Why dogs should be leashed.

Why dogs should be leashed.

June 20, 2022

There are volumes of books, articles, blogs on training reactive dogs, and all work well in a perfect world. Additionally, they often advise keeping a reactive dog calm by choosing the right environment and avoiding areas with off-leash dogs. My repertoire also incorporated behaviour adjustment training, offering a more natural spin on counterconditioning. Primarily, the foundations are the same. We set our dog up on a long leash, a reasonable distance from the helper and the trigger dog, ensuring our dog stays under threshold. Unlike counterconditioning, we do not lead our dog but allow it to choose how it wants to proceed. Whether to ignore the trigger in the distance or gradually move closer at its own pace allows our dog to control the outcomes it feels comfortable with. 

Like other therapies, the focus is on managing the environment and avoiding dogs other than the trigger. This ensures our dog’s safety so the desired behaviour can occur and be reinforced naturally. Even though I followed the rules and started Mila’s rehabilitation in a quiet area using a combination of positive reinforcement, classical and operant conditioning, off-leash dogs were everywhere and continually disrupted our training. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect world. Owners are lulled into a sense of false security and don’t always perceive the dangers of off- leash dog encounters and their detrimental effects on our canine companions. 

One of the best ways to strengthen the bonds between owners and their dogs is a daily walk. This feel-good activity promotes a happy, healthy and well-balanced owner and dog. Secure in the knowledge that with leash laws, we should be able to keep our dogs safe, although that is not always the case. 

As a matter of interest, my daughter, Tammy, and I undertook our own survey in various Budapest residential areas. Whereas we found that most small dogs are suitably restrained in our suburban neighbourhoods, in contrast, 30–50% of larger dogs that cause the problems are walked off-leash. Even in Hungary, explicit leash laws state that owners must secure dogs in all public areas to protect their four-legged friends from genuine dangers. Naturally, not all owners agree. Many feel that dogs should be allowed to follow their canine instincts and run free as nature intended. 

Indeed, it would be wonderful to see our dogs running unshackled and unhindered. Living in relaxed social structures free of aggression, where each dog respects the others’ personal space. Regrettably, domestication comes at a price. Humans have created artificial environments where we and our dogs must adapt to the constraints of urban habitats and their inherent dangers. This is why dogs’ off-leash frolics should be limited to securely fenced areas like doggy parks and dog runs. In the words of dog trainer Adrienne Faricelli, “even service dogs are required to be on a leash, so regular pet dogs shouldn’t be exempt even if they can do backflips or make you a cup of coffee.” 

An important consideration is that children and dogs are unable to weigh up the consequences of their actions or foresee impending dangers. Even street-smart dogs can run out onto the road in the blink of an eye, which often ends in tragedy. Therefore, it is up to their owners to ensure their safety and keep them from harming others. I cannot count the times I’ve been pounced on by ‘friendly’ unrestrained dogs leaping on me when out walking. 

This is a dangerous habit, as large dogs can knock over children or senior citizens and potentially cause serious injuries. As responsible dog owners, we should also consider the emotional harm this practice can have. What might seem like an innocuous incident may traumatise a fearful person or child for life. Additionally, many unrestrained high prey drive dogs run the risk of chasing and killing small animals. Furthermore, large dogs often attack smaller dogs believing they are prey. 

Surprisingly, when I registered my previous much beloved four legged  family members,  Lulu and Franky at the local city council in Australia, the council worker cautioned me about walking both of them if I was on my own. Apparently, even in Australia, it is not unusual for large off-leash dogs to attack small breeds. If I was on my own, I could pick up one dog and protect it, but not two. One would not usually have the presence of mind to put a small dog in a rubbish bin to protect it, but that is precisely  what one  woman did when a large dog charged at them. At least her puppy remained safe until she could see off the large dog, or its owner materialised to restrain it. 

All dogs, whether large or small, are susceptible to aggressive dog attacks. Last year, I read about a dog attack a few kilometres from us, where an unconstrained pit bull-type dog ran over to a leashed dachshund and killed it before anyone could intervene. As mandated, the authorities removed the killer hound to the pound, where, later that day, the owner paid a fine and collected her dog. The following morning, the owner and her unleashed dog returned to walking on the street. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Frequently, a dog whose owner is responsibly keeping it on a leash is attacked by an off-leash dog. 

