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?
Last week a listener named Rachael sent me a question about a big-picture issue I’ve never directly addressed in The Dog Trainer podcast: risk. Rachael asks,
“How do you teach a dog to be a survivor, or, in other words, to be competent in dangerous situations? We've all seen dogs walking along leashless next to a street … There are a lot of folks out there who think safety has been overemphasized in our world today. Can we be responsible pet owners in a world loaded with risk or do we have to give it all up if we can't guarantee complete safety?”
This week, I’ll answer Rachael’s question about doggy competence and talk about judging risk and reward as caretakers of our dogs. Next time, in Part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about what might be an even hotter subject: What risk our dogs present to other dogs and to people.
Walking Dogs Off Leash on the Street
Rachael is so right that we’ve all seen those leashless dogs walking next to busy streets – I spotted one on my morning walk today, in fact, crossing a congested, fast-moving two-lane road with a two-way bicycle path next to it. The dog bounded back and forth across the bike path three times while his human was still crossing the car lanes, and you know that he – the dog, that is – did not look both ways. Luckily, no bikes were coming.
Can Dogs Learn to Check Both Ways Before Crossing?
So, is it possible to make dogs independently competent in situations like automobile traffic? I would have to say no, and don’t go jumping up and saying “What about guide dogs for blind people crossing the street?” Guide dogs learn to stop at street crossings. That’s it. It’s the dog’s human handler who listens to traffic sounds and decides when it’s safe to cross. And you will notice that the guide dog is not off leash. I do occasionally see a loose dog appear to check both ways before crossing, but that could easily be a fluke; you’d have to follow a dog for days or weeks to learn whether she was checking consistently.
Risky, Rude, and (Oh Yeah) Illegal
It’s probably obvious that I perceive walking a dog off leash on the street very differently from how the owner of the dog I saw today perceived it. You better believe I’m going to go all judge-y on him. He was risking not only his dog’s safety but that of bicyclists and car drivers who might hit the dog or swerve to avoid him. And the man was being discourteous. Many people are uneasy around dogs. Yes, okay, everybody who has a dog sometimes wishes those folks would just get over it, but they have as much right to expect not to see a loose dog in an area where leashes are legally required as they do to expect cars to stop at red lights.
See also: Dog Walking Etiquette