Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

Mint Springs Valley Park hike
Practicing some off-leash hiking, September 2014.

Related to my thoughts on the impeccably mannered British dog and to my dad’s practice with our dogs off leash this summer, I have started to piece together some conclusions about why European dogs have their ish together so much more than American dogs seem to, on the whole.

Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:

  • Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
  • Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
  • All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.

Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.

All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who

  1. have excellent recall;
  2. don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
  3. seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.

This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.

And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
  • I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.

Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.

I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!

So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.

Freedom for the pups in Davidson. We're all so delighted to be with family. #doglife #carolinachristmas

What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?

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11 thoughts on “Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

  1. Interesting post topic and questions. I, too, have noticed a more relaxed manner in European dog lovers. But maybe that’s because they have made their expectations clear + socialize their dogs early and regularly to cultural norms? Many a small dog becomes a terror, like children, when left to think they know how to handle everything by having a temper tantrum.

    I’ve done a bit of thinking on this topic, but so far no writing. I have written on Stanely Coren’s premise that small dogs and large dogs live radically different lives, small dogs being expected to be eternal puppies and large dogs more comfortable with growing up learning social cues from other dogs. Have you read any dog books by Coren?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you; there does seem to be a more relaxed manner in the way that Europeans relate to their dogs.

      I have read a few books by Coren: his one about why people love certain breeds and his book on dog intelligence. I find them to be more “pop psychology” than anything, but I have enjoyed them. I think that observation is sound, however; that big dogs and small dogs probably lead radically different lives. I see toy breeds get away with behavior that I’d probably be arrested for if I let my German shepherds practice it (growling at strangers, trying to bite them, pitching tempter tantrums, etc.).

  2. I think you stated the key words, “Europeans have high expectations of their dogs.” The human expectations are the key difference between Brits and Yanks. They are in general a politer people than Americans. So it’s no stretch to extrapolate that their dogs will be better mannered as well. After all, our pets’ behaviors are a direct reflection of our own for the most part. They live wrapped up in our lives, so if our lives are more chaotic, and I believe Americans are the most chaotic individuals on the planet due to our ubiquitous propensity to abuse our greater levels of personal freedom, then why shouldn’t our pets be also less disciplined and mannerly and poorly acquainted with behavioral boundaries? The leash is just the tool by which we teach these boundaries. Nothing more. The real crux of the issue is our inability to properly leash train ourselves first, the dogs second!

  3. There are so many articles out there preaching the benefits of allowing dogs off leash time. I wish my dogs had better recall, because I would love to allow them off leash. I have seven beautiful acres, with a pond, a creek, and woods, and it must all be explored on leash.

    My boyfriend tends to express tension through the leash, thus setting the dog off. I have talked to him ad nauseam about it, but he gets so nervous, and whichever dog he is walking picks up on it.

    I love reading about your dogs’ off leash adventures with your dad. I love how calm and confident your dad is, and the girls obviously pick up on that.

    1. I know! I too feel a lot of pressure to get them more off-leash time, but it’s hard to come by and it’s hard to practice if/when you are, like me, (a) anxious and (b) transfer that to the dogs, and (c) thus they don’t have superb recall. My dad seems able to get them to behave a lot better than I do, on the whole!

  4. Every trainer I have worked with has admonished the class that “our anxiety is transmitted through the leash to our dog.” In an attempt to take this influence out of the training, trainers use many techniques such as throwing the leash over the right shoulder, hands off, or tying the leash around the waist. Advanced dogs are walked in perfect heel around class with no leash.

    I think Americans are more tense about life in general and that spills over into our expectations of our dogs. We expect dogs to behave less the way they would prefer and more like the anthropomorphized view we hold of them. Their behavior is a reflection on our life status and we don’t want our dog pooping on someone else’s yard because it makes us feel embarrassed.

    Trying to explain the difference between the curb side of the grass and the private side of the lawn to a dog is a frustrating experience. Eventually you can set a habit but in reality if the dog sees a cat on the private side of the sidewalk, all bets are off. So I’ll bet those European dogs don’t bother honoring such insignificant differences either.

    Every dog has the potential to be trained to be extremely responsive to us. Come to me can be a wonderful game between friends. But in many cases it is spoiled forever when it becomes routine, boring and the dog picks up on the lack of enthusiasm when they are called. Dogs will follow you and may even come to you if they feel it is going to be worthwhile to do so. What do Europeans have that dogs might find more tempting than their American counterparts?

    Do dogs off leash feel superior to their owners? It’s possible, they certainly live their lives still in the canine pattern of behavior and never understand the confusion about this that their humans exhibit every waking moment. Everything is mine, even if you happen to have it in your possession at the moment. I really don’t care about why you want to go through the door first, I will always just go through the door first, no questions because I am a dog.

    In short, perhaps many Americans have simply forgotten that dogs behave like dogs and always use the same canine language they were born with, throughout their lives. Meanwhile humans attempt at all times to communicate with dogs using the English language (or French etc) and usually disregard the canine language as insignificant and meaningless. With this kind of communication failure it is a certainty that American dogs will continue to react rather than act. Maybe French is easier for them to understand?

    1. Very interesting thoughts; thanks so much for your comment. A lot of these ideas have been rolling around in my head for quite some time now; you expressed them well.

  5. Abby, I find this so interesting and puzzlingly true. We just got back from a trip to Europe and found the dogs in Salzburg, Prague, and Switzerland (on the whole) much better behaved and polite dogs. They were not straining on their leashes, they kept close to their humans (although I notice Europeans as a whole keep a much shorter leash lead on their dogs than we do). And this calm demeanor was exhibited even in the middle of high-tourist areas.

    I must admit I have returned here with great jealousy for what I saw. There was a park in Prague where we could not read the sign, but the images indicated that dogs were to be “off-leash” and NOT “on-leash.” Seriously! As a whole, the dog-owners we encountered, were much more relaxed as were their dogs (absolutely NO ONE hikes with their dog on a leash in Switzerland!). I wonder if there is just an inherent fear in America of the liability entailed in allowing our dogs to be off-leash.

    One area to be applauded in the US: the Boston Common where a fenceless and leashless dog park is unofficially maintained. Maybe we need to trust our dogs more?

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