Is it Okay to Walk Your Dog Off-leash?
By Jimmy Maxwell KPA-CTP
Whether you are in the city, or in a rural community, you see it all the time. People walking their dogs off leash. Maybe most of those dogs are perfectly fine off the leash. Maybe they stick to their owner like a fly sticks to honey. I see this far too often. It’s surprisingly often here in Indianapolis, on sidewalks, next to busy streets. Something I would never allow my own dogs to do near a busy street, or anywhere for that matter.
Lately. I have gotten many requests from clients, for me to help them train their dog to walk, or hike, with them off leash. And while I do not encourage the practice of having a dog anywhere in public off-leash, I often ask them, “Why?”. In many cases people want to walk their dog off leash because the dog pulls. Honestly, a pulling dog is not going to magically stay by your side because he is off-leash. In fact, you are going to present a whole new problem by doing that, the dog running off. Other people just want to relax, and allow their dog the space and freedom to explore. I get that, but unfortunately it is still not a good idea.
Then you have those dogs that aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps they are older, or you have done a fantastic job of reinforcing them for staying close to you. Well, that is fantastic but it doesn’t stop other dogs from approaching that may cause an issue, or if your dog gets frightened by something sudden, there is no telling what your dog may do. After all, they are flight animals.
So here are the main reasons why you should always have your dog on a leash no matter what.
You dog’s leash is a lifeline. It gives you absolute control in all environments. In my own neighborhood in Speedway Indiana, there is a woman who walks her dog off leash everyday to a nearby RV park that sits empty most of the year, and throws a frisbee to her dog. I have had discussions with her regarding this and she ensures me that her dog has never run off on her, and I am sure she hasn’t…yet.
It’s always best to be proactive and rest assured that that you have absolute control over the distance that your dog can leave you. If you like your dog to roam about, sniff, and explore the world as it should in some contexts, that is alright, but put your dog on a 15, 20, or 30 foot leash, as long as it adheres to your local laws and neighborhood rules. It is impossible to train for every eventuality, and often times it’s those moments that that you never thought you’d encounter that you come to regret the most.
It’s a Courtesy
It’s not only safety for your dog, but others as well. An off-leash dog may create panic or anxiety in another dog or person that has a fear of dogs. When your dog is on leash, not only are you able to reliably respect the space of others, but allow them to have as much distance as they would like away from you as well.
Some people, such as myself, spend time training not only their own dogs, but other people’s dogs to be more comfortable in around other dogs, or at the very least, less reactive. When off-leash dogs leave their owners and approach an unknown dog that is scared to meet other dogs, it rarely ends well. In these situations you are setting your dog up to get hurt, and putting the other dog in a very precarious position. Not only can the dogs get hurt in this situation, but the humans can as well. And if your dog was the dog off the leash, guess who is going to be legally liable for damages and medical bills regardless of who “starts it”? You guessed it, you.
Hurts Your Recall
I have often said that the most important behavior for a dog is a recall, especially in the city. When a dog is allowed at a young age to explore and be reinforced primarily by the environment, then you start to lose value, as well as the connection with your dog. You want to be the primary reinforcer on your walks. When your dog is leashed, you are able to let them explore in a controlled manner, but also reinforce when they offer attention to you. In this case, reinforce with a high value treat or a tug toy to strengthen their focus and recall on you as well. Off leash, you miss a lot of these opportunities.
It’s The Law
Almost every governing body in America has leash laws regarding dogs. Many public parks and walking areas have signs posted with leash laws. These are not only to protect the dogs, but to protect the environment as well. In Indianapolis, the law states that if your dog were to approach someone in a “menacing fashion” while “at large” (off-leash) then you could face fines up to $500 dollars and possibly have to surrender your dog or have the dog put down. And while most good citizens with common sense aren’t going to let a “menacing” dog off leash, “menacing” is left up to interpretation by the people being approached by the dog, not the owner.
My recommendation is to check your local leash laws and adhere to them because there will be variations by county and city. For instance In Speedway where my home is, not only are leashes required, but leashes are not permitted to be any longer than 12 feet. So if I want to put my dog on a long line and do recall work, well, I have to leave town limits or run the risk of a fine.
It makes far more sense for you to have your dog on a leash than to not have your dog on a leash. It is safer, better for your dogs training, and better for the community. I know that when your dog is trained well enough to stick with you, it’s really hard to restrict them only to what they can do on a leash, but do yourself, your dog, your neighbors, and other animals a huge favor, and leash your pup. It’s not a lesson that is ever fun to learn the hard way.