Letting dogs off leash (or not) seems to be the new raw vs. kibble debate. Recalls and off leash reliability are among my favorite things to teach. So clearly, I have an opinion here as well, and I’d like to share it with you. Note that I’m talking about my opinion here, not about The One and Only Right Way to Do Things. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all answer to whether off-leash privileges are a good or bad idea, but I do think there are three factors that can help you make your own decision: your responsibility towards other dogs and people, your responsibility towards your own dog’s safety, and how you, as an individual, feel about the risks of being off leash. Maybe teasing apart these factors will make it easier to understand why other people may come to a different decision than you.
Your Responsibility Towards Others
I’m coming at this from a European perspective. Being socialized in a society that defaults to giving dogs a lot of freedom, seeing dogs off leash is very normal to me – I don’t see it as something inherently good or bad. I feel privileged to have lived in one of the world’s most dog-friendly cities, and this privilege goes hand in hand with a great deal of responsibility I feel I have as a dog owner: the responsibility to ensure we keep the city as dog friendly as it is (and make other cities more dog friendly) by making sure I, in my role as a dog owner, respect the rights, choices, and feelings of other dog owners as well as of people who don’t have a dog and people who are scared of dogs. This responsibility includes things like always carrying a poop bag and picking up after my dog, and it also includes …
… never letting my off-leash dog run up to a dog who is on leash. It doesn’t matter whether my own dog is friendly or not – what matters is that the other person has a right to walk his dog in peace. On-leash always trumps off-leash. If I am not sure that my dog’s recall is reliable around other dogs, she won’t be off leash in places where I might meet other dogs. I don’t want my dog’s lack of a recall to be someone else’s problem.
… never letting my dog run up to a stranger. Other people have a right to walk without being approached by my dog. It doesn’t matter whether my dog likes people or not. My responsibility is towards the other person, who might be scared of dogs. I need to ensure they can feel safe in the space they share with my dog. When I meet someone else on a walk, I will call my dog, and keep her by my side, at a distance from the other person, until we have passed them. If I can’t recall my dog away from people, she won’t be off leash in a place where we might encounter other people.
Your Dog’s Quality of Life
Does your dog have to be off leash in order to be truly happy? In my opinion – again, that’s an opinion, and entirely subjective: no. Off leash hiking is one of many ways to keep your dog happy and healthy, but neither is it the only way nor is it the best way for every dog/human team. Not all dogs will learn a reliable recall. Not all dogs will be safe off leash. Not all owners will be comfortable with their dog being off leash. All of this is okay! It’s not better or worse than giving your dog off-leash privileges – it just means that you have chosen a different way to ensure your dog has a happy, healthy life.
Let’s get back to the owner’s comfort level for a second. Your opinion counts, too! If it stresses you out to let your dog run free in an unfenced area, don’t do it! Do something else with your dog instead – something you both enjoy. Whether that’s hiking on a long line or a leash, or something completely different.
Risk Taking vs. Our Dogs’ Safety
This is probably the most tricky one of the factors, because we’re basing our decision on our subjective perception of safety. What we perceive as being safe or dangerous varies widely from one person to the next. I think that’s the reason people often get into fights about off-leash hiking: we have a tendency to believe we are making a rational decision, even when we are truly making an emotional one. If you perceive being off leash as horrifyingly dangerous to a dog, you want to speak up to help someone else’s dog stay safe.
It’s okay to make a decision based on your subjective perception of safety – there is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes, the way we feel about something is all we have to base our decisions on. However, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that it is just that: subjective. It’s not “the right” or “one true” decision – it’s just a decision that feels right for you as an individual.
I have done things that other people would consider dangerous: I’ve backpacked in so-called developing countries. I’ve walked home through dark streets at night by myself. I’ve ridden a bikes and motorcycles without a helmet. All these things are based on my subjective perception of safety vs. danger, joy vs. risk, and I’m aware of it. I’m aware of the subjectivity because I have friends who do these things very differently. I have friends who always wear bike helmets, and friends who would never leave the socially and politically (supposedly) stable country they grew up in, and friends who will call a cab instead of walking home alone at night. At the same time, I don’t do some things these friends might do: I don’t ride rollercoasters, for example. They scare me. They feel dangerous to me. Based on my subjective feeling about them, I choose to stay away.
The difference between these examples and the off leash debate is that in the former case, we’re only putting ourselves at risk, and in the latter case, we’re also putting someone else – the dog – at risk. That’s why it’s easier to accept the former examples than the latter ones. A better parallel might be allowing your child to ride a horse or ski or go out (hoping that they won’t drink and drive). In these cases, your decision puts someone else at risk rather than yourself: your child. We feel more emotional about the choices adults make for their pets or their children than we feel about the choices they make for themselves. If someone else makes a different choice for their pet or child than you do for yours, it’s easy to feel provoked. I think this might stem from a subconscious fear that we can, in fact, not know what is truly “best”: all we have is subjective opinions. We need our own choice to be the right one, but there is no right choice. And we really don’t like it when someone forces us to acknowledge that by choosing differently.
Can we at least integrate some objective information in our off-leash/on-leash decision making? Yes, of course. We can collect information about the environment (who are we likely to meet there? Are there foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats? Are there other dogs or other people? Cars?). And we can try and assess our dog’s recall around various distractions as objectively as possible. We can test his reliability on a long line, for example. Both these things will allow us to make a slightly more objective decision about whether we want our dog to be off leash here or not. Still, I believe these two factors – environment and reliability – have actually a much smaller impact on a person’s choice than their emotions surrounding off-leash freedom. It’s also hard to measure how dangerous foxtails, ticks, snakes, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, or bobcats really are. Some people would never walk a dog during foxtail seasons, while others will choose a trail where it’s less likely to come across foxtails. Replace foxtail with any other potentially dangerous environmental factor. The same rules apply. I respect both decisions – and really, I believe we all should. There is no right or wrong answer here. It’s okay that people make different choices for themselves and their dogs (and their children), just like it’s okay that some people ride roller coasters, and others don’t. Off leash hiking isn’t risk free – but neither is driving a car, or running agility.
The Choices I Make for My Own Dogs
My dogs get to hike off leash a lot, but not because I believe they necessarily need it. I think they enjoy it very much, but I think it would be equally possible to replace our hikes with some other activity that fulfills their need to run, sniff, and explore. Nature walks are probably my favorite thing in the world. I’d do it without a dog, too, but it’s more fun with a dog (or two, or three, or four). I could do it on leash, but again – for me, it’s more fun when I see my dogs running towards me with lolling tongues, leaping over creeks and fallen trees with shining eyes. It’s part of that particular hiking experience I seek. If I walk with a dog who isn’t reliable off leash, they will stay on leash or on a long line. But my ideal way to spend my time off doesn’t require leashes. I love feeling like my dogs and I are on this adventure together, my arms swinging freely by my side, my dogs moving their bodies, yet choosing to stay close to me. It gives me a feeling of freedom and peace that I crave and haven’t found anywhere else. For the person I am, the cumulative joy my dogs and I get from these hikes make up for the dangers they come with. I, the human, may need these walks more than my dogs do, and I’m okay with that. The fact that I love training is the reason I have the breeds I do, but the fact that I love hiking is the reason I have dogs in the first place. If I had to choose between giving up walks or giving up training, I’d give up training. I could live without training, but I’d really, really miss our walks. My dogs, I’m sure, could be equally happy either way, as long as we kept doing stuff together.