’s a simple exercise, and it usually only takes one or two sessions for your pup to pick up the game.
Sitting in front of your pup with closed fists, open one hand. When he naturally sniffs it out of curiosity (since it’s usually filled with treats!) say “Good!” and give him a treat.
(If you’re a clicker trainer, replace “Good!” with the click to mark the moment pup’s nose touches the hand.)
Repeat a few times, then move your hands behind your back.
Bring one open palm forward again, but don’t put it directly in your pup’s face.
If pup reaches over with his nose and touches the hand, praise and reward again.
The trick is not to have a treat already prepared in your hands – use a treat pouch and only reach into the pouch for a treat after you’ve said “Good!”
Start making the game a little harder by moving your hand in different places. Up high, down low, over to one side.
Make the pup move a few steps to reach your hand. You can also add the cue word “Here!” as you present your hand.
Here / Come / Recall
Once you’ve taught your pup to target your hand, you can easily transition into “Here.”
Stand up and move a few steps backward from your pup, while simultaneously presenting your open palm at your side.
Now use your cue word – either “Here” or “Come.”
As soon as your pup starts coming toward you, expecting to touch your hand with his nose, praise and reward!
With a few repetitions, your pup will associate “Here” with coming toward you.
While in the comfort and safety of your yard or home, start short sessions of off-leash following.
For 2-3 minutes, carry some tasty treats with you and dole them out every 3-5 steps you take.
Don’t worry if your pup is following closely or gets distracted and wanders off before returning.
If pup is nearby when you are walking around in circles, give a treat. He will quickly learn to love sticking by your side.
Transition Follow Me to proper heeling by using a training lead dragging on the ground.
If your puppy starts to wander more than a step or to away from you, tap your thigh with an open palm and say “Here.”
The previous training exercises will remind him to come back to your side.
If he doesn’t respond and instead keeps moving away from you, step on the training lead and wait for a moment for the distraction to pass before resuming your training.
A Checklist of Training Behaviors to Try Out on a Training Lead Before Taking Your Older Puppy Off Lead
Practice your puppy’s recall training in each of the following situations to boost your confidence before going off lead in public:
- Low distraction area such as the back yard or inside your home
- The yard with another, familiar person walking around slowly
- Also in the yard, with another person throwing a ball
- A slightly higher distraction area, such as the front yard or driveway
- Then in the front yard/driveway with another person walking by
- And in the front yard/driveway with a stranger (use a friend or neighbor) calling your puppy to him/her, too
- On a leash walking past other dogs
- Using a training lead with another dog in the distance (across the street or more)
- With another person playing fetch with their dog
- With cars passing by
- Around a large group of people
- Walking past a dog park with dogs on the other side of the fence
- Inside an empty dog park
- With kids playing nearby
- By a pond/lake
In Summary, When Can I Take My Puppy Off Lead?
Living an off-lead lifestyle doesn’t have to be a fantasy, but it does take a lot of practice!
If your puppy comes home at 8 weeks old, let them walk of the leash as soon as they are fully vaccinated and whenever you are in a safe place to do so.
They will instinctively stay very close to you, and you can reward that behavior to lay the foundations of a recall response.
If they are already 16 weeks or older, you’ll need to develop a reliable recall cue using the exercises in this article, and then let them off leash.
Nowadays, there are a lot of businesses that are becoming pet-friendly, so bring your pooch everywhere any time you have the chance.
It will make a big difference in his behavior in public both on and off leash.
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification). She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over ten years.
References and Resources
Mattinson, “Evidence for Positive Reinforcement Training”, The Happy Puppy Site, 2015.
Pryor, Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching & Training. Ringpress Publishing, 2006.
Herron et al, Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2009.
Battaglia, Periods of early development and the effects of stimulation and social experiences in the canine, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2009.
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