The importance of leash laws, how they apply to you, and how to know if you can flout them responsibly

Ask dog owners what they would like most in their dogs, and many will tell you they want him to be well-behaved off-leash. The image of an attentive, unleashed dog sticking close to his master is a nice one, for sure. Though areas where dogs can safely be unleashed (at least in urban areas) are few and far between in this day and age, many dog owners still have the dream of a Lassie or a Skip that doesn’t need to be hindered by a leash.

Depending on your age, you probably recall a time when dogs were let out in the morning, roamed the neighborhood all day, and returned home at night for dinner and time with the family. These were dogs we grew up with–-they played with us in the quiet streets and woods, they were friendly and fun, and they seemed pretty well-behaved. (Parents’ attitudes were different then, too–-if you whined that so-and-so’s dog bit you, your Mom would undoubtedly assume you’d provoked the dog. Nowadays, the children never seem to be at fault.) No one raised an eyebrow at the fact that dogs had so much freedom, and though they sometimes got hit by cars or hurt by neighborhood bullies, their lives seemed pretty full and rewarding to us. Many would say this is how dogs should live, even today, and to keep them indoors all day or leashed or crated is a crime. Given that our world is radically different even from just twenty years ago, I disagree that proper use of leashes or crates is bad for dogs-–quite the contrary.

Leash laws exist in most urban areas for good reason. They exist not only to protect dogs, but to protect people. The scofflaws who flout them daily in irresponsible ways often do not realize that they may be endangering dog ownership in general by doing so. Most folks who allow Fido off leash in areas where it is illegal to do so are not necessarily bad people, they are simply reacting to what they feel is an unjust law. “My dog is trained and is friendly. He isn’t going to harm anyone. It is my right to let him stretch his legs and run. Leash laws are for people who can’t control their dogs.” Sorry, but, like it or not, leash laws are for all dog owners, not just irresponsible ones. Let’s examine this more closely.

The purpose of laws is to create a harmonious society where people can live peacefully and happily. Sometimes, laws become outdated, useless (most of the “blue” laws, passed in an attempt to legislate morality, fall into this category), or even harmful, and these should be abolished or changed. Some folks believe leash laws have become useless and outdated because they don’t see the need for them, though the need exists. Why?

• Leash laws protect dogs. Leashed dogs under a person’s control are less likely to run into the street and be hit by cars; chase people, other dogs or animals; get into harmful trash; or practice behaviors which could result in injury or death. Smaller or more defenseless dogs are safe from larger or more aggressive dogs when the latter are competently leashed. Since the leash law also states that dogs must be kept confined, the benefits of the law go beyond the dog’s daily walk. How many times have you and your leashed dog (or just you, for that matter) been approached by an off-leash dog? It can be scary for both of you, at best, and result in an attack, at worst. Owners of small dogs who live in neighborhoods that do not routinely enforce leash laws often end up with pets who don’t get enough exercise or socialization, because it is too dangerous for them to walk in their own neighborhoods! They routinely experience walking by a house and having a dog dash off the property and chase or assault them–often while the owner watches! Any time a leashed dog is attacked, he will suffer a setback–this is particularly bad for owners of already shy dogs. It is unconscionable that the law-abiding citizen with a properly leashed pet is the victim here, but it is increasingly, and frighteningly, common.

• Leash laws protect dog owners. If you always walk your Fido on a leash and act responsibly, you are less likely to be blamed for perceived doggy violations. For example, let’s say your neighbor Dick thinks leashes are for sissies and just lets his dog Killer out the door to run about. Every time a child is scared by a dog, or bitten, or folks walking the neighborhood are harassed by a dog, or the trash is overturned in someone’s yard, the neighbors assume it was Dick’s dog, since Dick is irresponsible and completely unaware of what his dog may or may not be doing. Often it IS his dog, and he is clearly at fault. But even if Killer was nowhere near the malfeasance, he is more likely to be blamed for it than Fido is if no one witnesses it. It’s all about reputation. Properly confined and supervised dogs are rarely blamed for problems in the neighborhood resulting from roaming. As easy as it is to sue people these days, your unconfined dog could cost you a lot of money (and even your home) in court fees if you are not careful. Anyone can claim your roaming dog bit them or caused harm to their person or property, and it will be their word against yours. If your dog already has a history of roaming, watch out! Know this: when an issue occurs that was caused by a dog, and one dog was on a leash and one wasn’t, the unleashed dog is always perceived to be at fault–and the courts agree. It doesn’t matter how great Fluffy is, if something happened and she was not properly confined, the courts don’t care. At the time, your wonderful dog was not in your control–and that’s your fault.

