The Great Debate: To Leash or Not To Leash.

FB_IMG_1452266093209Some subjects are such hot buttons that it’s such a guaranteed argument trigger to mention them. Religion, politics and the ever-popular, on/off leash are way up there on the list. Opposing views on this subject can be heated at best. So many articles have been written about it that it almost seems like there is no reason to cover it yet again. My primary focus here is one just aspect of this subject but I will cover several areas of it.

Before I dive in too far, I need to be up front about my own personal view on this subject. I am firmly on the side of leashing one’s dog where one is legally required to do so. That said, I certainly have allowed my dogs to be off leash in certain areas, where although not technically legally allowed, the owner of the land was okay with reasonable exceptions. I absolutely would not permit my dogs to bother anyone when off leash and have only permitted my dogs off leash when alone with them in any given area. Adding to that, said dogs were as rock solidly recall trained as is possible with a living being capable of original thought and cognitive decisions.

As for my own pet peeve angle to be addressed on this subject, it concerns the fallacy that a dog cannot be truly fulfilled without off leash running in unenclosed areas. Hogwash at best. This is most frequently the excuse given when someone wants to break the law and allow their dog off leash in areas that forbid it. “They need the freedom.” Other variations are; “It makes him happy”. “He loves to run”. “He needs to run.” “He won’t be happy on a leash”. “He listens to me.” “He’s friendly”. “He likes to meet everyone.” Other reasons are also cited, among them; “There was no one here when I got here”. “I can’t keep up with him”. “He pulls me”. I could go on and on and on.

Let’s cut right to the chase about these excuses. You are the human responsible for your dog’s safety. You provide the safety net and you set the guidelines. If your human child wanted to do something that placed him in danger, are you all about allowing it or are you putting on your parenting hat? I suspect most of you are putting that parenting hat on. Then why are you forgetting to wear it for your dogs? It’s the same situation.

Dogs are not robots. They are sentient beings capable of individual thought processes independent of your desires. All of the training in the world won’t stop death if they make the wrong choice. It can happen in a literal instant. I am well aware of the potential dangers that my own dogs could have faced every time I unclip a leash in an unfenced area. I was always full of relief every time a recall was successful and they were safely back into the confines of my vehicle. If you never experienced that particular feeling, then I don’t think you truly comprehend what can happen when you make the choice to unleash in public without barriers.

The truly problematic part of this issue lies with the human part of this relationship. For some people, it is an ego trip, showing the world how well trained their dogs are/that they are an “alpha”. With others, it’s more of a perceived benevolence towards their dogs. They truly believe they are doing their dog the ultimate favor. And yet with others, it’s a complete disregard for how their actions affect others. And for hopefully the smallest group among those who choose this route, it’s a deliberate attempt to use their dog to cause a confrontation with others.

Regardless of the reasons, there are leash laws for good reasons. Regional differences are important in understanding this topic fully. In many countries, it is perfectly normal to see dogs off leash in many public areas. It’s not only legal, it’s encouraged. Understanding how that applies to those areas but not other areas is a matter of understanding the human/dog relationship that is encouraged in those countries. Dogs are respected much more as sentient beings in these countries. Humans are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions. That follows that they also take responsibility for their dog’s actions by training them more thoroughly than most people in the US do. Sadly the same cannot be said for either point in the United States.

Let’s address the training aspect of this subject. Of my current crew, only Trent is left that I spent a huge amount of time training the recall. And although I considered Merlin, Kera and Siri’s recall about a 99%, I always considered Trent’s about a 95%. Kenzo has had some recall training and I would say that it’s pretty good but certainly not proofed like I made sure I did with the previous crew. My intent is to do better with training for recalls. My newest addition, Mela, has no recall because she just joined the family. She was a stray living on the streets of a not so good neighborhood for a few months. So she is a flight risk. But because she is super happy with her new circumstances, I cannot discount that she is probably fairly reliable because of that. However, would I test that theory? Most certainly not. I will train a solid recall first. Writing this has inspired me to rent a huge local play yard simply to practice recalls.

Back to training recalls. There is no such thing as a 100% recall. Dogs are thinking beings. You cannot guarantee that the outcome of any situation will match your own desires, when they have a choice in the matter. It takes literally one bad decision by your dog to take a happy outing from just that, to a tragedy that could have been prevented. Wildlife, another dog, a person that your dog likes, anything can cause a deviation in what you think they would normally do or how they respond to you. Is it really worth it? Is your training that good? Most dog parents don’t invest the amount of recall training that is necessary to place your chances of a recall in the plus column rather than the minus column. Even many professionals don’t train to that degree of reliability. I have in the past and writing this article is inspiring me to do it again. But even that doesn’t guarantee an outcome.

I feel at this point that I should mention what some people call e-collars and others with a more realistic view on them, call shock collars. They are not a substitute for a leash. I have seen some people comment online that this is what they use for a leash. Sorry, but where leash laws apply, an electronic collar does not qualify as a leash. Leash laws typically require a physical leash and many laws even specify a length such as six feet. Even where dogs are permitted to be off leash, many people have these on their dog because they believe that they have more control. That control is an illusion. Your dog still makes choices. A shock might stop him momentarily but I have personally known of two dogs who went AWOL wearing a shock collar. Not an invisible fence collar but an actual “training” shock collar. One was lost in the nearby woods overnight after a hiking trip that resulted in a dog more interested in wildlife than her owner. And the other one was running his neighborhood for a bit after a mishandling at the door. Both had batteries intact. Please don’t think that these devices guarantee that your dog stays with you. That is far from the truth. Also please consider what kind of relationship damage that using such a device to keep your dog in line can cause. That isn’t the subject of this article, however, so on that note, we will exit this subject for the next point on the subject at hand.

