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You Let Your Dog Walk Off Leash in the City? What Are You Thinking?!

I regularly see people unleash their dogs to walk free on New York City sidewalks. It's dangerous and against the law!

Sassafras Lowrey  |  Feb 24th 2017


I live in New York City, and I can’t think of a single reason why a dog should be off leash here, with the possible exception of dog parks (and I could debate the safety of dog parks/runs, but that’s for another rant). Yet, I see pups off leash in the city every single day.

I’m not talking about a dog slipping their collar or jerking their leash away. I’m talking about a person standing at a crosswalk and unclipping their pet’s leash to let them run free. On the sidewalk. In New York City. It seems like common sense to know that this is dangerous, but I watch people do it all the time.

Sometimes walking from the subway stop to my office in lower Manhattan, I see multiple dogs without leashes attached to them! This nearly gives me a heart attack, but their guardians don’t seem concerned at all, and instead of paying attention to their pets, are usually staring at their phones. It’s clear to me that I love these strangers’ dogs more than they do — or at least I am much more concerned about their welfare.

Leash laws exist for a reason. They keep your dog, and the general public, safe. It’s not rocket science, and yet some people can’t seem to keep their pups on leash where required. Why?! All I can figure is that they believe it’s the right/natural/best way for their dog to be. Clearly everyone else’s safety and comfort, including their pet’s, are much less important than this idyllic off-leash fantasy.  

Dog running on a beach by Shutterstock.

Dogs can run safely off leash in the right — and legal — environment. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Letting dogs off leash is encouraged everywhere from pop culture to poetry, with images of them romping happily in green fields or on pristine empty beaches. Those fantasy pups always come when called, are perfectly socialized, and don’t seem to ever get close to busy traffic. They don’t eat toxic substances  or get in a tangle with wild/feral animals. In reality, though, that is not the off-leash experience for most dogs, especially for urban pets.  

When pressed on the subject, many advocates of letting dogs walk off leash fall back on the argument that they don’t want to take away their pup’s natural freedom and joy. Here’s the thing, though: There is nothing natural about dogs having to dodge taxis, strollers, and thousands of people on a sidewalk. We’ve welcomed pups into our homes and society, so it’s our responsibility to keep them safe. Like toddlers, dogs make really bad decisions all the time — it’s our job as their guardians to make safe/smart decisions for them, and that means keeping the leash on.

The most recent pup I saw off leash in Manhattan stopped to sniff a tree (rudely hopping the little fence to get to it). The dog’s guardian had already turned a corner and was nearly a block away by the time the pup noticed and took off running after! It was scary to watch, but the person hadn’t even noticed their dog was missing, and barely reacted when they reunited.

I used to try to educate these people — assuming that maybe it never occurred to them that their dog could get hit by a car, or was inhibiting sidewalk traffic or about to get run over by a stroller-pushing nanny. But I’ve found that most people don’t really like unsolicited advice from strangers, and my speaking up never resulted in the dog being put back on leash, so I stopped. 

I have my own dogs to be concerned with, but when I see yours off leash and in danger, I can’t help but worry about them, too. Please, for your dog’s safety and my blood pressure, just keep your dog on leash. Trust me, they would rather have your attention than to run “free.”