Why letting your dog off leash can have unintended consequences

Cody & Buffy, enjoying summit views in the Rockies.

A lot of dog owners love letting their dogs off leash. Off leash time can provide opportunities for our dogs to run free, sniff, roll, dig, a.k.a: be dogs. It’s fun to watch your dog fully engaged in enjoying the moment.

However, letting your dog off leash without a reliable recall, in an uncontrolled environment, with no way to get control of your dog, can have a LOT of unintended consequences that you may not be aware of.

Firstly, if you’re not in a designated off-leash area, please leash your dog. There are countless areas banning dogs every single year because of dog guardians not respecting leash laws. Not to mention some of the unintended consequences that will be discussed in this post.

Unintended consequence #1: Your dog rushes up to leashed and/or reactive dogs.

Until you’ve been the guardian of a reactive dog, it’s easy not to comprehend the consequences of your super friendly dog bounding over to a reactive or leashed dog. But reactive dog owners will tell you that your shouts of “don’t worry, he’s friendly” do nothing to help them.

Reactive dogs are often on leash so that the owner can maintain control of their dog for safety. Or perhaps they’re purposely in an on-leash area so that they don’t encounter off-leash dogs, which are often a trigger for reactive dogs. Regardless, off-leash dogs approaching a reactive dog trigger those dogs. What does that trigger do? The dog’s stress levels spike. They are prepared to go into fight or flight (often fight) and often the owner’s only option is to put tension on the leash to move away which will increase the dog’s feeling of vulnerability and therefore increase their fight response. This also puts your dog at risk of being attacked. Think the stress is done once you get your dog back? Nope. Those dogs are on edge for the rest of the day, often for days after (dogs take longer than people to bounce back from stress). In all likelihood, that dog guardian had to make the choice to head home, perhaps cutting off their walk, because they know their dog needs an opportunity to de-stress. You can see how “it’s okay, he’s friendly”, is not helpful in the least.

A lot of leashed dogs will also react to dogs that are off-leash. Leashed dogs know they have no escape and here comes this dog barrelling towards them. So even if they aren’t reactive, they will often have a stress response to off-leash dogs heading their way.

Perhaps you’re of the mind that reactive dogs shouldn’t be outside if they aren’t friendly. There are very few dogs that like all dogs they meet. Reactive dogs deserve every right to be outside and to not be harassed by other dogs. Instead, if someone wants to have their dog off-leash, the expectation should be that they have a reliable recall, including recalling off of dogs. More about that near the bottom.

Unintended consequence #2: Harassing wildlife.

This should go without saying, but wildlife does not exist to entertain our dogs. Dogs are not a part of the ecosystem where wildlife flourishes. They are a part of our human ecosystem. I’m not necessarily saying your dog should never chase a bird or squirrel, that’s unrealistic. But I’ve seen or been told of, multiple occasions of off-leash dogs chasing wildlife such as deer, moose, rams, and bears. This may seem harmless to us, but here are some devastating outcomes that have happened from those situations. 1) Dogs get maimed or killed. 2) Dogs bring back the bears to their people who then get attacked. 3) Dogs chase the wildlife for so long that the wildlife ends up dying or struggling for the remainder of the winter because of loss of critical energy with little ability to replenish and stay warm. 4) Dog gets hit by car while chasing wildlife into the road. 5) Entire areas of parks are closed to dogs following multiple incidents in on-leash areas with wildlife.

Unintended consequence #3: You’re making your recall even more unreliable.

You may be someone who believes their dog should be off-leash most of the time. But what happens when you try to recall your dog and it fails? You’re teaching your dog to have an incredibly unreliable recall. Yep. It’s true. When we recall our dog and they ignore us, we’re teaching them that our recall cue means nothing. You’re essentially working towards having an even worse recall.

So what can you do if you want to let your dog off-leash but you don’t have a reliable recall?

Firstly, if this is you, please don’t do this in on-leash areas. Reactive dogs and people who don’t like dogs deserve to be able to enjoy outdoor spaces without off-leash dogs.

But what can you do? First things first, get a harness and a long-line. A long-line is a leash that should be at least 20 feet but ideally over 30 feet for this type of situation. You’ll attach the long line to the back-clip of a harness. Never attach a long-line to a collar. This can result in injuries to your dog. Now, you’ve got a 30 foot safety line. You can either hold it and let your dog run around like that, or you can drop it and if you see a dog or wildlife in the distance, you go and step on that leash so that you can keep your dog from going over there.

Next, you work on building your recall. Recall training takes time. It needs to start in a low-distraction environment and you will need to build up until you can recall off dogs and wildlife. This is 100% achievable without the use of tools like an e-collar, it just takes a specific approach that is tailored to your dog. I can’t recommend enough working with a certified trainer like myself. A lot of people fail to teach their dogs a reliable recall because they don’t fully understand how to tailor techniques to their particular dog.

Reliable recalls are a must for off-leash dogs, but regardless, please don’t let your dog off-leash in on-leash areas. I know it may seem like a victimless crime, but as someone who is the guardian to a reactive dog and who works with a lot of reactive dog clients, it’s got a lot of unintended consequences.

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