Should I Use a Lead to Walk My Dog?
Some dog owners view using a lead (or leash, as Americans say) for walks as a means of undue control and restriction, and believe that allowing their dogs to run free in open spaces is the only way to sufficiently exercise their dogs and fulfil their needs. Other owners may be unable or unwilling to walk a long enough distance at a speed fast enough to suit a high-energy dog, so they may think letting the dog run around off-lead at his leisure is a sufficient substitute to an on-lead walk with a set route that dog and owner complete together. But is off-lead exercise the best, most necessary thing for dogs? Is walking on the lead really such a hindrance to the dog’s enjoyment of the walk? And, most importantly, is walking off-lead safe for dogs?
Street Smart Walking: Safety First in the City
Safety is our primary concern while walking dogs, and we are always on the lookout for potential dangers to avoid on pack walks, particularly given the fact that we work in the busy city of London. The most common forms of accidental deaths in dogs are:
· Road traffic accidents;
· Choking/bowel obstruction;
· Drowning; and
· Heat exhaustion.
The top four entries on this list can all be prevented by walking dogs on leads, and the “how” is simple: leads allow owners to guide their dogs away from things that appeal to them but could hurt them, like chicken bones on the path or fast-moving cars on the road.
Some professional dog walkers highlight the fact that they walk dogs off-lead, emphasising the fun and social aspects of their walks. Of course, all dog lovers want dogs to enjoy themselves while they’re out and about, but fun should never take precedence over the number priority during walks: safety. Many professional dog walkers profess to be experienced and knowledgeable in dog behaviour and claim that they are competent in controlling many dogs off-lead. They take walking dogs off-lead for granted and assume the dogs will behave themselves naturally.
Dog walkers like this are, in our opinion, acting recklessly. Knowledge of dog psychology and training will not prevent dogs from misbehaving or running off 100% of the time, and it only takes one distraction to potentially have an accident. There is no guaranteed trick or technique to prevent dogs from straying too far. Calling the dog’s name in a loud voice and an offering treats may work most of the time, but will be futile if a dog becomes fixated on something it perceives as higher value, such as a squirrel, a car, or another dog. Even if a dog owner stresses that his dog is excellent off-lead, this may not be the case when the dog is walking with someone new or within a pack of different dogs.
We’ve found we’re in good company in this philosophy: in their book How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, an excellent manual for all dog owners, the New York based Monks of New Skete write that there is “No need to mention the foolishness of allowing a dog to run free in an urban area, or of ever walking the dog off lead, for that matter. Both practices are extremely dangerous for city dogs.” (109) In keeping with our opinion that high value distractions are too plentiful in cities for off-lead walks to be worth the risk even for well-behaved dogs, the monks share an interesting anecdote:
“As for walking your dog off leash, there are simply too many dangers in a city ever to make doing so advisable. In New York we noticed a gentleman walking his Doberman pinscher off lead down the sidewalk. The swagger with which he walked indicated how proud he was of his dog, and the dog was clearly well trained. We could only shake our heads at the man’s foolishness. Dogs are not perfect. All it takes is one mistake—a cat or other animal running out suddenly and the dog chasing it out into the street—and the result could be catastrophic.” (110)
Additionally, it’s important to remember that not only is it impossible to predict your own dog’s behaviour, but it’s also impossible to predict the behaviour of all the other dogs you may encounter on walks. A friendly, well-socialised dog may come across an aggressive dog whose handler is absent. In this situation the friendly dog will have two options: fight or flight, both of which could lead to serious injuries. Keeping your dog on-lead will significantly decrease the risk of such a scenario, as you will be able to keep your dog away from any other dogs who look dangerous.
Have Fun but Play Safe
We aren’t completely against off-lead activities, though we do believe they should be carefully regulated. We do allow pack members who have proven recall and who are of sound temperament to play fetch and run around with each other in certain parks. In our area, Barnard Park has a very secure spot for dogs to run around and we go there often. Caledonian Park and Market Road Gardens are also good options, as both have very limited escape points for dogs who have good recall. We find it’s safest to walk dogs on-lead for most of their time outside with us, and then only let them off once we’re in a secure park and we’ve looked to see that any other dogs in the park are interacting in a friendly manner with each other. The Monks of New Skete offer similar guidance regarding dog parks in their book:
“For a dog with the right temperament, these are wonderful areas where they can romp and play with other dogs off leash. Make sure, however, that the run is well supervised and that the dogs playing are good with other dogs before allowing your own to romp. While he is playing, keep an eye on your dog so that he, too, stays within acceptable bounds with dogs and people.” (105)
In our experience, dogs who are exercised in this way still have plenty of fun and enjoy themselves a lot on the walk. Many of the owners we work with have asked us to never let their dogs off the lead, and, in following their instructions, we have never found their dogs to be any less fulfilled than the others who may be allowed off-lead to play a game of fetch in the park. More than anything else, dogs—on or off the lead—simply want enough exercise to come home tired at the end of the day as well as time with their own kind so they can socialise.
We concur with The Monks of New Skete that on-lead walks are not “lesser” forms of exercise compared to off-lead ones, and strongly agree with their statement that “There is no shame in walking your dog on leash.” (110) We’ve had great success with on-lead pack walks, since we make sure to satisfy the energy levels of all the dogs we look after. For especially energetic dogs, we run stretches of the route with them. The dogs hardly notice they’re attached to leads because they are focused on following the path ahead and moving forward as a group, and using the leads gives us peace of mind that all our pack members will come home to their owners safely. We’re confident that it is possible for walks to be both safe and fun, and from the looks of our pack members when they’re out with us, the dogs think so too!