Off-leash dogs are a controversial topic.
Some pet owners despise the idea of dogs running around off-leash, while others prefer the freedom that being off-leash provides their dog.
I see more big dogs hiking off leash but it can be done with small dogs too as long as you train them and take precautions.
In this article I’ve compiled helpful information on how to train your small dog to hike off-leash.
I talk about the pros and cons, as well as how to go about the training process.
Off-Leash Hiking Basics
In a nutshell, off-leash hiking means that you’re allowing your dog to hike with you while being off a fixed lead.
In other words, they are not attached to you in any way and you do not have physical control of them.
During this time, your dog has free reign to do as they please – listen to you when you call them back or chase that squirrel.
Letting your dog walk or hike off leash isn’t legal everywhere. In fact, many places require that your dog is on a leash that is no more than 6 feet in length.
There are often signs posted at trailheads that will often inform you if off-leash dogs are permitted, but it’s best to know before you go so there are no surprises.
However, some places allow dogs to hike off leash if they are under strict voice control.
Voice control means that they stay within your sight at all times and they come back to you immediately the first time you call their name.
Other spaces, like off leash dog parks that are large and have trails, may allow your dog to run farther from you as long as they come back when you call.
When hiking with your small dog, it’s important to follow all laws and rules.
You should always abide by individual rules for each trail or park you visit.
You should also consider whether hiking off leash with your small dog is appropriate based on each situation and particular dog.
For example, it’s risky for even the best trained dog to run around off leash in a forested area, where they can’t easily be seen, with cliffs.
Off-Leash Hiking Etiquette
If you are deciding whether to let your small dog hike off-leash or not, and you want to be sure your dog is a good trail steward if you do, follow these general guidelines:
- Make sure you have a strong recall. This means that when you call your dog, they come to your side immediately.
- If your dog is reactive or has issues with other dogs, it’s probably best to keep them on a leash at all times.
- Be aware of all risks when hiking off-leash, such as large animals, other people with aggressive dogs, dangerous cliffs, etc and use your best judgement.
- If your small dog has a strong prey drive, their natural instincts may tell them to chase wildlife they see lurking about, no matter how strong your recall is. If your dog runs off after something, they risk being lost or killed accidentally.
- Don’t allow your dog to dig holes in the earth or disturb wildlife habitats.
- Your dog may poop somewhere less than ideal if they are adventuring off-leash. It’s always important to pick up your poop, so this is something to keep in mind.
Wanting to hike off-leash with your small dog is understandable.
Leashes can be a nuisance if you’re hiking, especially because you want your dog to enjoy their time in nature as much as possible.
However, as a responsible dog owner it’s important to weigh the safety risks for you, your pup, and those around you.
If your goal is to hike with your small dog off leash, the section below will explain how to teach them properly.
Teach Your Small Dog to Hike Off-Leash
If you’ve decided that the pros outweigh the cons and you want to train your small dog how to hike off-leash.
The crucial key to off leash freedom is a flawless recall command.
A recall is when your dog is a distance away from you and you ask them to “come.” Then your dog returns to you immediately.
Tips for teaching your Dachshund to recall
Start your recall training in the comfort of your own home where there are few distractions.
Once your dog is recalling reliably indoors, take the training outside into your backyard, or another fenced area, where there are other outdoor distractions.
Increase the distraction level as your pup gets better and better at it.
Use a leash at first
Begin recall training with a leash on.
That way you can gently pull on your dog to help communicate that you want them to come to you.
Try using a long line – a leash that is 15-30 feet long – to give them more distance before practicing leash-free.
Use positive reinforcement to make coming to you a more positive experience than continuing to do whatever they are doing.
If your Dachshund thinks coming to you will end their fun, they won’t want to do it.
One way to do this, since Dachshunds like to chase (prey), is to move away from your dog while using the recall command, have a little “party” when they arrive, and reinforce with a delicious treat reward.
Keep sessions short but frequent
Keep training sessions to 5-10 minutes long.
Any longer than that and your dog could get bored and lose interest. You basically want to end each training session with them wanting more.
Short sessions several times a day are more effective then one big long one.
Practice recall at least 3-5 times a week during the initial training phase.
It’s imperative to perfect this skill before doing anything off-leash. A reliable recall is an absolute must.