Even if an unrestrained ‘friendly’ dog rushes over to a leashed dog, these rude, unwarranted canine overtures are not always welcome and can be interpreted as a form of aggression. Just like humans, dogs have their own rituals when greeting each other. For example, in certain cultures, when people shake hands, they clamp the left hand over their lower right arm, signifying that the person comes in peace and has no hidden weapons in his left hand. The lack of a reciprocal gesture can be construed as either very rude or even hostile. 

Similarly, dogs have their own methods of gauging intentions and weighing each other up by observing the other dog’s tail signals and body language. Well-mannered dogs versed in appropriate canine greeting rituals never rush at each other head-on. Instead, they usually approach each other calmly from the side in a curve and move toward each other leisurely. An essential part of the introductory ritual are glandular secretions containing pheromones. These are released by the anal sacs and provide each dog with a plethora of information. When dogs meet, tail-wagging helps spread the pheromones from the anal glands, allowing for a kind of chemical communication. Dogs investigate these pheromone- scented greeting cards with their olfactory organs, which reveal an abundance of information about each dog. The chemical autobiographies are crammed with information about social status, age, sex, genetic relatedness, emotional and physiological state. Similarly, sniffing each other’s derrières is part of this process, which constitutes a polite form of greeting and introduction, similar to a handshake in humans. 

By the time two leashed dogs reach the ‘polite handshake’ phase of their introductions, often one or other of their human owners may pull their dog away in disgust. Unfortunately, cutting a dog off in mid-sniff can be construed as an impolite gesture, resulting in conflict or even an attack from the other dog. Generally, experts do not recommend introducing unfamiliar dogs to each other on a leash. Contrary to popular belief, these interactions do not qualify as socialisation. When canines sniff each other’s derrière as a respectful form of social intercourse, they convey important details about each other. This information can influence their immediate behaviour responses, as well as long-term perspectives. 

Unfortunately, many domestic dogs cannot read or send proper signals due to various body modifications, or through artificial breeding practices, such as docked tails, or because they lack vital early socialisation to other dogs. 

When an unleashed dog bolts over to a restrained dog, it might miss warning signals telling it to back off. The leashed dog, unable to evaluate the mood or the intentions of the dog hurtling towards it, may interpret this as an aggressive gesture. Trapped and hindered by the leash and incapable of running away or weighing up its opponent, it might feel vulnerable to an attack and retaliate with hostility. These sudden encounters can quickly escalate into a fight whether the off-leash dog is aggressive or not. We could avoid all confrontational dog encounters by merely keeping our dogs leashed. 

Moreover, when owners regularly allow leashed dogs to greet other leashed dogs, this sets up a precedent of anticipation. On subsequent occasions, if these interactions are denied, the dog will become frustrated, resulting in a reactive reaction of leash-pulling, lunging and jumping. 

From experience, I appreciate that numerous owners invest a great deal of time, effort and finances to rehabilitate their dogs with fear, reactivity or aggressive issues. Unfortunately, Mila and I know only too well that all it takes is one encounter with an off-leash dog to undo weeks of training and hard work. No sooner than we manage to progress one step forward, and our efforts are swiftly hijacked. Similarly, it takes many years to produce a service dog and only takes a few seconds for an off-leash dog to leave lasting emotional trauma. 

Additionally, unrestrained dogs that roam free also risk eating unsuitable items that can be dangerous or toxic. The undergrowth in parks often acts as a depository for all sorts of waste matter, including dog faeces and human excrement. Ingesting any of these can lead to parasitic infestations such as cryptosporidiosis, and bacterial infections, including salmonellosis and E. coli. A further lurking danger to unleashed dogs is human food containing xylitol. 

Did you know that one or two pieces of chewing gum or half a discarded muffin containing xylitol can kill a dog? Furthermore, even though I can safely say that I am a reliable driver, I cannot vouch for other drivers. For this reason, and because it is the law, I always wear my safety belt in the car for my own safety. Similarly, we may know that our dog is dependable, but we cannot vouch for other dogs, so for that reason, and because it is the law, we should always leash our dogs for their own safety.