Perils of the Off-Leash, Friendly Dog
I've been wanting to write this post for several months. However, time hasn't been my friend, so I’m writing it now, and perhaps I’ll just repost it every year as this subject, while important year round, is especially apropos during the summer months when everyone is enjoying the beautiful weather with their dogs.
This is about off-leash dog etiquette, and I’m not going to be gentle here. This subject affects too many people and dogs to mince words.
Do you take your dog on off-leash walks or hikes? Isn’t it wonderful to see our furry family member lengthen out that stride to run for the ball, to chase the squirrel, or even to just run for the sheer joy of running? The fast gallop from one great sniff spot to the next, the enthusiasm of a pup experiencing full freedom of movement. . . The joy is contagious! And it’s something we all want our dogs to have.
But what if I told you that most of you are not only breaking the law but also being completely irresponsible? What if I said that most people who have their dogs off leash are ruining it for everyone else who wants to walk their dog on leash? “How could this be?” you ask. “My dog is FRIENDLY!”
And there it is. The friendly dog. That beautiful, precious aberration of nature that strikes panic in thousands of dog owners everywhere.
You see, there is a really important law that is almost universally applicable to all public places where having off-leash dogs is legal. This law states that all off-leash dogs must be under control at all times. That means that if your dog does not have a 100% reliable recall (that is, if your dog cannot come when called 100% of the time, regardless of what is going on in the environment), it is not legal for you to have your dog off leash.
There are really good reasons for that, not the least of which is your own dog’s safety. You see, not all dogs want to meet other dogs. Some simply don’t enjoy it, and some are fearful of other dogs and will respond defensively. Many of these dogs are in training to help them feel more comfortable in the presence of strange dogs. But when your dog that doesn’t have sufficient recall approaches one of these perfectly normal dogs that doesn’t enjoy your dog’s company, you are putting both dogs in danger and undermining any training that the leashed dog and owner have been working so hard on. You are undoing their progress. You are traumatizing their dog. And the truth is that you may very well be traumatizing your own.
I recently had an encounter with an off-leash pit bull and her owner. She was a sweetheart of a dog toward humans and not nearly as dog-friendly as her owner believed, but because I had someone with me to intercept her, I was able to avoid a dog fight. I spoke with the owner and asked him to please leash his dog. “It’s okay. She’s friendly!” he said. I pointed out that my dog was not and that he deserved to be able to walk peacefully in the woods just like his dog, but he couldn’t do that if he was accosted by other off-leash dogs. Again, he insisted that his dog wouldn’t hurt mine. It didn’t really matter that what he was telling me was not likely true based upon her body language. The reality was that a fight would definitely break out if I couldn’t get my dog away from his, and by law, all dog injuries related to that fight would be 100% the fault of the owner of the off-leash dog because his dog was not under control. He said (and I’ll paraphrase because his language was quite colorful), “Well, why don’t you train your dog like all the others out here?!” Good question. And do you know what the answer is? Ignoring the fact that his dog was obviously not trained at all, I have been doing just that. And that man’s irresponsibility and selfishness almost undid all of it. You see, teaching a dog not to react aggressively in the presence of something that scares them does not mean forcing them to endure the scary thing in the greatest amount possible. The psychological term for that is “flooding,” and it’s a form of trauma. It would be the equivalent of taking a person who doesn’t know how to swim and who is afraid of water due to a near drowning experience and pushing them over the side of a boat in the middle of the ocean during a storm to “teach them how to swim.” Even if you rescue them, it’s cruel, and it won’t help them learn to swim in the future. Quite the contrary. The added trauma will make learning to swim that much harder in the future.
My job is to train dogs that have a history of performing aggressive behaviors. These behaviors are almost exclusively due to fear, so I need to be able to address that fear. If your dog is either on leash or off leash and under control, I have the opportunity to expose the dogs I work with to just the right amount of the scary thing to ensure they can still have a wonderful time and gradually decrease their fear, thus also decreasing their motivation for aggressive behavior. Basically, I’m letting them play in the shallow end of a pool with floaty rings until they feel safe and can venture slightly deeper. But I can only do that if you are following the law and do not allow your dog to approach mine.
Another dog of mine has never shown aggression out on a walk. But she doesn’t like other dogs. She just wants to enjoy her walks, exploring on her own, deep in her own thoughts, like any good introvert. And she should be free to do exactly that. Introverts of this world all need their down time. If you let your dog run up to her, you will have ruined her walk. . . even if she doesn’t respond in a way that frightens you. And this is true for a huge percentage of the dog population in our neighborhoods.
