Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Even friendly dogs should be kept on leash

Me and my on-leash dog enjoying a day at the park
The other day, I pulled into my favorite park and spotted a man sitting at a picnic table with his two dogs. One was on leash, the other was not.
I pulled the Jeep near him and rolled down my window.
"Excuse me, sir," I said to get his attention. "I noticed you have a dog off-leash and I'm going to be walking my dog. He's not friendly and I was hoping you could put your dog on leash."
Let's note that I totally went the polite route with this request. I could have scolded him for breaking park rules that require all dogs to be kept on a six-foot leash at all times, but I've always figured you get more bees with honey, right?
"It's OK, she's friendly," he said back to me.
"Well no, it's not OK," I said. "My dog isn't friendly, and if she approaches him, he'll bite her."
Sometimes you have to spell it out to get people to understand, and he did, and put her on a leash. Sensi and I went off on our walk without a hitch.
Unfortunately, this is situation that I hear about a lot from folks, even folks with pretty good, even-tempered dogs.
Even my husband and I debate this.
"Don't you think, if we had a perfectly friendly dog, that we wouldn't see things this way? That we'd want to let him off leash?" he asks me.
My reply is always the same: "No, because even when we do have a perfectly friendly dog, and one day we will, we will remember Sensi. We will remember that if that wonderfully friendly dog wanders up to a not-friendly on-leash dog, it will probably get into a fight. We will remember."

How dog behavior factors into on-leash aggression
OK, so let's start with some dog behavior facts.
One — A dog that charges head-on toward another dog is making a threat. The charging dog may not intend a threat; perhaps it is charging because it is over-excited and has poor doggie social manners. That is often the case, I think. However, the dog on the receiving end of the charge is likely to perceive the behavior as a threat. The only time that this may be entirely non-threatening and understood as such by both parties is amongst dogs who are good friends and play together frequently.
Two — Proper dog behavior protocol for introducing ones' dogself to another dog includes keeping a comfortable social distance and avoiding prolonged eye contact until proper signals have been exchanged. The signal exchange comes after dogs have had time to scent one another from a comfortable distance apart. After an initial whiff from a safe distance, dogs will give tons of tiny little signals that communicate whether it is desirable to decrease social distance. It is only after these things have been undertaken and both dogs have agreed to decrease social distance that butt-sniffing and rompin' good play takes place.
Three — Many dogs become overly excited upon meeting other dogs. This does not mean they are bad, aggressive dogs. It usually means they do not get to see other dogs very often or did not have a lot of doggie social contact in those formative puppy months when dogs learn how to properly introduce one's dogself to another. The danger of an overly-excited dog is that it is an unstable energy, it is not happy nor confident nor friendly. It is just excitement. This unstable state of mind can quickly devolve into aggression at the drop of a pin.
Four — Fight or flight. We are all familiar with this, right? In situations where an animal (even us) feels threatened, it will opt to either fight or flight its way out of the situation. When restrained on a leash, the dog effectively has no option to employ flight. This means if the situation suddenly turns from extreme excitement to slightly unsure or a little anxious, the dog will likely turn to aggressive signals to communicate to the other dog that it wants to increase social distance (get further away). Dogs in close physical contact who employ aggressive signals are much more likely to bite or be bitten, as these communications, and the behaviors they warn of, generally happen in mere milliseconds.

