TO LEASH OR NOT TO LEASH
This is not the off-leash dog PSA in which I tell readers how naughty they are for letting their dog hang out off-leash. If you’re naughty, I’m naughty. My perfect pup, Genevieve, is not so perfect and her anxiety has caused her to lash out against dogs and people. But that hasn’t stopped me in the past from taking her off-leash on remote hikes (but not really remote enough). So don’t worry, I’m not going to smack your left hand and then duct tape a leash to your right hand, because then I’d have to do the same to my own hands. And as the saying goes, “a leash in everyone’s hand makes everyone blind,” or something like that. But no matter how pleasing it may seem to let your dog wander around off-leash, the bottom line is it shouldn’t be done for your dog’s safety and the safety of those around you whether they be canine or human.
Because I am not an expert (on like, literally anything) I spoke about the off-leash phenomena with a dog trainer from Echo Park's The Dog Yard, Tanya Yarborough. Yarbrough’s been doing the mammal-training thing for thirty years and has a podcast called “That Dog Training Show With Tanya Yarbrough.” She brought up some good points that should change the mind of any “But-my-dog’s-well-behaved-always-comes-when-called-I-know-my-local-parks-I’m-a-good-dog-owner” type of pet owner.
Let’s start with the bottom line, because as Maria in The Sound of Music reminds us, the beginning is “a very good place to start.” Tanya points out that, at the most base level, it’s against the law for your dog to be off-leash in a public space. Having your dog off-leash may not be as severe as a crime theft or murder, but it’s still illegal.
In light of that point, I’m reminded of a very real, very terrible situation I once encountered with an off-leash dog. At the time, I was walking four dogs in a trained walk, including two bigger mutts, my sweet Genevieve, and a tiny little lap dog (who happened not to be a huge fan of laps). Suddenly, a bull dog puppy came charging at us, wanting to play. The two bigger mutts overpowered me, pulling me towards the overeager puppy and beginning to chomp down. Luckily, we happened to be close to an emergency facility, and all dogs involved ended up only having minor injuries. But at the same time, any time a dog has an encounter like that, it’s always in their brains, a little PTSD, if you will. It’s certainly burned in my brain and sometimes keeps me awake at night as images of the encounter flash before my closed eyes. As Tanya puts it, “owner stress, when they don’t know how to properly split off the interaction before it gets stressful for the dogs, makes the trauma worse.” In that moment, you never know if you’re going to act appropriately.
The owners of the puppy were furious with me, and the owner of the dogs I was walking. In some respect, they were right. I shouldn’t have been walking all of those dogs if I couldn’t control them. They wanted me, and the owner to pay for their puppy’s medical bills. But within the boundaries of the law, their dog was off-leash and we weren’t legally responsible.
I’m not sure if the owners learned their lesson, that your puppy might be sweet and good, but not all other dogs will behave sweetly towards them. But I definitely learned mine — there’s a safety risk for your dog if you insist on keeping him or her off-leash.
Other dogs aren’t the only safety risk even if one’s dog “never” acts up, Tanya reminds us that, “For one, there is no such thing as “never” when it comes to animals. Even well-trained dogs can have something spook them and cause them to run.” If a dog bolts, who’s to say it won’t run right into traffic or fall down a cliff on your favorite hiking trail? Yikes! Additionally, “an off-leash dog, unless specifically trained to never eat off the ground is more likely to consume something toxic.” Double yikes!
I’m going to make an assumption of what you’re thinking because I’ve thought the same thing. The thought is as follows, “well boy howdy, how am I supposed to get my active dog’s energy out if we can’t play frisbee in a park? I live in Los Angeles where I don’t have yard and may or may not sleep in a closet!” Like with much of pet ownership, the solution comes with some work, but if you have a dog and aren’t willing to work with your dog, then why exactly did you take pup in?
Tanya recommends a few ways to tire your doggo out. Item one is something she calls “food-based distraction training” in which you take pup on a walk, instruct him or her to just sit and stay or down and stay during distractions “like sounds, smells, sights, textures, vibrations, balloons, flags”, anything you run into on a daily basis. If you’re looking for a little more personal entertainment she suggests what I like to think of as a “doggy parkour” in which the owner gets their pet to jump on top of objects like planters or bus stop benches, or walk a railing. Your standard “tricks” can also work in this sort of setting — you know the usuals “take a bow, beg, spin in place”, etc. According to Tanya, “all of these behaviors require physical and mental concentration in a distracting urban setting.”
Let’s say it’s really, really hot or you don’t have the time to undertake an outdoor activity such as the above-mentioned. In that case, Tanya brought up another type of energy-drainer, “scent work or nose work.” This technique is as easy as hiding food in a crate for your dog to find. Tanya claims, “You’d be surprised how quickly a dog gets tired in just 10-15 minutes of searching for food.” Personally, I use a Kong which I load with peanut butter and freeze so my Queen can distract her little heart out with getting all the nutty goodness out when she’s in her crate. Yum!
Look y’all, I get it. I know. I know, know, know, know, know. It’s a lot of fun to hike with your off-leash dog, to play frisbee with your off-leash dog, to watch your dog play with an off-leash dog. But here’s the deal, like with many illegal actions, there’s consequences. Are you willing to accept those consequences if they lead to your dog getting seriously injured, or worse? I’m not.
We all make mistakes, and I repeat this is a PSA, not a hand-slap. But here I am, just a girl looking at a bunch of owners begging them, for the comfort and safety of all, keep that pup leashed!