If I had a dollar for every time an off-leash dog (in what was supposed to be an on-leash setting) came bolting towards me with it’s owner yelling, “It’s okay… he’s friendly!” I would have several fully-stuffed piggy banks.
Now don’t get me wrong; if you’re that dog owner, I completely understand your desire to provide off-leash ‘free time’ so your dog can follow his nose, explore, and burn off some additional energy. These are all beneficial things, and because he’s a friendly fellow you probably think, “What’s the harm in letting him off-leash for a while?” even though (technically speaking) he’s supposed to be on-leash in public places.
And to be fair, I’m not suggesting that your dog is going to approach or harass other people/dogs each and every time he’s off-leash… but… we do live in an unpredictable world where that old adage of “s**t happens” remains popular for good reason. So even if you feel that you’ve got reasonable ‘recall’ control with your dog, there are a number of safety-related issues that still can, and often do, occur.
1. When on his way to investigate or ‘meet and greet’, your aroused off-leash dog is not going stop and ‘check both ways’ for oncoming traffic before crossing a road. Obviously this puts the dog at risk for significant injury or even being killed if struck by a vehicle.
2. What kind of ‘welcome’ is your dog going to get when he storms up to a ‘reactive’ dog even though it’s being walked on-leash? This can be a very difficult situation for the other dog owner, who has to try and manage his/her dog while also potentially having to fend off your dog at the same time. The risk for a bite incident to occur in this type of situation is very real.
3. Even for on-leash dogs that are not typically reactive, how might they react to your dog making a bee-line straight towards them? The other dog may feel vulnerable and defensive because its freedom of movement is being restricted by its leash, and then view your dog’s approach as a potential threat. As with example #2, this can put the other dog owner in a difficult position, and risks a bite incident occurring.
4. Despite how friendly and well-intentioned your dog may be, there are plenty of people who are afraid of dogs. At best, your dog’s interest in that person may not be welcomed, or at worst it may be a traumatic experience.
5. Regardless of whether the other person likes dogs or not, an exuberant off-leash dog may be a liability for knocking down children or people with mobility issues. In today’s increasingly litigious culture, if an injury were to occur you might be subject to a civil suit.
6. Let’s not forget that the majority of dog-bite incidents are attributed to fear, stress and anxiety, so it’s possible for your off-leash dog to react impulsively towards a stimulus he encounters that he hasn’t been suitably socialized with.
Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the whole ‘off-leash dog’ issue than many others because of the amount of work I do with reactive dogs. Through experience I’ve become very good at avoiding issues with off-leash dogs but, despite all of my ‘best practices’, there’s still no way for me to completely control the outside world when I’m working with my clients and their dogs.
Case in point: Last week was an unusual one for me, in that I was charged by three different off-leash dogs over the span of just four days… and that’s what inspired me to write this article.
In each of the three recent incidents:
- I was working with my reactive client-dog in a residential neighborhood.
- Rather than being ‘stray’, the other dog was being walked off-leash by its human.
- The other dog came straight at us from a distance, at speed, fully aroused, and crossed at least one street to reach us.
- The other dog was oblivious to the sound of it’s owners voice (ie: recall attempt).
- The other dog moved in so close that I had to fend it off with my feet to keep the dogs separated, while I managed my reactive-client dog with both hands.
- The other dog owners were very slow to react and lend assistance. One owner actually stopped and watched my struggles without any attempt to assist.
I find that people who’ve never had a reactive dog may not fully appreciate the issues ‘the rest of us’ experience with off-leash dogs in public spaces, which I think adds emphasis to the point that this isn’t actually a ‘dog’ issue… it’s a ‘dog-owner’ issue.
One of my reactive-dog clients was quite embarrassed when she admitted to me, “I used to be ‘that’ person. My previous dog was so easy-going that I rarely put her on-leash. I just figured if anybody had a problem with it, then THEY were the ones with the problem because my dog was friendly.” Of course now that she does have a reactive dog (a whopping big 120 pound Mastiff) her perspective has changed 180 degrees.
So what about alternatives to going off-leash in what are supposed to be on-leash settings?
How does someone who wants to give their dog ‘more’ than just on-leash walks provide the additional freedom, exercise and mental stimulation?
1. The off-leash dog park is an option because it’s a securely fenced area where social interactions can take place. Be diligent though, because the off-leash park is only as good (or bad) as whomever is within the park at any given moment.
2. If you have friends or family who do have a safe area for off-leash exercise and exploration… even a reasonably sized back yard… why not arrange a regular ‘play date’ for your dog?
3. Organized group activities such as agility, fly ball, nose work, etc. provide a great opportunity to exercise your dog physically, mentally and socially.
4. Assuming you and your dog are both physically able, why not start an on-leash jogging exercise program? If you’re not physically able, perhaps a friend, family member or neighbor would enjoy the company of your dog when they are out for a jog?
5. Provide your dog with more freedom to move and explore by using a longer leash. I commonly use a 12 foot leash which allows the dog I’m handling up to 24 feet of space (in diameter) around me in which they can trot around and explore as we are walking. The beauty of using the long leash is the ability to transition from long to short (and vice-versa) depending on the environment and circumstances you encounter. Personally, I don’t like retractable leashes so I have my own leashes made using 3/4” nylon webbing.
6. Finally, if you’re letting your dog off-leash because he’s a leash-puller and you don’t like being dragged along behind him, why not get some leash-manners help from a reputable local trainer so you can experience the joy and companionship of having your dog walk ‘with’ you?
In closing, my intention for writing this is not to ‘shame’ or otherwise act holier-than-though, and I do apologize if it sounds a bit preachy. Instead, my desire is simply to provide ‘food for thought’ so people can consider the potential risks for their own dogs as well as to illustrate how letting dogs run off-leash in public places may (unintentionally) negatively impact those around you.
Andrew Thomas is a professional dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Langley, British Columbia in Canada.
Having decided to formalize a lifetime worth of experience with dogs by gaining private certification and starting his business in 2010, Andrew’s desire from the outset has been to do his part in helping to break the cycle of family dogs being given-up on, abandoned and even euthanized unnecessarily, due to behaviour issues.
With a mission to help dog owners establish happy and rewarding relationships with their dogs, Andrew’s philosophy and methodology are founded in modern behavioural science using force-free methods, and building human-canine relationships based on trust.
Andrew strives to be a reasoned and informed voice in promoting and supporting animal welfare issues for canines and equines, and he is as a strong proponent of adoption and rescue.