Other dogs may be seniors or recovering from an injury. They cannot safely endure the rambunctiousness of your overly enthusiastic, body-slamming greeter. If you allow your dog to accost them, you will be responsible for their injuries or their increased pain.
Now, let’s think about your own dog’s welfare. One person allowed their sweet, German Shepherd puppy to jump on my dog’s head after I repeatedly told them to come get their dog while I was trying to escape. My dog reasonably responded defensively, growling, showing teeth, and air snapping. The man still would not get his dog because she was “just a friendly puppy.” Finally, after a dangerously long encounter, the man came over to collect his dog and said something once again about how my dog needed training. Yes, indeed. And not only did this guy set us back many months in our training, but he just nearly ensured his German Shepherd puppy is going to need the same kind of training my dog currently needs because that puppy learned from this encounter. She learned that dogs are dangerous. There is a very high probability that she will defend herself against perceived threats when she hits adolescence, and strange dogs will most definitely be perceived threats. Your dog learns from negative encounters. Some dogs can have many negative encounters before they learn to be fearful of other dogs. Some dogs only need one. And dogs who are afraid are often aggressive and dangerous. Why would you risk not only your puppy’s immediate safety but also their long term temperament?
As a professional dog trainer, I am very intentionally looking out for off-leash dogs and taking as much evasive action as possible. I almost always see one before they see us. I switch directions. I dive into the woods and go waaaaaaaay around when possible. When an encounter is unavoidable, I toss treats to the off-leash dog to try to keep them busy. I politely ask you to call your dog and leash them. I manage my own dog calmly, with skill, and in ways to minimize his negative emotional response. I carry a pop-up umbrella and other items meant to deter your dog. And when I cannot escape and you do not collect your dog, I get less polite because of the dangerous situation you have placed us all in, the emotional harm being done to both our dogs, and the massive regression in training you have single-handedly caused. Imagine how much more dangerous this situation is when you encounter the average pet owner just trying to responsibly give their dog a safe and pleasant walk by keeping them on leash while the dog sniffs and explores the environment. This dog owner may not have years of practice watching for off-leash dogs and avoiding them. They may not have professional handling skills or equipment intended to deter your dog. And thus, when your unwelcome, out-of-control, “friendly” dog invades the leashed dog's space, a scuffle or dangerous fight is almost certain.
Contrary to popular belief, a well-socialized dog is not one that runs up to and enthusiastically greets every person or dog they see any more than a well-socialized human is one who runs up to and hugs and kisses every stranger they see. If a human did that, they’d likely and justifiably end up hurt because the behavior would be perceived as so inappropriate as to be indicative that the enthusiastic greeter was dangerous,
and the person being greeted would likely feel the need to protect themselves. Dogs are no different. It’s just not polite social behavior to run up to and forcibly greet a strange and unwelcoming dog, no matter how friendly the greeting is intended to be.
And it’s not even legal.
And you will be held liable for any damages to both dogs even if yours did not initially demonstrate aggression.
So leash your dogs when you walk them in public places. Even in places where leashes are not required, the caveat is nearly always that dogs must be under your control. So if you cannot successfully call your dog to you 100% of the time, you do not qualify to have your dog off leash.
And that’s okay. You are in good company. My professionally-trained dogs that have a 99% solid recall will be on leash, too. I’ll gladly wave hello as I turn away to maintain the distance necessary to keep both of our dogs safe and happy.
Off-leash running and exploration are indeed wonderful enrichment and exercise activities for all dogs when safe to do so, but it does require discretion. If you find your dog is not 100% reliable off leash but still wish to offer them off-leash opportunities, check out sniffspot.com where you can rent large, private, fenced spaces for your dog only. This is a great option both for the enthusiastic greeters who might not call away from another dog or person and for the dog who never wants to meet another dog but could benefit from some stress-free, off-leash time.
Using a long line can also offer a great compromise. It allows your dog the freedom to stop and sniff places while you carry on with your walk, and then they can trot at their own quick pace to catch up and even to pass you. But it still keeps them attached to you in case their recall isn’t as solid as you’d hoped it would be. I use long lines frequently with dogs in my care, and my favorites are usually 20 to 30-foot leashes made out of a waterproof material called biothane that does not collect debris from dragging on the ground or get easily snagged in bushes. Biothane also comes in bright colors, which makes it easy for folks at a distance to see that you are walking your dog safely and conscientiously. One small business I like to support, run by a professional dog trainer and dog walker here in California who creates quality long lines is hightailhikes.com.
So when you are in public spaces, walk your dog responsibly by using a leash. All the rest of the dog owners wishing and deserving to share that public space will be incredibly grateful that they can now walk their dogs safely because you too are being a responsible dog owner and abiding by the law.