Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be diving into a topic that is near and dear to my heart – dogs being off leash! Through a series of posts, I’ll be discussing the pros and cons, guidelines for when to take the plunge, proper etiquette for off leash dogs in public spaces, training tips, and more. Whether you love it or hate it, this series is for you. Today though, we’re going to be focused on the benefits and the risks of letting your dog off leash. This information will help you decide whether this is the right activity for you and your dog.
There’s nothing I love more than watching a dog do what they do best – be a dog! Being off leash is the ultimate playground to observe my dogs and their natural behaviors. Allowing for both physical and mental exercise, being off leash can vastly increase a dog’s quality of life. I love when my dogs have the freedom to explore and problem solve. It gives me insight into what they find rewarding and what they enjoy, which I can use to both better their lives AND improve our training game.
There it is – the lead-in to dog training! There is a great sense of pride that accompanies being able to communicate with your dog without a leash. This relationship develops through years of training and working together as a team. You don’t need a leash to give your dog direction or guidance. The leash is just a tool to prevent unwanted things (like running in traffic or jumping on grandma). Allowing my dog off leash showcases the trust I have in our relationship and his training. My boy Pod is trained to come when called, go right or left at a split in the trail and to stop and wait, all on verbal cue alone. Being off leash is the ultimate test of his training cues in a real-world setting, which arguably, is where training is most needed and valuable.
Freedom and Confidence
Now let’s contemplate the canine end of the leash. The operative word here is FREEDOM! Allowing your dog off leash gives them the freedom to move and explore naturally. Being off leash promotes a sense of agency that is often lacking for our dogs in their overly-structured lives in our homes. Us, with the opposable thumbs, routinely micromanage every minute of our dog’s day. We decide when he can eat, when he goes outside, when he can socialize; you name it, we control it. Off leash time puts the dog in the driver’s seat, which can build confidence and provide an outlet for curiosity and joy.
Speaking of confidence, being off leash can have important impacts on our dog’s mental state and ability to socialize. Leashes restrict dogs’ movements and body language, inhibiting their ability to communicate naturally with others. Many of our dogs also suffer from a tendency we refer to as “barrier frustration.” It’s an emotional state where a dog is frustrated by his inability to either approach something of interest or get away from something they find overwhelming or scary. Tension created by leashes exacerbates those feelings, which manifest in a variety of stressed out behaviors.
My guy Crème is king of frustration station when he is behind a barrier. Historically, this frustration is expressed with vocalizing and lunging (“acting a damn fool” would also be an accurate description), when he sees strange dogs. This is something I’ve worked on with him extensively and he now has options for alternative, more appropriate behaviors when he feels frustrated on leash. But allow him to meet a new dog off leash? He politely approaches in a curve, does the normal nose to butt sniff “hello” and goes on his way. For some dogs, like Crème, being off leash can help encourage sociable behaviors and avoid over-arousal.
In addition to helping to meet emotional needs, off leash time can also help meet a dog’s physical needs. Every dog is an individual, but most dogs need a bare minimum of two 15-minute periods of cardio each day. This means more than just a walk around the block, they need to be left panting! Games like fetch with their person or rough and tumble play with a dog friend are best off leash. Off leash, dogs can run, jump, swim, and play unhindered, which can make meeting their exercise needs simpler.
Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to want to have your dog off leash, but let’s hit the brakes. Hazards also abound for off leash dogs. It’s important to consider some of the risks of choosing to let your dog off the leash. There are challenges for both your dog’s physical and mental health, as well as impacts on those who interact with him. Supervision is an important part of the training process – if you can’t see your dog’s behavior (good or bad), you can’t give him feedback on it. Having your dog off leash, may result in him being out of sight, practicing things you don’t like. Freedom is a privilege that your dog earns once he understands what is expected of him. Letting your dog off leash before you are confident in his obedience behaviors and decision-making skills is a risk that can have serious consequences.
As an organization centered on an appreciation of and desire to protect our natural world, OutHounds Adventures & Training Academy can’t ignore the danger dogs can pose to such environments. Regardless of how well-trained and behaved they may be, off leash dogs especially present a danger to their surroundings. If your dog is roaming off leash, it’s likely he will be out of sight or inaccessible when the need for “going” #2 arises. As a result, the dirty deed gets left behind to mar the natural environment.