I would like to again address the enrichment issue since that is the reason so often cited by owners as a need to have their dogs off leash. It is a complete and utter fallacy that dogs are not having a fulfilling enriching experience by walking in partnership on leash with their humans. Done correctly, they certainly are. See this article for more on how dogs connect with their environment.

It doesn’t take much to provide the appropriate enrichment for your dog on a walk. Simply learn how to provide balance between moving around and remembering that you exist. Training is an important part of this. In order to safely have your dog off leash, training is a requirement so using the lack of it as an excuse to have your dog off leash in populated public areas just makes you look lame.

Of course, plenty of dogs absolutely deal far better with life when they have the ability to run full speed on a fairly regular basis. But expecting the public at large to deal with your dog when you want that option is not realistic or appropriate. As previously mentioned, I have trained a fairly reliable recall with some of my dogs. I do/did allow them off leash access in an area in a cemetery where I can see everything coming at quite a distance. That gives me time to gather my dogs to me and get them under control before anyone approaches. So far, so good.

I have even once had the misfortune of unclipping my dog’s leashes right before realizing that we were between two herds of deer. That really hit home with how my training was progressing. The three dogs that were at what I considered the 99% reliability immediately looked to me for their paycheck and the one that was at about a 95% reliability hesitated for about five long seconds before joining his housemates in asking for his paycheck. Payday was immediately followed by a group jump into the vehicle and our exit to the second favorite off leash area.

My point to that story is that I do agree that some dogs fare better emotionally with that option on a regular basis. I have a fenced in yard but it’s not large enough to allow full steam running. Many people don’t even have the luxury of a fenced in yard. I now have dogs that I need to resume my recall efforts with in order to be comfortable allowing them to run off leash in our favorite spot to do so. So how will I accomplish allowing the full steam running that I know that at least two of my current dogs need? I will rent a play yard that is securely fenced and allow it there. Is that an option everywhere? Of course not. But be resourceful. Scout around for fenced in areas that may be appropriate for dogs after the hours that humans use them. Beg your friends for the use of their own fenced in yards. Visit dog parks after hours when it’s empty. Or if your dogs are so dog friendly that you are okay with them off leash in public, then you have no excuse for not taking advantage of the local dog park. None. Most are huge and the possibilities for running full speed ahead, are readily available. There is no reason for using the “needs to run” excuse. Simple as that.

If your excuse is that you can’t keep up with your dog, so you let him run off leash, then train him! Or hire a dog walker that can keep up with him. It’s certainly less expensive than potential damage caused by your dog’s bad decision to head into a street or to a leashed dog that your dog gets into a tussle with. Which brings me to the final part of this subject that I wanted to address.

This is the area that you will find the most articles on this subject written about. Allowing your unleashed dog to harass leashed dogs. The dogs residing in a couple of city shelters in my city are not permitted to be taken to the city parks by volunteer dog walkers because of this problem. It’s that bad. Regardless of who initiates the interaction, if a shelter dog were to object (and it would be totally within their rights to do so!), and especially, if said shelter dog were obviously of breed lineage that frightens some people, that shelter dog would inevitably be blamed. The shelter could be sued. It’s not worth it. So the dogs get less enrichment than they deserve because of selfish dog owners.

I don’t honestly know anyone who hasn’t had an unpleasant interaction with someone’s off leash dog in an area that requires leashes. I personally have had literally dozens of such interactions, with one that came very close to being tragic. I still wonder what managed to save my dogs that day. I now carry Spray Shield with the nozzle in the on position on every single walk. I walk multiple dogs at once. I cannot take the chance that a loose dog will charge us. An owner screaming “he’s friendly” is meaningless when you have a strange dog charging directly at your own dogs who are on leash. If you were a human in that situation, with a stranger charging directly at you, would you be worried for your own safety? Of course you would! That stranger screaming that he is friendly won’t change how you feel. You would be within your rights to defend yourself preemptively.

One last view that I want to mention that I never see addresses in these articles concerns those whose dogs are off leash but do not bother other dogs on leash. It doesn’t matter if they approach the on leash dogs or not. They are not visibly controlled by the human and the on leash dogs fully perceive that. How can I know this? Quite easily, watch dogs enough and you will see it too. It even applies to uncontrolled dogs on leash being viewed by controlled dogs on leash. The energy of an on-leash dog is going to be different than an off leash dog. And the energy of an untrained on-leash dog is going to be different than the energy of an on-leash trained dog. Many people deliberately take their dogs where leashes are required so that they can feel safer walking them. Regardless of whether your dog approaches other dogs when off leash in these areas, he presents a danger to the on-leash dogs. Why would you want to be part of the problem to those dogs?

In closing, I would like to ask those of you who allow their dogs off leash in public areas legally requiring leashes to examine your own motives for this decision as well as placing yourself in the position of others who follow the law. The world can be a far better place for all dogs if everyone understood their impact on others. Not only will the dog parents thank you, but the dog will view you with more benevolence as well.


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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