• Leash laws protect children, and anyone who doesn’t like dogs. It’s hard to believe there are people who don’t like man’s best friend, but there are. Maybe they are phobic (fear of canines is called cynophobia), maybe they are just frightened; maybe they are mentally ill–it doesn’t matter. Like it or not, they have the same rights you do! They have the right to walk down a public street or be in a public park or be on their own private property and not be assailed by off-leash dogs! Your cry of “oh, don’t worry, he’s friendly” as Fido is happily barreling up to (or even moseying towards) one of these people doesn’t mean squat to someone who has had a lifelong fear of dogs, my friend. Maybe Fido really is friendly; maybe he isn’t. IT DOESN’T MATTER. No calming words will help. Irrational fears don’t respond to rational thought, and, like it or not, they are entitled to have those fears. It is YOUR responsibility to contain your dog so that no one’s rights are trampled, even if you don’t like it. You have the right to walk your leashed dog in a public place (as long as it isn’t posted that dogs aren’t allowed there), even if he is straining at the leash and barking like a banshee (i.e., untrained and out-of-control). If your dog won’t stop on a dime and come immediately back to you when you call him, he has no business being off-leash. You do not have the right to let your dog off leash in any area where it is prohibited, especially where people congregate.

That last sentence strikes at the heart of many dog owners, especially those with impeccably trained dogs who know their pooches not only wouldn’t harm anyone but wouldn’t even approach anyone without permission. (The amount of folks who THINK their dogs are in this category is much larger than the amount who actually are.) It also miffs those who know their extremely friendly dog isn’t anywhere near off-leash reliable, and will run up to every person or dog it sees, but golly gee, it wouldn’t hurt anyone! It’s just being friendly, for Pete’s sake! People who don’t like dogs and don’t want a slobbery goofball all over them should just get over it, right? “It’s just a dog.”

"Dog people are generally a good lot. They find room in their lives and their hearts to provide a loving home for an animal, but for many it's as if they made room in their hearts by cleaning out the part reserved for consideration for others."

Canadian dog trainer John Wade

Sigh. You know, I tend to distrust folks who don’t like dogs, too. I sometimes find their reactions silly, and sometimes sad. I certainly don’t want to hang out with them (love me, love my dog). But what I think here is not important. No one has permission to trample on someone else’s rights. I don’t agree with cynophobics, but they have the same rights I do. And since I love my dogs and want to be able to continue to own dogs, I do not allow my dogs to do anything that might hinder someone else’s rights. (On my property, they can have quite a bit of freedom, but on public property, it’s different.) I don’t want to see lots of laws against “all things dog” being passed!

Irresponsible dog owners are the ones who irk cynophobics. True, they may not like it when I walk by with a well-trained, leashed dog, but I’m not breaking any laws, so I and my dog have every right to be there. You may not realize it, but a backlash against dogs, fueled by more and more lurid reports in the media about dog attacks, is brewing. Insurance companies are starting to turn homeowners down because of the breed of dog they own, regardless of how impeccable a record that dog has. Apartment complexes routinely ban dogs of certain breeds and of certain weights. Even some cities and municipalities are banning dogs of certain breeds! All this is happening because of irresponsible owners who care more about what they want than what is lawful or ethical. You may think this doesn’t apply to you, because the dogs most likely to be banned are typically the guarding breeds like Rottweilers and Dobermans (or the “pit bull” types of dogs) and you own a Golden Retriever, but honey, once the door is opened to breed bans, who says yours won’t be next? Once that ball starts rolling, no breed of dog will be safe. This isn’t hypothetical, and it isn’t paranoia, either.