It’s the worst for other hikers and walkers to step in a dog “present” left behind by an irresponsible dog owner. But in addition to the gross inconvenience, the excess nitrogen and phosphorus from dog poop runs off into nearby waterways. In turn, this can feed the growth of algae blooms, which are toxic to dogs and humans, alike. It also contaminates water bodies with E. Coli and other bacteria that cause disease. There are estimates from the EPA that the waste from just 100 dogs over the course of a weekend can spread enough bacteria to force the closure of a bay to swimming or shell fishing activities. What we do impacts one another and our ability to live safely and happily. The decisions you make with your dog, including whether you allow him off leash, play a part!
I recently hiked at Allen’s Pond in Dartmouth. This, like many natural areas managed by Massachusetts Audubon, doesn’t allow dogs. This decision is not only because of their waste, but also their natural behavior that can be hugely disruptive to wild ecosystems. Anyone who’s dog has destroyed the grass in their yard can testify to the swiftness with which dogs can inadvertently kill vegetation through trampling and urination. This happens just as readily with delicate, wild vegetation. In order to be responsible dog owners and stewards to the natural places we know and love, it’s important to consider the impacts of our dogs on the surrounding environment.
Dogs with freedom are also going to exhibit other normal dog behaviors, like hunting, chasing, and killing prey. With no leash to prevent this, dogs can stress natural wildlife, scaring and potentially injuring or even killing them. Wildlife will seek to avoid predators like dogs, disrupting the functionality of ecosystems. Dog activity can significantly reduce the potential for bird and animal watchers to enjoy the natural sights and sounds. It’s up to us to minimize any negative effects of our dogs’ behavior.
Injury & Liability
Public lands and other recreational places that we love to explore with our dogs are for everyone to enjoy. Untrained or under-socialized dogs can be a menace to other people trying to enjoy those shares spaces. Believe it or not, there are people out there in the world who don’t care for dogs. Shocking, I know. But some people just aren’t into animals and others have had traumatic experiences that make them downright afraid of them. You need to ensure the safety of those your dog interacts with, which can be challenging to do if they are off leash and untrained.
You deserve the right to enjoy public, dog-friendly spaces with your dog, but non-dog lovers have a right to enjoy them, as well. Not only is it rude to let your dog run up to, jump on, or bark at strange people and other dogs, it is also dangerous. Dogs can be unpredictable and even the friendliest dogs can behave aggressively in the wrong set of circumstances. You are responsible for your dog’s behavior – if they frighten or do harm to other people on the trails, you will be responsible for those actions. There could be real monetary and emotional costs as a result of your dog’s behavior.
Off leash dogs have a higher probability of uncontrolled interactions with others – people, wildlife, and other dogs. One of the bigger hazards facing off leash dogs is the potential for serious injury or even death from such interactions. A friend from college tragically lost her sweet dog to a bear attack while she was roaming off leash in the woods of Vermont. Wild animals also attract another kind of hazard to be aware of – hunters. Dogs (especially wolf-a-like type breeds, like OH Adventure Guide Zip the Tamaskan) can be mistaken for quarry, if hunters are not being careful and if owners are not taking precautions. People and animals alike should wear at least 500 square inches of blaze orange during hunting season. Risks for such interactions can be vastly reduced by having your dog on leash.
Even if you don’t allow your dog off leash in places where predators abound, there’s always the potential for run-ins with other dogs. The sociability (and health) of unknown dogs is a variable that can make such interactions risky. Dogs with poor social and communication skills can start fights that result in physical injuries and emotional damage. PTSD is not just a human experience and can result in trauma for dogs that is difficult to overcome. Not every dog on the trail is friendly and well-trained, which can have unpleasant consequences for your off leash dog.
A last thought to consider is whether your dog is a four-legged garbage disposal, eating anything and everything (including things you would soundly put in the “inedible” category). Being off leash creates the opportunity for Fido to eat inappropriate things. Some dogs are connoisseurs of animal poop (ick). Such a habit risks illness and disease, including parasites. Another real-life example of this hazard was when a client’s puppy wandered free in the woods and later suffered from a number of seizures. Luckily, they obtained veterinary intervention quickly and the puppy fully recovered. The vet diagnosed consumption of a poisonous substance, likely either a mushroom or illicit drugs, as the cause. Freedom can be fun, but it also heralds hazards that may be more tempting to some dogs than others.
Allowing your dog time off leash can be a rewarding activity, but comes with risk that must be evaluated each time. Not all dogs are candidates for being off leash, just like not all dogs are well suited for agility or service work. Dogs are individuals and have varied temperaments that make them naturally less or better suited to spending time off leash. Training can help your dog develop habits that make it safer and more enjoyable to have him off leash. Stay tuned for our next post, which will dive into deciding whether your dog is an off leash candidate and what settings are (and aren’t) appropriate for dogs to be running free. If you have questions in the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact us! See you on the trails!