Analyzing the on-leash, off-leash meet that turns into aggression
So, let's say I'm walking a pretty friendly dog. This dog has never shown aggression to other dogs. It lives in an only-dog household, so the only time it gets contact with other dogs is when I have friends or family over who have dogs, or the occasional trip to the dog park. In all those instances, the dog has been friendly. It does get REALLY excited upon first coming into contact with other dogs, and I presume that means my dog is just SUPER friendly, especially considering the excitement has always led to playfulness and companionship with the other dogs it's around.
The dog park is a great place to let your dog off-leash
I overlook the fact that when my family and friends bring their dogs over to my house, none of the dogs are on leashes, or if they are, it is only for a brief moment while walking in the door and the visiting dog is almost always unhooked or has its leash dropped upon entering my house.
I also overlook the fact that while visiting the dog park, my dog is not a leash and has all the space in the world to let off steam, determine when it wants to make physical contact with other dogs and has plenty of room to distance itself from dogs it does not want to be close to.
Now, here I am walking my dog at, let's say, a state recreation area. Rules dictate that all dogs be kept on a six-foot-leash at all times. In addition to this, my dog is not very good off-leash — he runs and runs and runs, doesn't always pay attention when I call him and sometimes, I've had to chase him through some pretty thick brush or swamp because he wouldn't come when I called him. I get nervous that he might run off and not come back, so I decide to keep him on leash.
All of the sudden, a dog who did get lucky enough to be let off leash by his owner comes tearing through the bushes at full speed — no doubt exactly what my dog wishes he was doing.
The dog slows down only a little bit, from full-tear to slow run, and comes right up to mine.
My dog is startled, first of all. We were upwind from this other dog, so my dog had no scent warning. Plus, the dog couldn't be seen until he emerged from the bushes, and by that point, he was right upon us. So, the only forewarning my dog had was some startling thrashing noise and then boom! Dog in his face.
The dogs go right into the butt-sniff mode and both their excitement levels are rapidly increasing. They are jumping around a bit and other than having to hold on for dear life to the leash, I think everything is going to be just fine.
But then, something happens that I didn't even see. All the sudden, the hair on my dog's back is up and he's lifted a lip; I can hear a low growl.
Before I even see this other dog's owner, the situation has turned sour and both dogs are now snarling and lunging at one another.
I pray the other dog owner arrives in time to help me pull the dogs apart before the injuries get so bad we both wind up at the emergency vet.

What happened?
A safe bet would be that the dogs didn't get enough time and space to know whether they really wanted to be that close to one another. They became too excited, too fast, and were too close together. My dog was on a leash and so, when he starting having doubts about wanting to be this close to the other dog, he had no option to physically remove himself. All he could do was warn the other dog — hackles raised, snarl — to get away. But the other dog didn't get away, and instead, responded to my dog's threats with his own threats. One decided not to back down and the other one couldn't run away, so they got into a fight instead.
This doesn't mean that either dog is bad or unfriendly.
The only thing that was bad was the situation the dogs were placed in while they met for the first time. Had the same two dogs been in a dog park, both off leash, this probably would've never happened. They may have even become pals and romped around a bit.
But the element of surprise combined with the extreme excitement combined with the leash-factor turned it all to shit.
And here's the thing — it doesn't take a bunch of things to go wrong for a bite or attack to happen. Just one thing. And sometimes, that one thing is just the leash factor.

Keep your dogs on leash
So here's the simple solution, folks — keep your dogs on leash in public places where it's required you keep them on leash.
Beside the mere fact that there are rules for a reason, there is also the fact that even if you want to risk breaking the rules, other people don't. Other people will have dogs on leashes, many of them are friendly dogs too, but as we've just found out, even friendly dogs are more apt to get into fights while on leash.
Adding to this whole idea of following the rules is the fact that there are people out there like me with dogs who are less than perfect. So long as we are responsible with our dogs — we keep them on a leash and we keep them away from you and your dogs — there is nothing wrong with us wanting to walk our less-than-perfect dogs. In fact, if our dogs are ever going to become better, we MUST get out there in the world to exercise our dogs and socialize them to different scenarios. Our less-than-perfect dogs will never become better dogs if we keep them locked up inside a house all day.
The ironic thing is, it is we-owners-of-less-than-perfect-dogs who are more likely to follow rules than those who own perfectly-friendly-happy-go-lucky dogs.
And one more thing — there are a whole lot of dog owners out there who own less-than-perfect dogs and don't realize it or even refuse to acknowledge it. Now that is worth being scared of, and it's certainly worth protecting your dog from.
Leashes — a cheap tool to prevent expensive emergency vet bills. Isn't that reason enough to use them?


  1. I totally agree. Especially since most communities have a leash law, anyway. My Callie Golden Retriever is the most social dog I've ever had -- with both dogs and people. But she's always on a leash. We work on two behaviors. When another dog approaches, I give Callie a very loose leash. She's very submissive in approaching other dogs, and my experience is that 98% of the time the dogs work out their relationship just fine. She's so friendly with people that I sometimes have her on a "gentle leader," a bridle type leash that gives me a little more control. I try to get her to "sit" when there are people around -- instead of jumping up to be friendly.