Okay, back to the subject! Leash laws aren’t useless or outdated. The only way they would become so is if everyone who owned a dog suddenly became hyper-responsible and trained their dogs excellently, managed them effectively, and remained aware and alert when they had their dog with them. If all dogs were impeccably trained and well cared-for, leash laws, like “blue laws,” would become unnecessary. But, I’m sorry to say, it ain’t gonna happen.

Leash laws, when enforced, make cities safer for everyone. Though they may inconvenience dog owners, they make sense. And they are inconveniencing us less these days, what with more and more cities putting in dog parks and more and more “doggy daycare” facilities opening up. Dog owners have more options than ever before to exercise the family pooch and keep him happy–he doesn’t need to roam the neighborhood for stimulation. And don’t assume that your dog, who is properly confined in your yard all day, is having all his needs met. Dogs don’t exercise themselves very well–you need to make sure you are stimulating the mind and body of your dog daily, yard or not.

Is there anywhere Fido and I can go where it is OK for me to take his leash off besides doggy daycare and the local dog park?
All hope is not lost, my friend. The answer is yes, with a few caveats. You and your dog my be able to frolic leashless if you abide by these suggestions. If I meet you out and about, in a public place where the law says your dog should be leashed, and you are following these rules with your dog, I won’t rat you out to the authorities. (I have been known to unleash my dogs in places where it wasn’t technically allowed, though I suppose I shouldn’t admit that. I only do it if no one is anywhere in sight, I clean up every mess, and if a person appears my dogs are immediately leashed so they will not infringe on someone else’s rights.)

First, let’s address whether your DOG is capable of being safely off-leash. Your dog is off-leash reliable if he, when off-leash:

  • comes when called, every time, all the way to you so you could grasp his collar if need be, with little or no hesitation, even when there are lots of people, squirrels, or other distractions around;
  • understands the heel command and will also lie down quickly when told (without treats);
  • will NOT approach people or dogs he sees unless you tell him he can (and when is allowed to go meet someone, he keeps all four feet on the ground and greets them nicely);
  • stays pretty close by unless told he can go further;
  • does not pick up trash from the road; and
  • seems more interested in you and what you are doing than anything else.

If you can honestly say your dog meets these criteria, not that he did ‘em all once, but that he does them all consistently, he is what I would call “off-leash reliable.” Otherwise, please keep him leashed!How do you get your dog to this stage? Training, and lots of it–for you as well. There is no easy, quick road to off-leash reliability, though there are some tools and methods that can get you there more quickly. But you MUST put in the work!

ARE YOU OFF-LEASH RELIABLE? Your dog may meet the above criteria easily, which is great. But are you a good enough owner for this dog? You are, IF:

  • you always have a supply of poop bags, and you clean up any mess your dog makes, and dispose properly of it;
  • you are willing to call your dog to heel when people are close by, so that he does not bother them, and so they can be reassured that, even though he’s not leashed, he will not approach them (this will, in turn, impress them and set them at ease);
  • you do not have the mindset that people should just “get over” not liking dogs;
  • you will unhesitatingly leash your dog at the slightest sign that his being off-leash is frightening someone or trampling their enjoyment of the public area, regardless of his impeccable behavior;
  • you realize you are breaking the law but you understand the need for the law and you will comply if the need arises;
  • if your female dog is of excellent breeding quality and is therefore not spayed yet, you wouldn’t dream of allowing her off-leash when she is in season or close to entering her season, as she is at a huge risk of becoming needlessly pregnant (if she isn’t of excellent breeding quality with proof of good lineage and a superior temperament, she should be spayed, of course);
  • you have a good relationship with your dog, are of sound mind, and are not a negative, surly, arrogant jerk who thinks (s)he is always right.

How will you get to this level? By working with your dog daily and enjoying the process; by living life to the fullest and respecting the rights of others; and by adopting a positive outlook on life in general. If you are a negative, surly, arrogant jerk who thinks (s)he is always right, your dog probably doesn’t want to go anywhere with you anyway, and besides, you wouldn’t have read this far, so congratulations!

See you in the park!

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But when, after observation and analysis, you find anything that agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

The Buddha, in the Kalama Sutra