As the trainer in residence for Dogster.com, as well as a columnist for Dogster magazine, I write a popular advice column about life with dogs. My overlords at both Dogsters are a brave lot, and they permit me to discuss any dog-related topic. The largest response to any of my columns over the past few years was the 20,000 likes for a column about why leash laws are so important. Why did that particular article strike such a chord among dog owners nationwide? It’s because irresponsible dog owners are flouting leash laws across the country, and the results can be devastating and expensive in terms of both emotional and financial costs.
Because the article received so many shares, tweets, likes, and comments, and because so many owners wrote me privately to tell me about how their dogs had been injured and harassed by off-leash dogs, I want to share that column with you here.
I hope that some wise researchers will conduct a study to look at what goes through a person’s mind when he decides that something as simple as a leash law does not apply to his dog. If we could learn the motivations behind shunning this safety law, we could address them and provide better alternatives. Are these rule-breakers just egocentric and selfish? Do they flout other laws as well, such as deciding that red stoplights don’t apply to them? In a civilized society, we don’t get to choose which laws we will abide by. Actually, I guess we do, but there are consequences for disobeying a law that the majority of the community has supported and made into a law. Think of helmet laws for motorcycles, drinking-age laws, and seat-belt laws. Do these kinds of laws take away some of your freedom of choice, even as they offer protections to the rest of us? Not in one sense, because you can choose to ignore them and face the penalties. Your dog may very well pay for ignoring a leash law with his life, but you are the one that can make the decision to ignore a safety law; your dog cannot make that decision on his own.
Perhaps those that let their dogs terrorize and cause difficulties for the leash-law abiding owners think that they are being kind to their dogs by allowing them space to run? Would they do the same with a two-year-old child, justifying that they let little baby Billy run around loose in the neighborhood because of “love”?
Yes, I am being a bit harsh with these types of owners, and I am being that way because, every week, my clients’ dogs suffer from unwanted, in-your-face, off-leash intrusions. It is a national problem, and it is ruining dogs. I suppose some owners won’t understand the harm in ignoring leash laws until one day they are saddled with a reactive dog, and then they get to experience the multitude of other owners that come running up with their off-leash dogs, explaining, “He’s friendly!” or “He just wants to say hi!” It matters not when the other dog does not want to interact.
Dogs are not robots, and even trainers like me, who have excellent verbal recalls (trained force-free) on their dogs, understand that if the right sequence of events were to occur, even the best-trained dogs might ignore calls to return to their owners. It has happened with me, actually, although my dog was on leash. I was staying in Denver for a nosework trial, and I had with me my super sniffer named Monster. I was out early one morning, walking him, when, much to my surprise, I learned that city rabbits dwell in high numbers around certain hotels there. Monster weighs more than 120 pounds, and he smelled the bunnies before my morning brain registered them. He tore the leash from my hands and began to chase the furry little speedsters that literally popped up under his nose—there were dozen of them brazenly hopping about.
Luckily, there was a fenced-in putt-putt golf nearby, and the rabbits went under the fence. Monster came back to me, but what if I had been closer to the freeway and the rabbit had darted across the street? He has a terrific recall in most situations, and I have called him off wildlife many times in the past on our ranch and on hikes, but this situation had the element of surprise, and he responded in the moment.
Leashes exist first and foremost to provide safety for everyone.
Many dog people have only a weak recall on their dogs. If you do, it just takes that one incident for your dog to be hit by a car. Are you willing to bet that you are more enticing than a running bunny? I’m not.
It is certainly true that we need safe, fenced-in places for dogs to run and play sans leash. But, like many trainers, I do not like or endorse dog parks. The idea is terrific, but too many owners bring dogs that can’t handle off-leash play with other dogs because they are either frightened or fighters. Other owners use the dog park as an excuse to chat with other people and ignore their dogs’ unwanted advances on other dogs. I’ve heard every sad story you can imagine about devastating and expensive dog fights at dog parks. I never take my own dogs to any dog park because the behavior of out-of-control dogs is just too unpredictable for my comfort level, even though I know that my dogs can play nicely with other dogs and even ignore and help calm down menacing dogs. But why should I risk my well-trained dogs?
