Taking Risks with Your Dog (Part I)
Every time you let your dog off leash, you’re taking a risk. Does that make off-leash play the wrong thing to do? What about other risks people take with their dogs? Is absolute safety the only good choice?
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Plenty of dogs are also uncomfortable around other dogs, and where are those dogs’ guardians supposed to walk them if illegally off-leash dogs can appear anywhere at random? Finally, for Pete’s sake, the guy was headed for an off-leash area that covers many acres in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Walking his dog off leash on the street was not providing some great benefit he couldn’t get any other way. I say that was a big fat faux back-to-nature ego trip, and I call shenanigans.
Absolute Safety? No Chance
But do I believe that if you don’t keep your dog absolutely safe every single second of her life, you’re a bad guardian? No, of course not. I brought my previous dog, Izzy, to unfenced off-leash play areas in Prospect Park almost every day of her life. Mind you, the play areas were far from the road and I had worked hard to teach Iz to come reliably when I called her. Also, there was plenty to interest her in the off-leash areas – animal scents, other dogs’ urine marks, and me, for starters – so not much reason for her to leave. She got a clear, big benefit from her off-leash time, in that trotting and running kept her physically fit while the sensory experience of the park engaged her brain.
Still, letting your dog mingle with a slew of unfamiliar dogs does up her chances of encountering one of those rare dogs who attack and seriously injure others. Conceivably, an extreme dog hater could leave poisoned food in places frequented by off-leash dogs. A sudden loud noise, like a car backfiring, might frighten an off-leash dog, causing her to bolt and get lost. These were all risks I chose to accept. I perceive them as relatively unlikely – real killer dogs and deadly dog haters are pretty rare, and Iz wasn’t easily startled by loud noises or other sudden events – and greatly outweighed by the great experiences in the park.
Judge Safety for Your Individual Dog
Your calculus might be different, either overall or under specific circumstances. For instance, if your Dogalini panics during thunderstorms, I would certainly advise you not to have her off leash at times when storms are predicted. As Iz aged, her hearing and sight faded; when I realized she was becoming disoriented during our park time, I started keeping her on leash. People who have deaf dogs sometimes teach them to respond to a vibrating collar so as to allow them to go off leash. But I know a respected trainer who argues that, vibrating collar or not, no deaf dog should ever go off leash in an unfenced area.
People who live in regions that are also home to potentially dangerous wildlife, such as javelinas or rattlesnakes, might choose not to hike with their dogs off leash in certain locations or at certain times of year.
Big Risks with Big Benefits vs. Petty Risks with No Benefit
It’s outside the scope of a podcast about pet dogs to make ethical judgments about working dogs in dangerous areas like mine detection. The dogs can’t understand and consent to the danger, but at least their work has a clear and important benefit. Are their lives richer? I don’t know. I do get my hackles up when I see people taking petty risks for no purpose. One everyday example: the person who’s facefirst in his iPhone while his dog wanders around at the far end of the extending leash, eating burger wrappers or coming up behind another dog who responds aggressively. Really, your Facebook page can’t wait till you get home? If you do need to text or talk to someone while you’re out with your dog, please keep him close to you, make sure he’s always in your peripheral vision, and end the distraction PDQ.
How do you balance risk and reward in your caretaking and recreation with your dog? Post your comments on my Facebook page or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Though the volume of mail I get makes it impossible to reply personally, I do read every bit of it, and many of your questions turn up as episodes. Or have already done so! Thanks for reading. And for more great tips on keeping your dog safe, healthy, and well-mannered check out my book, The Dog Trainer's Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.