Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Off-Leash Etiquette

Yesterday, I took Davie and Will for the first time to Truro's new off-leash park. A group of dog lovers advocated for off leash space for quite some time and the town finally caved, and the park opened a couple of weeks ago.

I am a huge off-leash enthusiast. Since 1995 there is rarely a day that my dogs are not off-leash. My favorites are trails in multi-use parks, beaches, mountain trails in the Rockies where we used to hike, and the wood roads where we live now. My least favorite are all-fenced-in, for dogs only spaces, which the one in Truro is.

It is small, as they typically are, and when we arrived we found a pile of poop in the parking lot and an out-of-control dog greeting us by the gate, which is also not unusual because parks like that are considered a free-for-all by some people who take a dog there who really needs a bit more work before he/she should be let off the leash.
This particular dog was held back by his collar when we entered, but released as soon as we closed the gate behind us, and charged right into my girls' face, tense and tiptoed. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, ignoring him, but he followed us, didn't recall and continued to body block and lean stiffly over my dogs' shoulder, who by then gave fearful signals. All the while his owner tried to convince me that his dog is not aggressive, and only got control back after I got cranky and told him (the dog) to get lost.
Whenever someone offers the information that his dog is NOT aggressive you can be pretty sure that he has knowledge that the dog actually is. People who have friendly dogs say that their dog is friendly, not NOT aggressive.
But I give the owner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe his dog is not aggressive because there isn't a blood bath.

So that was the not so good stuff that happens in every dog park. After that it got better. We met a lady who put her dog on the leash when she saw us cause her pooch is afraid of other dogs and runs, thereby eliciting a chase that frightens him even more.
Then there was a nice elderly couple whose adopted hound mix was in an off leash park for the first time. This dog was also scared when she saw us, so the female owner called her to come, and the dog did and was rewarded with a treat for it. She then also put her on leash and kept her on until they found a perfect little playmate she wasn't scared of - a young cockerpoo, who tried to play with Will also, but Will, still a bit stressed from the first encounter with the pushy, tense dog, barked him away, which got her leashed as a result.
Off-leash means that dogs can be off leash, not that they have to be, and it was really great to see that so many people understood that and alternated between having their dogs on and off, depending on the situation.

I wish that everybody would have a clue about behavior before they let their dogs run free; especially understand their own dog.
I recently witnessed an encounter between a young German shepherd and, what looked like, a Lab mix. They sniff-danced and began to play, but their interaction quickly turned into an intense chase and grab.
Often dog-to-dog rough play quickly changes into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand; the stronger one is no longer considered a peer, but an opponent. We see the same in sports. As soon as one team is better, the other often initiates aggression, or cheats, to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other usually loses interest and stops playing to avoid injuries. The problem is that by then the aggressor might be too aroused to stop, especially the young male dog. That is likely what happened with the shep/Lab encounter. The shep's owner was right there, quickly got control over her dog and leashed him to create distance, except the Lab mix, still off the leash, followed for more interaction. Yet, it was the Lab owner, who had no control over his dog, who blamed the shepherd, labeled him aggressive and gave the owner a dirty look.
Scenarios like the above usually play out with dogs that are of similar personality, and there is rarely just one dog at fault. It takes two to tango and not always is the one who expresses emotions overtly the instigator.

Good off-leash etiquette is to recognize when the dog is obnoxious and to step in. Off leash simply means that dogs are allowed to enjoy themselves without leash restraint. It does not mean that they can enjoy themselves at other dogs' expense. Some dogs love to play, and some to sniff and others want to play with their owners. If you see a dog on a leash in the off-leash park, it is a good idea to leash yours also, unless you have a solid "leave" command.
Play is play when it can easily be interrupted by distractions, which means that as long as the dog truly plays, she should be responsive to the owner. If she isn’t, she is too wound up and needs a time out.

Davie and Will did a lot of sniffing and marking yesterday at the new park. There is an open section where we played ball and also practiced down stays, which I realized during the tracking workshop needs practicing. So, all in all we had a good time and will be back periodically.


  1. Hi Sylvia

    I too love the privilege of off leash parks, but I do wish they would post some doggie etiquette rules at the park entrance. I’m fortunate that my dog has pretty good greeting skills. She is very selective as to who she approaches and for those she doesn’t want to bother with she just makes a big arc and circles around to position herself safely behind me. My pet peeve is with those dogs who are allowed to come barreling in at full speed and who want to run my small dog. I always try to block the dog, but sometimes I’m not successful. I really get ticked when the other dog runs my dog through the woods and possibly into the parking lot or road in harms way. I’m always amazed that the owner of the other dog never offers an apology or any assistance.

    I also don’t think it is right when people allow their dogs to either run way ahead or lag way behind out of their sight. How many times I have seen these dogs causing problems for others and leaving a mess that their owner never picks up.

    I had recently been to Point Pleasant Park and a woman had a young lab off leash that was jumping out of control and literally up into the face of another woman who was clearly terrified. I had to tell the owner of the dog to get it on a leash and under control ASAP. I can’t believe that she never offered an apology to this poor woman and could only make excuses for the dog. The enjoyment of the park is not just for dogs and we dog owners need to be respectful of that. When our dog steps out of line we need to take responsibility, get control and APOLOGIZE for any harm done.

    I’m very fortunate that my dog does not cause problems at the park and I really feel for those who have dogs that do. Maybe there needs to be an actual dog park class where dogs can learn some manners in greeting and owners can be taught what is and isn't acceptable(I know it would probably only be the responsible owners that would attend). For those who feel off leash is their right at everyone else’s expense, then perhaps an off leash doggie patrol person for the bigger parks to help educate and regulate would help.


  2. I agree with you, Marjorie, on all accounts. Not all dogs are angels all the time. Adults and children aren't perfect either and stuff can happen - that's just life. But at least owners have to acknowledge if their dog had a nuisance moment and apologize. My Newf loved nothing more than people - and to greet them up close and personal, including when he was wet. I always carried a twenty dollar bill with me to hand over for dry cleaning in case he dirtied someone's clothes.
    And owners of dogs who have many nuisance moments need to do something about it.