I have the advantage of living on a private 40-acre ranch, so my dogs spend most of their days with me off-leash, running to their hearts’ (and noses’) content. Living in a gorgeous part of the world that has thousands of miles of hiking available also provides incredible opportunities. Most people, however, don’t own large property, and they live in suburbia or cities. So, what can you do to help your dog and still abide by the leash laws? I always begin any dog training by breaking down the learning into the tiniest first steps that are possible to train.
The first step goes back to the idea of a relationship and connection with your dog. Work hard inside your home, a controlled environment, to increase your dog’s intensity in wanting to be near you. If you have previously punished him for returning to you when you call him, you will need to choose a new word instead of the standard “come” or “here.” One neat trick is to randomly “leak chicken” as you go about your day. It doesn’t have to be real chicken, but you could, every so often, without saying a word to your dog but preferably when he is close by or looking at you from a distance, drop a yummo treat to the ground and walk off. Your dog is likely to eat it up and then come trotting up behind you to see if you are going to be “leaking” any additional treats.
You want your dog to feel comfortable, not restricted, on leash.
In the beginning stages of reconnecting to a dog, I click and treat (or mark with “yes!”) any time the dog looks me in the eye. Think of eye contact as being an invisible leash that connects you to your dog. A dog turning his head toward you is also the very beginning of a good recall, and that’s reason enough to reinforce it. Later, I dial back treating every eye check once I am getting a lot of them, but I always smile and tell the dog how great he is. Once your dog is actively checking in with you inside, take the show on the road—but only to your front porch or fenced backyard. Work new skills in baby steps. Increase the value of the treats outside because you are now competing with a world of smells and other distractions. Remember to switch to randomizing the treat delivery once the check-in is fluid.
Here’s a story about why relationship matters. I assumed that my dogs loved going down to our barn every day to “assist” with feeding our equines because it gave the dogs a daily chance to gallop, smell things, and swim in our pond. I didn’t take food reinforcers with me on these outings because the running and sniffing are the huge rewards. Besides, the dogs love it. In fact, my dog Monster starts following me around at 3 p.m. every day because he doesn’t want to risk being left behind; I feed anywhere between 4 and 7 p.m.
My husband and I often take turns feeding the horses, especially when the weather is harsh. We discovered that my two Border Collies will not follow Jeff or anyone else to the barn if I am not present. Even though the dogs love the routine, their primary reinforcement is going to the barn with me. They will happily walk out the front door, but as soon as they see that I am not coming, they hightail it back to the front door and lie down, refusing to budge. If this doesn’t illustrate the importance of establishing and honoring a relationship with your dog, I don’t know what will.
Keep in mind that my husband is a lovely human that is kind to the dogs. He adores them, and they return that adoration to him, but I’m the one that trained them, and they indicate that a chance to run and play outside isn’t worth it to them if I am not along for the party. What about Monster? He is not one to miss out on any type of fun, and he would follow a complete stranger to the barn. However, he continually looks back at the house, and his play is muted when the Border Collies and I are not present. He will even run back and forth from the house to the barn to check on us.
The second step is to make the leash predict that fun and safe things are about to happen. I don’t like when a dog displays unwanted behavior, such as frantic jumping or spinning, just prior to a walk. Once a dog has paired the leash with “happy time,” I love to reward her for sitting nicely by putting the leash on her harness as a reinforcer for the sitting. Make the leash predict any number of great things, including quiet time on her mat with lots of good things to chew on.
Perhaps you won’t go on a walk with the leash attached but instead leave the leash on the dog in the house to drag around (as long as you are there to supervise) and work on fun obedience skills during every commercial while you’re watching TV. Let training sessions be short and sweet so that your dog pays attention to you when you get up off that couch! The leash shouldn’t predict only walks because for many of our nervous dogs, walks also include potential run-ins with other dogs (or spiders, if you are like me).
