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The Problem With Leashes (and Why Off-Leash Access is a Dog Welfare Issue)

Ren Volpe, October 7 2022
One dog sniffing another dog who is lying on their back in a field
One dog sniffing another who is lying on their back in a field, photo by Jess
Let's face it, leashes are unnatural. And also necessary.

There's nothing natural about restraining an animal and keeping them captive on the end of a piece of rope. If it were, teaching your dog to walk without pulling would be a cinch. Humans have been tethering dogs for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, yet man's best friend is still not born instinctively understanding how a leash is supposed to work. That’s why the majority of my dog training clients request help with teaching loose-leash walking.

Until relatively recently, dogs roamed loose in rural and suburban neighborhoods, and this is still the case in many countries. In fact, only 20 percent of the world’s dogs live as pets. The rest are free-roaming and have never known the end of a leash. But in our modern, developed corner of the world, this is neither safe nor appropriate. The majority of dogs in this country spend most, if not all, of their outside time securely attached to a human.

In the United States, a dog taking itself for a walk usually elicits fear, panic, and frantic social media postings. But in countries like Mexico or India, you’ll surely see dogs walking around, minding their own business, and mostly staying out of trouble. (For a first-hand look at some of these dogs’ lives, watch the documentary Stray). So why aren't all those free-roaming dogs fighting each other to the death?

I recently spent some time in a small Costa Rican town where I encountered hundreds of unleashed dogs. They wandered, sniffed, greeted, scavenged, and sometimes played with other dogs. I saw only two barking, lunging, snarling dogs, and both were leashed. That was a classic chicken-and-egg situation: were those two dogs leashed because they were reactive, or was the leash causing the reactivity?

Short, Tight Leashes Make Everything Worse

This scenario unfolds daily. A leashed dog walks beside their owner, calm and curious. The owner sees another dog and quickly shortens the leash, putting pressure on the dog's collar or harness. The nervous dog owner holds their breath and changes their gait or freezes. Maybe they tug on the leash to pull their dog away.

But dogs are masters at reading our emotions and our body language. and they notice all the subtle things we do when we are anxious or upset. Not only can dogs be trained to sniff out physiological changes associated with illness (Covid and cancer detection dogs), but a new study reveals that dogs can "pick out samples of breath and sweat taken from an individual experiencing psychological stress with an accuracy of 93.75%" (Medical News Today 9/22).

Small dog owners often transmit their fear of other dogs by scooping up their pups when they see another dog. In either case, the dog is not granted any choice or agency. They can't move away and they can't investigate, leading to defensiveness and fear.

Instead of tightening up, try using your dog’s leash as a communication tool. If the leash is slack, you can acknowledge the concerning thing (another dog, a skateboard, etc.) and then allow your dog to move away or avoid it. Forcing your dog to confront something that makes them uncomfortable puts them in a losing situation. A tight leash makes it impossible for your dog to move away and they may have to resort to growling, lunging, barking, or snapping to get the scary thing to back off.

Why You Should Avoid Leashed Greetings

When either dog is leashed, extended dog greetings can be fraught and should be avoided. Leashed dogs cannot display normal canine greeting behaviors, like circling and sniffing from the rear. Humans greet each other face-to-face and look each other in the eye, but this is considered confrontational in the dog world. Two dogs meeting on short tight leashes is a set up. If one of the dogs is not interested in saying hi, the leash prevents them from walking away and averting conflict.

If your dog is leashed and you encounter another dog, allow them to sniff for a count of three, then move away with an upbeat "let's go" and carry on with your walk. When using a leash, maintain space between your dog and passing dogs. Like humans, each dog has a personal comfort bubble, and many dogs do not enjoy being too close to unknown dogs. Never let your dog run up to any leashed dog, even if your dog is friendly. (Read Erika Slovikoski's article "He's Friendly!" Why That's the Most Unfriendly Thing You Can Say for a better understanding of why this is unfair to other dogs and their humans).

If your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs, please don't march them through busy off-leash dog play areas. While you have every right to be there, forcing your anxious or fearful dog to be near a crowd of unleashed dogs who are running and playing is just not fair. It's like being stuck at a crowded party with people you hate.

Off-Leash Access is an Animal Welfare Issue

We give them fancy beds, expensive dog food, and plenty of toys, but in the end, our pet dogs are captive animals, dependent on us for all their needs and wants. Of course, we want the best for our dogs, and it's our job to keep them safe. But have we traded away all their freedom in our quest to protect them? Would you choose a pampered and cushy life if it meant spending every moment collared and leashed? The freedom to engage in species-appropriate behavior is an animal welfare issue. Dogs need to sniff, dig, run, meander, explore, investigate, and play.

There is no quick or simple solution to the situation in which pet dogs find themselves in modern society. Allowing your dog to run free requires more than just unclipping the leash. Training a solid recall takes time and effort. If poor recall or reactivity is preventing you from allowing your dog more freedom, consider hiring a force-free trainer.

But even if your dog isn’t a candidate for off-leash runs, there are other ways to let them explore and have fun in new environments. Try swapping your short leash for a long line (note: retractable leashes are not recommended for safety reasons). Or check out Sniff Spot, where you can rent private outdoor space - partially or fully fenced - from local homeowners.

As dog lovers, we need to advocate for more legal off-leash access, not more fenced dog parks. Enclosed dog parks are not a good fit for most dogs (see The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually). We must value our dogs' rights to fully embody their doggish behavior through unleashed outdoor activity.

More leash-free spaces for dogs to roam with companion supervision leads to less frustrated, happier dogs. And happier dog guardians, too.

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com