With experience comes caution…
When we first got dogs in the mid-80s, it never occurred to us to leash our dogs in the parks of Seattle. After all, our dogs needed exercise. Sascha and Klea (our golden and collie), were somehow naturally perfect trail dogs–Klea stayed close by on the trail, and Sascha, wild athlete that she was, would turn on a dime and race back to us when called. Sascha would even carry her own leash when she absolutely needed to be tethered, and would stay in heel position, her swagger reflecting her pride. It was just who she was–responsive and completely reliable.
Then came Tess and Lola. In spite of years of training, Tess, our second collie, was wild and independent, and Lola, six months younger, was insane on trails. Hiking in the mountains with her was a liability because of her tendency to tear through the woods and to leap without anticipating the landing. I remember holding my breath while watching her leap and fly across the boulders of a landslide on the way to Lake Ann. So after that, we left her at home when we went to the mountains. Our reluctance to have the two girls with us at all times, however, was still driven by their behavior, not by potential conflicts with people and other dogs.
Then we adopted Vera (of Finding Vera), and for the first time realized that there really was the risk of encountering dangerous dogs out in the community. To protect herself, Vera would threaten to attack any dog who got close. We didn’t see this side of her right away. For weeks after her adoption, she was difficult, but seemed to do well both on leash, and off-leash on logging roads and off-leash trails. Then things went south. After she injured her favorite sister in a fight, we realized that her threats were not empty, and we never allowed her to run off leash again. We became skilled at intervening if an off-leash dog approached, but every loose-dog event risked injury to us, the other dog, and our beloved Vera. We replaced her off-leash romps with training and games, and she lived out her life content in spite of her restrictions.
Now we have Annie, an eighteen-month-old collie, who has finally recovered from a surgically rebuilt joint (right hock). For the six years since Tess and Lola died, I have worried about this moment of decision–to keep her leashed, or to let her off. I now know there are dogs out there like Vera who have owners who are either naive, or in denial. These are dogs who will attack another dog when they feel overwhelmed, and the infraction could be as small as a “look”, or simply existing on the same planet. On the other hand, I itch to let Annie run free; watching her run and play with other dogs makes me feel like I am flying.
In the past few weeks we made our decision. After months of practicing recalls and walking miles of trails with her on leash, we unclipped her. We sent her to daycare to learn how to cope with groups of dogs, had friends’ trail-savvy dogs guide her on designated off-leash trails. We used high-value treats (chicken and steak) to reward her for recalls. And then, with a leap of faith we set her free.
- Practice, practice, practice recall with your dog before you take your dog off-leash. Take classes, work on recall in different environments, begin by calling your dog at a short distance, then gradually add distance on a long line. Don’t advance unless your dog is successful 80% of the time.
- Always carry high-value treats to reward your dog for coming back to you.
- If your dog is a rescue, don’t take him off-leash until you have a good, strong relationship. This will take at least a few months. Err on the side of caution. A lost dog is a terrible thing.
- Once you are comfortable walking your dog off leash, adhere to the rules of the trail you are on. Many people walk their dogs on on-leash trails because it’s their only choice. They simply can’t frequent dog parks or off-leash trails. Respect their limitations. They are just trying to keep everyone safe.
- Don’t let your attention wander from your dog. No cell phones. Things can go wrong very quickly with dogs if you aren’t aware of their body language. Without knowing the dog who’s approaching, how do you know what’s about to happen if you aren’t reading their signals?
- Some people are fearful of dogs and deserve space. They may have been bitten in the past. I was bitten by a small dog a few years ago–at least 5 times in as many seconds. Now my ankles tingle whenever I’m approached by a small, barking, lunging, dog. And I am passionate about dogs. What about people who don’t even like dogs?
- Even if you are on an off-leash trail, leash your dog if you approach someone who looks uncomfortable, or notice that someone leashes their dog at a distance from you.
- If someone asks you to leash your dog, PLEASE don’t argue. Chances are, they are trying to protect your dog as much as theirs. And they may know more than you do about what might be about to transpire.