What exactly does a leash mean to your dog? It is important that you know and control what it predicts. Please don’t let it predict human frustration and a pain in the dog’s neck. Also please keep in mind that trainers sometimes say, “the leash is an illusion of control.” I spent considerable time training my own dogs off leash because most of their lives are lived off leash. I do the same in puppy training and, really, in any canine training where it is safe to do so. I want a dog to love being near me and staying close to me, leash or no leash.
The third step involves making sure that the leash stays loose on your dog. Tightness is not friendly or fun, and it encourages a reaction in your dog, usually a reaction to counteract that pulling, also known as opposition reflex. There are many creative and pain-free ways to help your dog learn that the tether connecting you to him doesn’t predict the end of life as his nose wants it to be.
Here’s how to start: in your home, put your dog on a harness (my preferred harnesses are the Freedom Harness and the SENSE-ation Harness), and have your bait bag—filled with terrific reinforcers—tied to your waist, behind your back, and out of sight. Start walking around your house with the dog on leash. Gently toss a primo treat a few feet behind you. The dog will try to find the treat if you are working in a quiet place and are using something truly motivating to your dog. Only take a step or two forward as he is gobbling that treat. He will naturally come back toward you, looking for another cookie.
As he approaches your leg, mark it with a click or a “yes!” and gently toss another treat a few feet behind you. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And then repeat some more. Soon enough, your furry friend will understand that being right next to your leg and looking into your happy eyes and smiley face is where he wants to be because you mark that behavior and then—voilà!—treats fall from the sky. It is important that you possess a very generous sky.
The fourth step is when you are ready for a walk in the outside world—but please don’t just resume your old pattern of walking. Instead, take the first few outside walks in front of your house, moving back and forth and utilizing many U-turns as you throw the morsel behind you and allow the dog to catch up. Reinforce every single time that your dog checks in and looks you in the eye. Once that is fluid, then go on a longer walk.
Start to randomize the treat delivery. Permit sniffing along the route! If your dog tries to yank you over to some delightful smell, stop and ask for him first to return his gaze to your face. The second he does, mark it (“yes!”) and then take him directly to where he wanted to sniff in the first place. This procedure is a small but miraculous tool because the dog does what you want—he looks back at you to check in and most likely takes a step toward you, which releases the tightness of the leash—and you can reward that behavior with a cookie or a chance to sniff what he wanted to sniff in the first place. Soon, your dog will be checking in with you like crazy. I actually had to teach my dogs a “go” cue because they stuck to me like glue out in the open, and I wanted them to get some exercise.
We need leashes for safety—that’s a fact. Leashes also constrain and trap our dogs, which can create unwanted behavior issues in many dogs. The solution is to make sure that when you leash your dog, you address his sense of freedom and decision-making (i.e., let him decide to check in with you—something you wanted anyway—and then reward immensely). Leashes allow us to go out in public with our dogs and maintain social civility and safety for all. It has come with a price tag for dogs, but you can make that leash predict wonderful things and not allow it to become part of the reason that your dog becomes leash-reactive.
The number-one question we get in our Growly Dog class is this: “Now that my dog is calm and comfortable on leash, what the heck do I do about all of those unleashed dogs coming into my dog’s protected space?” It is a serious concern because one fight could potentially withdraw a huge amount of trust from the account you have worked so hard to build up. I received countless emails from frustrated dog owners about this issue on Dogster.com after the “leash your dog” article exploded online, so I wrote a response to that question, and I would like to share it with you.
The following articles are from Dogster.com
Leash Your Dog—It’s the Law for a Number of Very Good Reasons
As a trainer, every day I see the negative consequences of dogs being off-leash when they shouldn’t be.
Let me be blunt with you, dear reader. We have a big problem in the canine community, and it’s ruining dogs.
We require leashes for valid reasons, #1 being safety for all concerned—safety not only for you and your dog but also for all of the dogs and humans out and about.