Vary the surroundings
Pay attention to what distracts your dog the most, then work on training recall amid these distractions.
It’s recommended to practice with 30 different types of distractions (1 distraction at a time) in order to really cover all your bases.
Good places to practice with distractions are dog parks and beaches where dogs are allowed to be off-leash.
The bonus: as your dog becomes more reliable, even with mild distractions around them, you will find that they will begin responding to you better in other situations too.
When you expose your small dog to different stimuli while training, it builds their confidence and reliability.
Always end on a good note
Ideally, you will begin to notice when your dog has had enough training for the moment.
Signs that your dog is done include sniffing the ground a lot, not obeying the command even though they were previously, and laying down.
Ending your training sessions on a positive note will help ensure your dog looks forward to the next one.
Always end training sessions with one of their favorite things – a treat, play session with their favorite toy and extra belly rubs – before your dog “checks out” on you.
When your dog will come back to you 100% of the time in any situation, they are ready to hike off-leash.
When You Should Not Hike with Your Small Dog Off Leash
No matter how reliable your dog is off leash, there will be situations where they should be on leash anyway.
Keeping your dog safe
There are some times that you should keep your dog on leash in order to protect them from themselves.
If you know your dog is startled easily by gunshots or loud bangs, and you are hiking where people are target shooting or setting off fireworks, keep your dog on a leash so they don’t spook and run off.
If you are hiking during hunting season, keeping your dog on leash will ensure a hunter doesn’t confuse them with a wild animal when they are bounding through the woods.
If you are hiking in an area known for aggressive wildlife, like bears or mountain goats, keeping your dog on leash will help prevent dangerous wildlife encounters.
When deciding to hike with your dog off leash, consider their safety and respect other trail users.
If you are hiking in a steep area with slippery scree slopes or cliff drop offs, keeping your dog on leash will make sure they can’t accidentally fall and get injured or stranded.
please consider other trail users when you’re deciding to hike with your dog off leash or not.
I’m a firm believer in following leash laws if one is required.
Other users of the outdoor space where leashes are required are often expecting that they can recreate without the fear of a dog just running up to them.
Believe it or not, some people don’t like dogs and don’t want to be approached by a strange one.
Some people are highly allergic and only hike in places where they expect to see no dogs, or only those restrained by a leash, so they can avoid any contact.
Please keep in mind that some people are working on training when they take their dogs outdoors, and/or have a reactive dog that gets scared and defensive easily.
An encounter with an off-leash dog, no matter how friendly they are, can set their training back weeks or months.
Alternatives to Hiking Off-Leash
If you want to give your dog more freedom to move but allowing them to romp off-leash just won’t work for them, tha’s ok.
Some dogs don’t ever reach 100% reliability with recall, they always seem scared and nervous when off leash, or it might just not a good place for it.
There are a couple ways that you can give them some more freedom to wander without completely compromising safety.
First, you can invest in a long line – an extra-long leash that can be anywhere from 15ft to 50ft long.
A long line acts as a leash, but your dog can easily go ahead of you or walk off trail to sniff an interesting bush.
With a long line, your dog has the ability to explore a bit more.
The great thing about a long line though is that, although your dog may be a distance away, you can easily grab the end of the line to bring them back to you.
The other alternative to hiking off-leash is keeping the leash attached to your small dog but allowing it to drag on the ground.
This way you can step on the leash to stop your dog if you immediately need to regain control.
Personally, I am not sure I’ll ever hike with my dogs off leash for long periods of time or consistently.
Dachshunds are hounds and bred to hunt so no matter how reliable my dogs seem, I couldn’t live with myself if their instinct kicked in, they ran off, and got injured or killed as a result.
Also, we often hike in places with cliffs, slippery hillsides, and dense brush.
The conditions could result in them falling a long way and getting hurt or getting stuck in a place that I can not access to rescue them.
There are some places I would allow it though once I knew their recall was good (or I would just use a long line until then).
Places I consider doing it are:
- Where the area is wide open and I can see them from far away
- Where I’m not worried about wildlife encounters
- Where there aren’t many other (or, ideally no) dogs or people around
Hiking with your small dog off-leash can be a ton of fun.
Although the training requires a lot of time and effort, it can definitely be worth it.
As a dog parent it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your dog, but you also need to always be cognizant of their safety and that of those around you.