  2. Thank you Fred, and sorry to be so late in responding to your comment. Callie sounds great, and her submissive approach shows a thorough understanding of how to make friends with other dogs by clearly demonstrating that she is not threatening.

    Interesting note — I also use a form of a gentle leader, except my kind (it's called a Halti) has an extra strap that loops loosely around my dog's snout. When he pulls against the leash, it tightens and acts as a muzzle. Just one more tool I have to try to protect against fights with off-leash dogs.

    You're taking the right steps with Callie all-around. It sounds like she also has a lovely temperament. Thank you for using a leash!

  3. I have no problem with off-leash dogs that are under control. If you can keep your dog from approaching me and my dogs with a voice command, that's great.
    I do have a problem with people who think that it's fine to have out-of-control dogs, just because their dogs are on leash. When I'm hiking on a narrow trail through a dense rhododendron thicket, I hate encountering someone hiking with an aggressive, leashed dog. There isn't enough room for me and my dogs to pass safely, and there's no room for anyone to step off the trail. I've had the same problem on narrow trails in California, where you can't step off the trail because of the dense, thorny chaparral.
    If I'm going to encounter an aggressive dog in close quarters I'd much prefer to encounter an unleashed dog. I can almost always back an aggressive off-leash dog down with dominant body language, but a leashed dog is more likely to lash out because it doesn't have the freedom to back down.
    Having your dog on a leash does not automatically mean your dog is under control. A leash is no substitute for training. You shouldn't have to deal with my dogs approaching you and or dogs, and we shouldn't have to deal with your dog lunging at the end of its leash snapping and snarling at us.

  4. I agree with you, and I am selective in using wide trails where I always have space to pass others.

    My dog also doesn't lunge or snarl; he is reactive.

    Good training we have. Walks are a huge factor in modifying his behavior. It's my responsibility to ensure we have good experiences on walks to achieve that end, and part of that is definitely selecting trails that help us do so.

  5. I rise very early to run my dogs. I provide vebal warning wait till I leash them. Those with social dogs refuse to leash and scorn me for bringing "that type of dog" to the park. They exhibit a sense of entitlement and judgement. Many ignore my request for them to leash and are adamant they dont need to as their dogs are under control. Yet they allow them to approach. Neither of my dogs has been physically aggressive but the older is not as socialized. I am infuriated at this arrogance yet know mine should be leashed as well. Thus early arrival to find canine exercise and solitude. Less than perfect...arent we all?

  6. This is a nice way of looking at the Leash Law. I also watch Cesar Milan’s show, “The Dog Whisperer”, and I am really amazed on how he understands dogs’ behavior. I agree that it is every pet owner's responsibility to give time to their pets. We should give time to take care of their health through exercise by even at least talking a walk around the neighborhood.

    Mariah Blum

  7. Thank you for your article. I am so OVER trying to defend myself for asking people to leash their dogs. My dog is always leashed in public but b/c he doesn't lunge/bark/growl (thanks to a huge amount of training) people do not realize he is very dog aggressive. He loves people but my head is on a constant 360 degree swivel to avoid unleashed or out-of-control leashed dogs. Just last week an unleashed Golden Retriever came running full speed down a hill straight at us. I yelled at the woman to please leash her dog - that my dog is not friendly. For the record, my dog never made a sound but his body language told me all I needed to know about his intentions if that loose dog had made contact. O would not believe the screaming, obscenity filled lecture I got on how I "know nothing about dogs, the dog's tail was wagging, it was a GOLDEN RETRIEVER and they don't bite, etc, etc". She then proceeded to tell everyone who walked past us to watch out for "that crazy bitch and her crazy dog". People seem incapable of realizing that not all dogs are dog-friendly, and berate me for "making" my dog this way. t makes me really angry that people are so self-entitled that they would rather risk injury or death to their pet rather than use a leash.

  8. I empathize entirely with your experience, anonymous. I'm not sure what the answer is, unfortunately. A huge cultural shift is what we need.

    In lieu of that, take some solace in knowing that there are people out there who understand and commiserate. You're being a good dog owner, and you're doing good things for animal that most other people who cast aside. Hold your head high for that.