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Walking or hiking with your dog off leash?

By Grisha Stewart
Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle

Walking your dog off leash is like picking your nose, but more dangerous.

Both are something that no one else should have to see you doing. Okay, it’s not quite the same – dogs LOVE to be off leash, and it’s a lot of fun. If you know the dog is safe, it’s enjoyable to watch. But some people are afraid of dogs, some are allergic, and some dogs don’t like other dogs. And picking your nose isn’t against the law. On a trail, when the people you meet don’t know you and your dog, and vice versa, it’s important that you leash your dog up as soon as you know they might be in contact with another person.

I was walking my dog through Ravenna park in Seattle this morning. A trail was merging with my trail, and I could see two off-leash dogs, a Labrador Retriever and a German Shepherd, walking along the other trail with their two owners. A jogger was coming up behind me.

The other two dogs joined my trail about 30 feet ahead of us, and started walking in the same direction my dog and I were walking. The jogger passed me and my on-leash dog, which I called a little closer to me before he passed, so that the jogger would feel safe.

Just before the jogger passed by, the lab owner called her dog and held his collar. The other woman didn’t call her dog, or if she did, he didn’t come. The jogger had to wind his way around them. The 90 pound German Shepherd trotted a few steps after him, sniffing the air.

They had stopped (because the lab owner still had a hand on her dog’s collar, which was nice). I passed by them and the German Shepherd came up to sniff my dog. The woman asked (too late), “Should I call him?” Uh…YEAH! But I was only thinking of Peanut and the unfairness of being approached by an off leash dog, while on leash, so I took him off leash for the greeting, as the lab’s owner let go.

Peanut doesn’t particularly like other dogs, especially if it starts out with the unfair disadvantage of being on leash while the other dog is off leash. He was stiff and his fur went up. The lab owner bragged about how social her dog was because she always let him meet other dogs.

The implication was that I’ve done something to cause his anti-social behavior. Actually, he’s always been a nervous dog and I’ve rehabilitated his aggression. He used to bark at people and dogs from 100 feet away. I work very hard to keep him under threshold, including (usually) protecting him from situations like this. I should have walked the other way when I saw the owners poorly manage the situation with the jogger.

Some people assume that because their dog is friendly, all dog greetings will go well. Generally, these same people also think that owners of reactive dogs are bad owners, that because their dog is happy and friendly, they must be good owners. Granted, things like puppy class, early socialization, and being calm and confident during walks help a ton, so they deserve credit for that. But there are some dogs that are just more work than others, plain and simple.

The people I work with who have aggressive dogs are committed, devoted, hard-working people that are no worse than any other dog owners. They deserve the right to walk their dog in peace and safety, too.

I managed to keep from ranting that allowing their dogs to go willy-nilly up to other dogs and joggers endangers other hikers.

But I promptly went home and started to write this article to rant about off leash dogs.

It is because of people who blithely think, “My dog loves everyone!” that hundreds of thousands of people can’t even walk their dogs, for fear of being approached by an off leash dog.

Certainly everyone in my Growly Dog class is sick of trying to keep their dogs safe from “Friendly Dogs.” Yes, you read that right. These responsible people spend every walk with their dogs keeping their aggressive dog safe from the approaching friendly dog.

Why do I phrase it that way? Because if your off leash, friendly Labrador goes up to a fear-aggressive Golden Retriever, and the Golden Retriever attacks, that Golden now is more likely to be put to sleep, either by the City of Seattle or the owner. Even though the lab was the one breaking the leash law. It’s not fair to flout the law and walk your dog off leash if you cannot control him 100 percent. You are endangering others.

Now, mind you, the dogs on this morning’s walk didn’t do anything vicious or threatening. The lab was actually quite un-lab-like and gave Peanut a polite sniff and got Peanut’s message: I don’t want to play. Most Labs and Goldens are quite rude in their friendly ignorance. But their mere presence, off leash and uncontrolled, in a public place, is unacceptable. What if the jogger had been afraid of dogs? What if my dog was afraid of their dogs? (he was)

Letting your dog off leash when you don’t have perfect control just makes responsible dog owners look bad. It’s like not picking up your dog’s poop.

Do you walk your dog off leash on hikes or in the city? Take this quick quiz.

Off Leash Dog Quiz:

-Does your dog come when called, 100 percent of the time, even from squirrels, other dogs, joggers, cats, and children? Are you willing to bet thousands of dollars that she’ll come back right away?
-Does your dog sit and stay with all of the above distractions?
-Do you call your dog long, long *before* they encounter people or other dogs on hikes, then physically contain them until the people pass by?*
-Do you have an eye on your dog and know if anyone is on the trail ahead / behind at all times?
-Do you bring a leash with you?
-Do you put your dog on leash when you walk in busier areas?
-Do you never let your dog go around a corner without you, making them stay at least 10 feet back from all blind corners until you’ve made sure nobody’s coming?

If you said yes to all of these questions, congratulations, I’m not ranting about you! If you said no to 1 or 2, then your dog isn’t ready to go off leash yet. Use a long-line, instead, if you want your dog to have more freedom. Practice Silky Leash so your dog doesn’t pull, if that’s why you’ve been going off leash. If you said no to the other questions, then now is the right time to change, to promote safety in Seattle’s parks and hiking trails.

*Note that in #3, I said physically contain, as in grab the collar or put the leash on. Your dog may stay without it, but it doesn’t promote a feeling of safety for the person who is afraid of dogs or the protective owner of a dog in aggression rehab. Did you know that your dog can be reported as a dangerous dog if a person just feels threatened by your dog? This first strike can’t be contested in court, either, so you’ll just be stuck with it.

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