Encountering off-leash dogs

Photo by Anne Cutler.

I recently took a walk with a friend on a big section of a popular trail in town that runs along a river. The trail system spreads for miles around the city and it’s a very popular route for dog people, for obvious reasons. In just an hour of walking, we saw tons of people with their dogs: A pregnant woman with her older shih tzu and pomeranian puppy; a little boy with his all-white American bulldog; an elderly man and his elderly mixed breeds; a parade of labs; a woman and her chubby Australian shepherd; a woman and her very vocal dachshund; a young guy and his Great Pyrenees…

The one thing that did surprise me, however, was how many of these dogs were off-leash, despite the fact that there were many signs posted along the trail stating that all dogs have to be leashed. None of these off-leash dogs seemed particularly “dangerous”–the two old dogs were so slow that they were barely walking, and the young lab who was off-leash was so fixated on the stick in his owner’s hand that he wasn’t looking at anyone else. We also saw a young male spitz/collie mix who seemed to either be a stray or to have been left behind by his humans, because he wasn’t with anyone. (He ran off in the woods before we could get that close to him to look for identification tags.)

Confession: I can be as guilty as the next person about sporadically breaking leash laws. Dublin and Dally are never leashed when we’re at the park in my hometown, mostly because the park is sparsely populated. If we do ever see a dog, we leash them, but they’re usually romping free, and Dublin, for one, is extremely responsive to verbal commands. I’ve hiked a trail with Bo off-leash, too, but it wasn’t an official trail, so there were no leash laws governing it. In general, though, I always leash and try to use common sense about it. It’s safer for everyone. So, I know this. I just wanted to admit my hypocrisy up front.

But. On this particular trail, seeing these many off-leash dogs did make me a little nervous about using this trail in the future. It’s not like it’s a sparsely used park or an unofficial path in the forest; this is a heavily trafficked trail system, used by all sorts of people: Dog people, young families, teenagers, bikers, runners, and even the city’s homeless.

What if we have a dog who isn’t great with other dogs rushing up to him or her? Our dog would always be leashed, but you can’t control an unleashed dog from rushing forward. (*Side story: Zoe and I narrowly escaped a potentially frightening situation like this. I was walking her in her neighborhood, and a young German shepherd was loose in his front yard. There were college students standing out in the yard, too, but none of them were looking at the dog, who started to charge toward us, growling. I stopped behind a hedge and shouted over it, “PLEASE leash your dog!” Thankfully, they heard me and grabbed the dog and we could continue without fear for our lives…)

How do you prevent this situation from escalating–an unleashed dog rushing up to your leashed one? Have you ever encountered this before?

What I learned this week

Cockapoo Puppies
A cockapoo. Source: Flickr, user: melmansur

This weekend, we went to Raleigh for my brother-in-law’s college graduation. I got a bit of time with two dogs there: his housemate’s lab, Sally, and his girlfriend’s cockapoo, Adelaide.

Sally is a two-year-old yellow labrador retriever. She lives in a house with four college guys and so she’s developed an exceptional level of noise tolerance. The first time I met Sally, she was a nine-week-old puppy who was being passed around at a Superbowl party like a bowl of chips. She was pretty sleepy most of the time but handled it all gracefully. Today, Sally is a large, sleek young adult who is smart and devoted. The boys in the house do spend a lot of time with her and have trained her to do a variety of party tricks. She can speak and bow on command and will do just about anything to get her beloved tennis ball.

What I learned from watching Sally, though, was the importance of consistency in cues. I felt frustrated for poor Sally. A new trick she was learning was balancing a tennis ball on her snout and then catching it with a command. Different guys would come up to her and try to get her to perform this task, but often unsuccessfully. I think Sally was totally capable of performing, but the poor dog was so confused. Win, my brother-in-law, gave her the command “hold” while he balanced the ball on her nose. But there were a dozen people moving around and eating in the room and I think Sally was too distracted to perform. Two other guys tried this trick with Sally after Win. The first guy kept telling her “stay” while he held the ball over her nose and the other one gave her the cue “don’t move.” Poor Sally isn’t fluent in English. She didn’t know that these words all meant the same thing. Consistency is key in training; we often forget that dogs don’t speak English and don’t often understand our verbally complex or confusing requests.

Adelaide is a two-year-old black cockapoo who belongs to Tracy, my brother-in-law’s girlfriend. I went over to Tracy’s apartment to meet Adelaide and take her out before we went to a party. She’s a small mop who is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see her black eyes under her curly black fur. Adelaide was very submissive when I met her and so I tried not to reach down or over her when we met; rather, I crouched down a few feet from her and held out my hand for her to sniff and greet me on her own terms. After that initial contact, she was very snuggly and wanted to climb up into my lap.

Tracy shared Adelaide’s back story with me. I suspected that Adelaide might not have benefited from good parentage, since small breed mixes are very often farmed out in puppy mills or by irresponsible backyard breeders. Tracy saw a sign for puppies on the side of the road in her hometown and quickly found herself staring at a puppy mill. She said that Adelaide was kept in a small cage with seven other dogs. The man let out the puppies and Adelaide crawled on top of Tracy’s feet and looked at her. Tracy was heartbroken and conflicted. She was witnessing how terrible and unethical puppy mills were, and yet her heart was drawn to this abused little puppy.

Tracy took Adelaide home and began her long work of training and rehabilitation. Adelaide had some serious food aggression issues, which are quite common to puppies from puppy mills, who have to fight their cage-mates if they want to get enough to eat. She was also extremely fearful of men and is still very wary around them today. Tracy has worked with Adelaide through most of these issues, but she admitted to me that it hasn’t always been easy and she might have made some different choices had she known then what she knows now.

I felt very conflicted about Adelaide’s story. On one hand, I’d never want to give any money to the frankly evil people who run puppy mills. On the other hand, you have to wonder what will happen to these sick, abused dogs. Who else might end up with them? It’s very likely that some other unscrupulous person might end up with these maltreated puppies.

I don’t really have the answers on these questions, but I think about them often. For more information, read the ASPCA’s list of 10 ways you can help fight puppy mills. It’s high time this grotesque phenomenon of the mass production of pets ended.