In class and online I get plenty of requests regarding how to train dogs to behave off-leash in public. I expect these people have been enamored by a dog they once knew or a neighbor they have whose faithful companion trots calmly at his side and waits outside the corner store while the person grabs a coffee.
This is possibly, depending on the dog, a realistic goal and it’s a really nice dream for others—but for a lot of people, dog owners or not, this is a real nightmare.
I saved an excellent article from Huffington Post by the writer Loolwa Khazzoom with a title that rings true and repeats in my head daily: “When Your Dog is Free, I am Not.” (THE BLOG 01/16/2016 02:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2017)
The article advocates for people who try to stay away from dogs, whether they are allergic, afraid, or simply not a fan of dogs. I respect that. I also must advocate for those of us who have dogs who are afraid or simply not a fan of other dogs. Just like Khazzoom, if I pull into the parking lot of City Park and see dogs running around unleashed at the festival grounds or behind the museum, I leave and take my dogs somewhere else for their walk. I have one dog who tolerates other dogs and sometimes enjoys play, but not always, and I have one dog who does not care for strange dogs. Although I could work and try to make the situation alright for everyone, that is exhausting and time consuming, and it would require extensive cooperation from the other dog owner. I would rather just enjoy my time with my dogs in a safe area.
All this aside, I do believe it is important to work with your dog off leash so if a moment comes up where he escapes the car or you accidentally drop the leash or you need him to listen to you at the dog park, you are successful. This requires training off leash first at home, then in a fenced yard, and then in other safe, fenced areas with greater distraction. Dogs that are trained without leash restraint don’t value the off leash moments so highly because they are normal, so they are more apt to stick by your side especially if they are being reinforced with food rewards.
Leash laws exist because there is no dog that is 100% reliable off leash. No matter how much we train or how great the history of the dog’s behavior off leash may be, there is always the possibility that something in the environment could cause them to run away or react out of fear or excitement, so we must always be present and aware when we take this chance. It is also important to acknowledge the needs of other dogs and people by keeping a safe and respectful distance.