Don’t Be Oblivious to Off-Leash Etiquette

I am all in favor of tons of exercise for most dogs. But if you’re going to be leash-free, you need to have a handle on your dog’s behavior.

Have dog, will travel? I mean, like, everywhere!

Dog goes to the store. Dog goes on vacation. Dog goes for a mani/pedi. Dog goes to Anthropologie, to Sephora, to boutiques, to all the upscale stores where nothing is affordable but at least you can look like you’re cool because you have a dog! In New York City.

But take your dog to “the country” for some R&R and Running. Running free, right? No strings attached for you. No leash attached to the dog.

WRONG! Rural and suburban recreational/conservation areas are becoming more and more rigid about where dogs are wanted, and not wanted. And leashes, the bondage tool of the human over the canine, are required.

As a world-class city, New York settled a hot topic in 2007, when Parks & Recreation decreed that dogs can be off leash from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. in many large parks, legalizing an already common practice. Dog haters and dog lovers seem to be co-existing under this plan. People have all day where they don’t run the risk of being slobbered or trampled on. In the evening or early-morning hours, dogs have an opportunity to run free — supervised, of course.

Born to Run

It’s a well-respected theory that dogs are less aggressive when allowed to socialize, run free and exercise. Dog bite reports in New York have plummeted in recent years.

Yeah! I am all in favor of tons of exercise for most dogs. A majority of my “behavior” cases in my clinic have to do with the dog in question not getting enough exercise. Many owners just don’t get it! A recent story I heard on NPR (“Wired to Run,” May 7) reported that dogs, like humans, can achieve “a runner’s high” from aerobic exercise. With long-distance running, our bodies actually make drugs called cannabinoids. When the researcher put dogs on a treadmill, they produced the drugs. Ferrets on a treadmill? They didn’t produce anything.

Conclusion? Dogs, like humans, can feel better and act happier, with exercise. Ferrets? Well, ferrets get pleasure in other ways.

Now, try finding that real open space to run your dog. It’s a problem. In Connecticut or Long Island, for example, you’ll find municipalities are less and less dog friendly. At the Trout Brook Valley nature preserve in Weston, Connecticut, dogs have been forbidden off leash since October because of a yearlong wildlife study. But many people at Trout Brook are happy with the temporary leash law and are fighting to keep the moratorium on unleashed dogs once the study is completed. In Westchester, dog owners have been trying to get two of the 775 acres of Hempstead Lake State Park zoned as an off-leash area. It has been continually defeated.

Wildlife protection is a valid reason to leash dogs. Many areas restrict dogs during nesting time in early spring. But I think wildlife and habitats could co-exist with off-leash dogs if the owners have a handle on their dog’s behavior.

Teach Your Dog Some Manners

Besides wildlife, the biggest concerns are, basically, aggressive dogs, and dogs without manners. This is because many owners are oblivious to what is considered appropriate off-leash etiquette. Dog owners who don’t keep their dogs from jumping and slobbering on people are giving all unleashed dogs a bad rep!

In Boulder, Colorado, for example, owners are required to register their dogs and take a special class in off-leash etiquette before Rover runs free. Maybe my town of Amherst, currently in a heated debate over a popular conservation area, should consider this!

Amherst, Mass., an academic town where only the “H” is silent (our town motto), is home to Amethyst Brook, a beautiful conservation area where, for many years, dog walkers and human walkers have co-existed. But add some nice weather, a growing population, a little dog poop on the soles of your Birkenstocks, and marauding Labradors on your karma, and you have a recipe for “This dog ain’t gonna’ walk. Here. Anymore. Off leash.”

The town fathers and the conservation committee have come up with a compromise: Dogs can be off leash from dawn until 10 a.m. That’s it. After 10 o’clock, it’s leash it or beat it.

Many of my clients wanted my opinion on this debate, assuming I would come down on the side of my canine friends who want to go naked on the beach. I’m afraid I see both sides. I am in favor of the leash law at this very popular recreational area. The reason? Safety for everyone wins out over the fantasy of all dogs of all temperaments and breeds frolicking happily among the many humans on the trail.

This area simply became too crowded, and the dog owners did not take responsibility for their pets’ behavior. Threatening or simply bothering people, and dog fights, have convinced me that the free dogs have to find less populated terrains. In this case, the “bad” children spoiled it for all the children.

Just this week, two of my biggest emergencies happened at Amethyst. An older cockapoo ON LEASH was attacked by a dog off leash. Two surgeries later, after surgical drains, lots of pain and anti-anxiety medication, the victim is going to be fine. But, like all dog fights, this was a harrowing experience, for dogs and owners alike.

My second emergency was more upsetting. The owner failed to leash his very young, free-spirited German Short Hair upon leaving the conservation area, and Dexter was hit by a car. He survived but suffered some very painful injuries to the foot, pad and hip. We’re having some difficulties with a pinched nerve in his hind limb causing intermittent but intense pain. Not fun. All in all, Dex is extremely lucky to be alive. If this dog was far enough away from the owner to be out of sight, not trained to voice commands, and young and goofy, he doesn’t belong running free where he could injure someone or, unfortunately, be severely injured himself.

Top Rules of Off-Leash Etiquette

So, here are my top rules of off-leash etiquette. And yes, I have seen all these things occur, and worse:

  1. Teach your dog to listen. If you have a puppy or a dog that does not understand simple commands like “down” or “off,” he should not be able greet a person on a trail with “Here’s mud in your eye.”
  2. If you have a dog-aggressive dog, make sure the area is very unpopulated or be able to leash him if you come upon another canine. This may be next to impossible if other dogs run up to your aggressor. I have sympathy for this problem. My favorite dog, Bruno, was an 80-pound Border Collie mix who loved people, hated strange dogs. I finally got him to stop and stand when another dog approached so I could leash him. But we traveled off leash in very remote areas. He had a few ugly moments with other aggressive dogs. Both owners (that means me) were to blame.
  3. If your dog is soaking wet, don’t let him dry off on dry people. He may be having his day at the pond, but other people might have to go back to work. In dry clothes.
  4. Don’t let your dog hump people who are sitting down. Did I even have to say this?
  5. Keep your dog away from all picnic areas. Don’t let him urinate on personal items. (Did I have to say that?)
  6. Pick up the poop! Even if nobody is watching. Does a dog —- in the woods? Of course he does. Is it biodegradable? Sort of, but not instantaneously on the bottom of your flip-flops.
  7. Don’t play stick and encourage barking where people are resting. Find the “active” part of the park where the jocks are playing frisbee (in Amherst, we call it Ultimate).

There will always be people who hate dogs. And that is their loss. Personally, I don’t trust these people and worry about them. But we don’t need to make them hate dogs more. So abiding by some simple rules gives the rotten dog haters less to complain about.

Last week in New York, I guess my dogs — on leash — were taking up too much of the sidewalk. A huffy passer-by said to me, “Control your dogs, please.” There was nobody else on the street! On a quiet West Village block, no less, at 10 a.m. I wonder what he says to the tourists walking into you on the wrong side of the street. Or stopping short at a crosswalk to look at a map in a cluster. Or asking where the Sex and the City house is. “Go back to Japan?”

Let’s all play nice! It’s a big city and a big country. After all, life is just one big walk in the park!

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Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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