A Blog Post

Should You Leash Your Dog In Public Parks?

It’s a Norman Rockwell kind of Sunday morning in the fall – bright and cool, and perfect dog-walking weather. I’m out with my 11-month-old German Shepherd puppy in Little Falls Park in Bethesda, Md., which his dog heaven in every respect. Narrow trails snake through a patch of woods along a shallow creek and thoughtful dog owners have stuffed bunches of plastic bags into the uprights of the trash barrels,. But there are also signs reminding everyone to keep their dogs leashed. I chose the park to expose Inka to bikers, jogging groups, baby strollers and other dogs as part of her ongoing socialization to the big world.  Inka is curious, energetic and enthusiastically friendly to people (read, she jumps up) and is wearing a head collar and a six-foot leash.  I want all encounters to be pleasant and fun, but most of all, I want to keep her under my control and safe.  I also want to keep her legal.

Early-morning strollers are few this day. We pass an older couple deep in conversation as their small black terrier toddles along on a bright red leash.  Inka yips and dances around a little as we approach, but I encourage her to move along.  Then I see trouble up ahead:  three dogs off-leash dashing in wide circles around three adults and two elementary school-age children, all of whom are standing still and chatting, oblivious to the dogs.  A light-brown mixed-breed youngster weighing about 40 pounds makes a beeline for Inka, barking as he approaches.  Luckily, his owner is on the ball and runs up to snag his collar, saying she’s sorry but he’s a puppy and doesn’t know any better as she leads him away.  A black Labrador type with a graying muzzle keeps his distance, and the third dog, who looked much larger than the other two, has disappeared into the underbrush. So far so good, but there’s more.

On the way back, I see the same three dogs again, still off-leash, but this time the humans are about 20 feet off the trail on the banks of Little Falls Creek, and the three dogs are splashing in the shallow water. I speed up a little, hoping to pass by without incident, but in a split-second, an 80-pound Boxer, the underbrush dog, is in Inka’s face.  I stop, not wanting to invite a chase.  At that instant – and it was terrifying – I hear a roaring snarl and see a flash of white teeth as the Boxer lunges for Inka’s neck. I yell, “Get your dog” and try to pull Inka’s head  out of the Boxer’s reach.  He backs off, and I hear a little girl’s voice saying, “Sorry, he belongs to our cousin from out of town, and he’s not trained.”  Feeling lucky that the Boxer’s teeth hadn’t connected, we started toward the footbridge.

The Boxer came after us again as we crossed the bridge, but this time I was prepared to kick him out of the way. I didn’t have to, as the owner, a 40-something guy looking sheepish, took a few steps toward his dog and called him off but did not leash him or take his collar.

Bottom line:  Inka wasn’t hurt, although it took her at least 10 minutes to stop bouncing around and looking behind us, and it took just as long for my heart to stop pounding. Who knows what the Boxer was up to, most likely just posturing to scare us off, but his actions had a huge punishing effect on me and likely will make me think twice about returning to the park. Inka is a confident puppy and may not form a long-term dislike of Boxers or generalize to all loose dogs, but the jury is still out.

Should you leash your dog in a public park?   Well, it depends.
1. Do you have a recall that is so solid you’d bet big money on your dog’s responding to it instantly even away from squirrels, joggers, children, cats and other dogs?
2. Does your dog respond instantly and at any distance to your cue to sit, down or stay with the same distractions?
3. Do you scan your surroundings and call your dog to you and leash him when you see a person, jogger or other dog in the distance and hold on to him until the distraction has passed?
4. Do you keep an eye on your off-leash dog at all times, so that you can call him before he threatens or unwittingly scares someone?  Even people who love dogs, like me, don’t want off-leash dogs running up to my dog, no matter how friendly the owner claims they are.  And then there are the people who don’t like dogs or are afraid of them or allergic.  They are also tax-paying citizens who should be able to enjoy the park.

If you can answer YES to the first two questions, your dog has earned his freedom to run off-leash in a place where the behavior is permitted.  But if you’re in a park where it’s illegal to let your dog run free, you run the risk of having your dog labeled dangerous, even if he only caused a person to feel threatened.  If that person files a complaint, you might have to go to animal court and pay a large fine or, in some jurisdictions that have breed restrictions, risk losing your dog.

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