This week's post is born from frustration. Hopefully, you'll stick with me through it.
First, a bit of background.
I walk with my dogs a lot. We enjoy hikes through conservation areas, on trails and even through the city. Pretty well anywhere we can walk, we do. When we are on trails or in a conservation area, my dogs drag leashes and when I see anyone - be they person, child, bike, horse or dog, I call my dogs to me and keep them well under control so as not to impose on anyone else using the area.
Unfortunately, it would seem I am often unique in my desire not to interfere with anyone else's enjoyment of these public spaces. On many occassions, we have been approached by off-leash dogs. It's actually something I've come to expect and I keep an observant eye out so that I can try to stop any dog on approach.
So, while out on a public trail this weekend, it was no surprise to me when we were approached by an off-leash dog. While the dog was still about 30 feet away, with the owner trailing behind, I voiced my concern, "can you call your dog, please." To the woman's credit, she tried. Unfortunately the dog, lacking a recall, ignored several calls and continued toward us. I called to the person, "I really don't want them to say hello," to which the response was, "I can assure you, she's quite gentle." I rolled my eyes.
You see, I'm in the unfortunate position where I can't be ignorant about the potential pitfalls of allowing my dogs to be greeted by off-leash strangers. I know all too well that things can go wrong in a hurry in these situations. Story after story, be they from students at McCanns or friends with dogs, where interactions with strange dogs, especially when one is on leash go horribly and dogs and/or people end up hurt. I have several of my own experiences where dogs, on greeting, have been friendly, yes, but without manners or proper social etiquette have been overly boisterous and the interaction has resulted in a negative experience for my own dogs.
It's simply not worth the risk to me. The hundreds of hours invested in my dogs manners, confidence and training is far too much work to take for granted and I know all of that work can be shattered in just a few seconds should the interaction go wrong. It only takes once for some dogs to be put off and become defensive. At least 50% of our behavioral lessons are for dogs who are defensively aggressive to other dogs while on leash. My youngest dog is particularly soft when confronted with dogs he doesn't know. I could see this dog becoming defensive on-leash very easily with one poor interaction and I'm not willing to take that chance. It's my responsibility to keep my dogs safe, PERIOD!
An open letter to the person with the gentle dog:
If you are going to continue to allow your dog off-leash, you must take the time to train her to be under complete control. I'm sure right now she is gentle, but that could be taken away in the blink of an eye if she approaches the wrong dog. Teach her to listen when you call her so that when you're out and about, regardless of what dangers may be presented, you can keep her safe. You owe her that as her devoted owner and her companion.
Sadly, I can't believe that you have the authority to say that "it's okay" because your dog is gentle. If you knew more about a dog's body language and the potential threat of an off-leash dog greeting any strange dog without permission, especially on leash, you wouldn't make such assertions. In fact, I wouldn't be writing this letter. Chances are, if your dog were to become uncomfortable, you wouldn't recognize it and our scene would just be another prelude to statements like, "Oh! She's never done that before."
When you are out in public spaces, please consider that it's not just about you and your dog. You need to be considerate of other people who are using the same areas. Whether they are riding a bike, walking alone or with a dog, their opportunity to use a public area should not be challenged. They have just as much right to be there.
Nobody should have to avoid public areas. They are, by their very definition, meant for everyone to enjoy. Not everyone likes dogs - I know that is very hard to believe - I have a hard time understanding it too, but it's true. Some people are frightened of dogs. Why should they have to be confronted by your dog if they're uncomfortable? Shouldn't they have the option of saying no? People riding bikes should be able to do so without fear of being chased by a loose dog. People ride horses on those trails and should not be harrassed by a loose dog while doing so. What if the horse spooks and the person is thrown? Kids should be able to walk safely without being knocked over by a loose dog.
I'd like to question why you think it's okay to allow your dog the freedom to interfere with others without your being able to stop them? Why don't the rest of us get a say? Why do you get to decide for both of us whether our dogs interact? What if my under control dog is aggressive? What if he's fearful of other dogs? What if I have to work really hard to keep him from reacting? What if I have put years into rehabilitation work to make him feel safe? What if, by allowing your dog to be out of control and in my dog's space, my dog reacts fearfully - defending himself from a percieved threat - and bites your dog? What if I get bitten trying to split up the dog fight while you're still 40 feet away? Who would be at fault? Should people who have dogs who aren't the bouncy, friendly type have to hide them away because you can't or won't control your dog? Should I not be allowed to walk my controlled dog because you haven't taken the time to train yours?
Another sad fact is that you are not alone in your thinking. I've been "told off" on multiple occassions by those who think it's okay to allow their off-leash dogs into my dog's space. One of our instructors was recently threatened quite seriously by someone out on a walk when she tried to stop an out-of-control dog from posturing over hers. If dogs are to be allowed to greet, it should be consensual. There should be a clear exchange by BOTH owners where permission is given to allow the dogs to say hello. Anything short of that is unfair and could very well be putting both dogs and humans at risk.
By becoming a caregiver to a dog, you've entered into a contract to keep them safe. They should be on leash and/or under control at all times. If you can't call them back from something that might hurt them, they shouldn't be off-leash. If you are going to enjoy public areas, it's your responsibility to make sure you aren't preventing others from doing the same.
If you're still here, I thank you for sticking with me.
End of rant.
Hi! I'm Shannon and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members. Join us for a FREE lesson at MyDogCan.McCannDogs.com.