There are leash laws in most cities—you can be fined for not using one in places that require it. And yet, some of you dog owners have decided that this crucial law does NOT apply to your dog.
I read the sad consequences caused by a dog being off-leash every single day on trainer forums. Many responsible owners are walking their dog-aggressive (reactive) dogs on leash precisely to keep their dogs from having to come face to face with YOUR off-leash dog. You can set such a dog’s training right back to square one if you let your dog greet their dog while off-leash.
This may be breaking news to some, but not all dogs want to say hi to every dog they see every day. Do you—as a verbal human—always want to say hi and hug everyone you see? I didn’t think so. Also, here are just a few things that can happen to your roving unleashed Rover:
• He can be hit by a car.
• He can jump on an elderly person and knock the person over.
• He can harass wildlife.
• He can mow down children.
• He can get in the face of every other dog out that day, some of whom will respond with aggression.
• He can get in a dog fight that will frighten both dogs and will likely result in an expensive vet bill.
• After you pay that vet bill, you may now be the owner of one of those dogs that cannot stand to have off-leash dogs in his face.
• He can be shot, even in a city park (it’s happening in Colorado and other places).
• He can eat something that may kill him.
Yes, my dear dog owner, I understand that dogs DO enjoy and probably need a good run now and again. Just because that’s true, that does not make it OK for you to allow that to happen in a public location where leashes are the law. You are endangering your own dog and every other dog when you do this.
So what can you do to help your active dog out? Here are some solutions:
• If your dog is truly people- and dog-friendly, take him to a fenced-in dog park. Most cities have them. Please do not take aggressive dogs there, however. It does no one any good, most especially dogs.
• Work with a certified force-free trainer to help your dog learn to walk nicely on a leash.
• Once your dog is comfortable not pulling you across town on that leash, consider jogging or riding a bike with your leashed dog.
• Consider learning a sport, such as nosework, that you can do in your own home and in all kinds of weather. It might be even more fun for your dog than a walk outside.
• Smelling and sniffing for a dog is incredibly important, perhaps even more so than a good run. Take your dog on neighborhood sniffing walks where you allow your dog to sniff—on leash—whatever he wants to sniff.
• Use mind puzzles at home to keep your dog mentally stimulated.
In case I haven’t been clear enough, here is what I will leave you with:
For the love of dog, do not be that person chasing after your unleashed dog as he gallops right into the face of someone’s leashed dog, calling out as you come panting up: “He’s friendly! He just wants to say hi!” It is rude behavior, in terms of both canine behavior and human behavior. More than half of the dogs that end up in my reactive-dog class are there because they have been confronted, scared, and sometimes physically hurt by on off-leash dog.
Leash. Your. Dog.
It is the law, and for very good reasons.
And yet so many dog owners have decided that this crucial law does NOT apply to them. Why do those of you that allow your dog to run free in cities feel that your dog is above the law?
What to Do When an Off-Leash Dog Approaches Your Leashed Dog
The most “liked” column I have written for dogster.com was about why it is critical to observe leash laws. Nearly 20,000 of you clicked that button. The article struck a nerve because owners that flout these laws exist from coast to coast. Some of them angrily responded to my article, insisting they had every right to allow their dog to run amok and molest (“he just wants to say hi!”) other dogs and humans. Many more of you wrote to tell me about the severe physical and psychological damage that your dogs have suffered because of run-ins with unleashed dogs.
The truth is: if it is the law, and you allow your dog off leash, you are breaking a law. In a civilized society, members do not simply pick and choose which laws apply to them. I repeat this mantra: it does not matter that you perceive your dog to be “friendly” or that “he loves other dogs.” It does not matter because the dog you have no voice control over is hurling himself into the faces of dogs that very well may NOT be friendly to other dogs. Your dog galloping right up to a leashed dog is rude canine behavior, even if you are running behind your dog, screaming, “Don’t worry! He’s friendly!” You endanger your own dog and all those you allow him to terrorize or bother.
