“That’s really cruel!”
I didn’t even hear the lady at first, let alone connect that she was talking to me. It was a lovely Brooklyn morning and so of course I was enjoying it at the park with Charlotte and Mercury before getting on the subway and heading into work. I had no idea this woman was talking to me until she repeated herself, at which point I was really confused since the dogs and I were having a great time exploring one of the wooded paths that leads down to the big pond, where Charlotte is quite a fan of swimming.
I must have looked as confused as I felt, because the lady started to elaborate on how cruel it was that I had my dogs on leashes and that I wasn’t letting them have any fun. Their behavior suggested otherwise. I looked down: Mercury was happily sniffing on some old tree roots (which he would happily pee on about 45 seconds later) and Charlotte was gleefully sniffing her way through some underbrush. I muttered something to the lady about the dogs having a great time and quickly moved on down the trail.
Off-leash play is trendy, especially in urban areas where dog parks have flourished. In the mornings I often see folks in the neighborhood, coffee cup in hand, unclipping their dogs’ leashes and sending them careening across the big grassy fields of Prospect Park, as the people yawn and begin conversation with the other groggy people carrying empty leashes. Some of the dogs are clearly having a great time, but many other dogs aren’t enjoying the barrage of strange dogs, many of whom arrive in large packs with their dog walkers. It’s frequent that before we head home, we hear a fight in the direction of the field.
Which brings us to behavior and training. Allowing dogs to play off-leash outside of a private fenced property is risky. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t do it, but I do think it’s important for dog guardians to consider the risks involved and make an informed decision about what is right for your dog. If you are going to let your dog play off-leash, please make sure she has a solid recall and is capable of being called off whatever distraction might arise: other dogs playing or fighting, wildlife, runners, bikes, cars, etc. You never know what might appear in the middle of where you’re playing, and it’s important to be able to get control of your dog as quickly as possible.
The unsolicited advice about how “cruel” I was being by keeping my dogs on leash is far from an isolated incident. Often people seem quite baffled about why I would choose to keep my dogs leashed and feel the need to tell me how much happier my dogs clearly would be if allowed to “run free.” The way I see it, Charlotte started her life living on the streets, she’s had quite enough experience “running free,” and she’s dog reactive and so being off-leash isn’t safe for her or any other dog who might be in the area. I do on occasion let Mercury off-leash (when it’s allowed) because he has a stable temperament and a solid recall, but honestly he isn’t any happier toddling about off leash than he is while on one, so for me it’s seldom worth the risk.
I’m a big believer that it’s entirely possible to provide a dog with more than adequate exercise without running off-leash, it just might take a little more effort on our parts as guardians. Instead of sipping coffee with our dog-loving neighbors, I am consistently engaging with my dogs when we are outside. Any time we are spending with our dogs is an opportunity to bond and train, and my responsibility as their guardian is to, whenever possible, put them into situations where they are safe, and a leash gives me the control to do that. Long walks and running together are both ways I exercise my dogs, especially in highly enriching environments like the park (where we have access to water), on trails, and at beaches and other places.
Like many other dog people I have a deep hatred of flexie leashes. I think they are seldom used appropriately, are dangerous, and are a really horrible idea in nearly all situations. I do make regular use of a long-line leash with Charlotte, but only in secluded quiet areas of parks and beaches when I know that other dogs aren’t around. I always keep my short leash/Gentle Leader combo on me in case other dogs appear and I need to get her onto a shorter leash quickly. I have a solid grip on the long line at all times and am very aware of Charlotte, and to ensure I can gather up the slack quickly I have knots tied every couple of feet to aid in reeling her in or stepping on the line to get to her quickly if I need to.
The long line is primarily a training aid, which gives us the opportunity to work on foundational training skills, especially recalls, while ensuring safety and control. It also means Charlotte is able to enjoy things like wading and swimming in water without me necessarily needing to join her in the water — which I’m very grateful on cold winter mornings when she splashes into the cold pond water!
Mental stimulation is very important. You’d be surprised how tired dogs are when they are getting a brain workout! Trick training is great for this, and a big focus in our household –- I’ll be talking more about the importance of tricks and some of my favorite trick resources soon in a future column.
Do you ever keep your dogs on-leash even in off-leash areas? Tell us your experiences in the comments!
About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.
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