You teach on leash until the behaviors are absolutely reliable, even in distracting environments (which IMO you can't even judge until the dog is mature), then you gradually move from off leash but in safe, confined places, such as your fenced yard, to more and more challenging places and situations.
That said, I'll add hell would freeze over before I'd let my dogs off leash in situations with the slightest chance for danger to them, which includes being tempted to run after wildlife in open spaces and being involved with doofuses who could potentially have their own animals off leash and out of control or who could claim fear or harm from my dogs. With a Malinois I think you need to consider those aspects as thoroughly as I do with my Rottweilers. There was a case here in Colorado some years ago where a GSD was confiscated by animal control and scheduled for euthanasia as vicious because it ran up to some woman and scared her - didn't put so much as a scratch on her. I think there was enough fuss to get the dog released, but that kind of thing happens and more so to "scary" breeds.
I just spoke with another lady earlier today and she said the same thing! We're going to work on a drag line and recall command!
About the GSD, That's TERRIBLE. i dont umderstand why people have to be so fearful of sweet creatures.. Thank you for the response
My neighbor had a Rottie. I knew the dog. The dog knew me. When the dog got loose one time, and we encountered each other in my front yard, when he started running towards me, all of could think was "Sure hope he remembers me".... Thankfully, he did, but I was pretty darned freaked out for a second.
A not-mine Rottie comes charging at me, and I'll be swallowing hard and freezing in place myself. In fact that's true of pretty much any dog that can reach higher than my ankles. 😀 I used to walk my dog around the neighborhood here and gave it up because of loose dogs owned by irresponsible, selfish jerks. I had problems with a loose and aggressive-acting GSD mix, Golden, Irish Setter, Great Pyrenees, and pit bull. The first 4 were single incidents. I used pepper spray to back them off, the after effects of which I suspect helped convince their owners to keep their dogs home.
The pit bull was a chronic problem starting when it was a puppy, and the last time it was aggressive enough things would have been ugly if my own dog hadn't been totally submissive when it jumped across her neck. After that incident we went to court.
Probably a more controversial opinion here, but since seeing the difference between my older and younger dogs' off-leash manners, I'm more and more of the opinion that with young puppies, doing is the best way to learn.
Of course, I don't mean just walk out the door with no leash on the pup. I started in a wooded area I knew well - so no surprise rivers or cliffs - at a location and time I knew wasn't highly populated. Started on a long-line to judge how the puppy was doing. And once I took the leash off, it was constant check-ins. Repeatedly calling the pup over, rewarding with food and praise, then letting them go back to exploring. Rewarding when the pup chooses to check in on their own. Practice collar/harness grabs and leashing/unleashing multiple times on an outing.
Frodo, our younger dog, isn't even out of his teenage stage yet, so nothing's set in stone and of course it's a small sample size. But he's so far a really wonderful trail dog. Attentive to where we are, responsive to recalls, has no issue when it's time to leash up (either to let someone else pass or to head home). He doesn't seem to view off-leash activities as something rare and valuable and therefore necessary to prolong with keep-away games and the like. Again, we started when he was a baby (and honestly the breeder took them out a time or two before we even got him), since babies are almost never going to go far from you or get into any real trouble.
Samwise, our older dog, was an adult when we first tried any kind of off-leash activity with him outside of a dog park/fenced yard. He doesn't take off or completely ignore us, but he does go out of our sight more than I'd like and is less responsive to recalls if there's anything exciting around. We're constantly working on improving this, but he gets fewer off-leash privileges than Frodo as a result.
This could absolutely be a difference in temperament and breed as much as the way they were introduced to off-leash hiking. But I've seen a lot of reputable trainers have great success with introducing off-leash experiences early and often as well. It comes with risks. Your breed and how they might be received by the public is absolutely a good thing to keep in mind. If I lived somewhere with high risk of parvo or other puppy illnesses I'd personally hold off until the pup could get at least a couple rounds of vaccines. You have to know your local wildlife and what you might encounter in the areas you're using (even stuff like ground wasps can be dangerous to a pup if you stir up a nest). Just wanted to offer another perspective.
Again. I'm talking baby puppies here. I would NOT recommend taking an adult dog without solid recall/manners training and just letting them off-leash to see what they do.