Since that article ran, three dogs that have graduated from my Growly Dog class have been attacked by off-leash dogs. My clients work hard to calm their dogs’ anxiety when they see other dogs (which often stems from being attacked the very first time by a rude off-leash dog!). We help these overanxious dogs learn to trust their handlers, and we rebuild their faith that they can walk safely in their own neighborhoods. We make significant progress in keeping these dogs calm and focused on their owners instead of hypervigilantly scanning for dangers, such as an off-leash dog. In some of these cases, the unleashed dog owner was held responsible and now must pay fines in addition to medical bills; one of my clients ended up having an $8,000 hand surgery after breaking up a dog fight. I have enough stories like that to fill up a very long, pathetic book.
Since there remains a segment of the dog-owning population that is either selfish or totally clueless about canine behavior, I want to give the leash-law-abiding dog owners five tips on how to handle off-leash dogs coming into their dogs’ space.
1. Work with a qualified dog behavior expert.
A professional (find one through the Pet Professional Guild) can help you train your dog to trust his environment and handler when he is on leash. Dogs can feel trapped by that lifeline. It’s vital that we teach them how we want them to behave when they see other dogs. These behaviors first must be taught in a safe, controlled setting such as a dog-training center.
2. Stay focused on your dog.
Keep moving on a walk instead of stopping and chatting with others. While you and the other person are smiling and looking at each other, your dogs may be sending signals to one another that they are uncomfortable. Keep moving and stay focused on your dog’s body language. If your dog stiffens, growls, or starts randomly sniffing or scratching, or if you can see his hackles (among other warning signs that your dog is getting uncomfortable), do a U-turn and put something visual between you and the trigger that is upsetting your dog.
3. Always carry meat training treats on outdoor adventures.
You want to reinforce behavior that you like, such as when your dog looks at but does not react to another dog that is a good distance away. If you have to stop an incoming assault from an off-leash dog, you can yell “sit!” at the oncoming dog (sometimes it works) and then throw your meat treat on the ground near that dog and do a quick, calm U-turn and move away. Could the dog have some sort of meat allergy? Possibly. That’s just one more reason that the dog’s owner should obey the leash laws.
4. Don’t waste time being polite.
In a critical situation, don’t try to reason with the unreasonable human that allowed his dog to come into your dog’s space. By allowing his dog to be unleashed where leashes are required, that owner has by default demonstrated a lack of concern for his own dog and yours. You may feel like screaming obscenities for his lack of care, but that wastes both emotion and time. It can also ramp the dogs up even more.
Throw a meat treat in the direction of the oncoming dog, turn on your heels, and walk away. I cannot even count the number of dog owners that are shocked, as their dog is being harassed by the off-leash dog, that the owner of the off-leash dog just stands there, saying nothing, and doesn’t help put an end to the situation. If another person is walking with you, ask him to attempt to catch the oncoming dog as you leave the scene (you have to decide in an instant whether that would be a safe maneuver or not because breaking up a dog fight is an excellent way to get bitten).
[You can also ask your companion] to film what’s happening in case you need it later to identify the owners and to hand them any veterinary bills that might ensue from such an unwanted encounter. It’s far better to have a plan of action in place before you ever step outside your door with your dog than to create a plan during an emergency.
5. Carry a large umbrella.
As the unleashed dog comes at you, push the button and unleash the umbrella. We aren’t trying to hurt the dog—we are trying to put a barrier between your leashed dog and the outlaw dog. Be aware that if you use an umbrella, throw meat at the oncoming dog, or use a citronella spray, you are in a way escalating a bad situation—or it’s more accurate to say that you are being put in a position that may escalate because of the other owner’s irresponsibility. I’ve had two clients get into fistfights with other owners after spraying an oncoming dog with citronella. On the other hand, we have to protect our dogs. If you use a defensive move, do so carefully, cautiously, and as a last resort and understand that it might cause more human strife.
It is a sad reality that dog owners must be prepared for an off-leash dog every time they take their leashed dogs for a walk. It’s far better to have a plan and to be able to implement it than to be shocked into a state of inaction when this event happens.