Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Many dog owners dream of a world where dogs aren't restrained by a leash, a place where dogs are allowed to move freely and dog owners can have their hands free without worrying about their dogs tugging left and right or getting tangled. They dream of a place where dogs can burn out their excess energy to their heart's content.
In this fantasy world, dogs with a need to run can finally stretch their legs or they can just choose to explore and sniff around; dogs who are social butterflies can mingle with other dogs and interact with them more naturally; and dogs can express their free will, make decisions, and possibly even engage in some problem solving—hopefully consistently making good choices.
While this taste of life off the leash sounds like a blissful state of being, it is of course not without risks. It can be easy to underestimate these risks dazzled from the sheer enjoyment of watching dogs interact with the environment, only to realize how precious our dogs are, following a bad experience.
Don't fall into the trap of regretting your choice of keeping your dog off leash. There are too many dangers associated with this practice. It is best to limit your dog's off-leash adventures to securely fenced areas or safe areas where you have ascertained there are minimal risks. And remember—even the best-trained dogs are at risk when off leash. Even service dogs are required to be on a leash, so regular pet dogs shouldn't be exempt even if they can do backflips or make you a cup of coffee.
If you know of dog owners who live near you who keep dogs off-leash or allow them to roam, feel free to pass this article on to them. The dangers aren't so obvious sometimes. If this article can save just one or two lives, it was worth writing and achieved its mission.
1. Risk of Being Hit by a Car
Just the other day, in a group created for grieving dog owners, I saw a post that grabbed my attention. The person was extremely upset when her dog was hit by a car right in front of her eyes. She kept her dog off-leash to wander one evening, thinking nothing of it, until her dog's final yelp reminded her how precious lives can be cut short in the blink of an eye.
Of course, she couldn't get that final yelp out of her mind as she was replaying over and over the scene of her dog's final moments. "If only, I had her on a leash," she remarked, guilt seeping through her words. This is just one case of many. Countless dogs are hit by cars each year. It is difficult to find accurate statistics, considering that, not all dog owners seek veterinary care for their injured dogs and some dogs may be strays or lost dogs.
Regardless, don't fall into the trap of thinking that your dog is "street smart" or that drivers will avoid your dog. Motorists have a hard time seeing dogs due to blind spots and drivers often spot the dog only once it's too late. And even if your off-leash dog doesn't end up being hit by a car, he can still wreak havoc in places with traffic. Nobody wants to run over a fleeting dog if they can do all they can to avoid him. Sometimes, in the effort of dodging a dog who is crossing the road, cars will collide leading to ugly, potentially fatal accidents.
Both children and dogs lack the experience and insight to appropriately judge risks or to anticipate what adults might consider obvious dangers, like busy roads. Balancing freedom with safety can surely lead to a better life for dogs and humans alike.
— ~Marc Bekoff, Jessica Pierce, Unleashing Your Dog, A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion th
2. Risk of Harming Humans
Dogs can easily harm humans in various ways. Of course, all dogs in the right circumstances can bite. Even if your dog is mellow, don't underestimate the possibility of him causing physical or emotional harm to others. Your dog can jump on people and his enthusiastic greetings can easily knock down a child or a wobbly senior. As he jumps, he can also scratch the skin of people with his nails or even cause damage to their clothes (ripping them apart, causing paw prints).
Emotional harm should also be considered. Not all people are eager to meet dogs, especially dogs they do not know. Some people are fearful of dogs and a wrong encounter may even traumatize them for life.
Although my mom liked animals as a child, she has never forgotten that day a very large dog rushed up to her and placed his front legs on her shoulders. Although the dog was just enthusiastically greeting her, this event frightened her at a deep level, especially considering that this dog's owners were repeatedly calling the dog and the dog was oblivious to their requests and was reluctant to back down. Still as of today, she describes this event with an alarmed tone of voice.
3. Risk of Chasing/Killing Animals
Many dogs have strong instincts to chase, and when off-leash, will give into these instincts. While watching a dog chasing squirrels or birds from a park may yield a laugh or two, things change dramatically if the dog manages to capture these critters leaving a trail of blood behind.
Not to mention the horror of a dog grabbing a kitten or cat and shaking it with side-to-side neck movements. It's unfortunate, but every year, countless dogs kill cats, chickens, hamsters ducks and other furry animals that stimulate their prey drive. Many times, dog owners would never expect their dogs to carry out such "murderous" acts, but sadly these events do occur.
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4. Risk of Meeting Aggressive Dogs
"He's friendly, he just wants to say hello!" says a dog owner from a distance with a leash in the hand as Rover rushes towards another dog on a leash. "Well, mine is not, please take control of your dog!" says the other dog owner with a death grip on the leash as her dog is growling and lunging.
This happening sadly occurs more often than expected. Just because a dog is friendly and loves going to the dog park, doesn't mean that all dogs are the same way. Sadly, all it takes, is, once again, a negative encounter to act as a wake-up call for the dog owner to put Rover forever back on the leash.
Don't let this happen to your dog. A dog fight can be scary, and it can leave costly physical scars (that you may be held accountable for, paying any related medical bills), but also emotional ones. Recovering from a dog attack emotionally can be a long and tedious path, a path that could have been easily avoided.
5. Risk of Impacting Other Dogs
Sometimes dog owners own dogs in which they have invested a lot of work, either remedial work for fear/reactivity/aggression or advanced training as it happens with service dogs.
Owners of fearful reactive dogs may have taken their dogs to special classes, investing lots of money and time in rehabilitating their dogs so that they are no longer overanxious and hypervigilant, constantly scanning for dangers such as a rude off-leash dog approaching. It can take just one negative encounter to un-do all the hard work these owners have invested in getting their dogs to trust the world around them again.
Sadly, it's also not unheard of service dogs being ruined by the wrong encounter. In this case, the service dogs are walked normally, and the off-leash dogs can wreak havoc, interfering with their work and even causing long-lasting emotional repercussions.
It takes many years of training to produce a service dog. These dogs are taught to carry out a variety of tasks or they may be trained to provide emotional support. When walked, these dogs should not be pet by people and other dogs should keep their distance so that these dogs can work undisturbed.
An off-leash dog can negatively impact a service dog in many ways. A concentrated service dog may be startled and develop a fear of other dogs even with just one encounter. Sometimes, service dogs may also be attacked and injured both physically and emotionally. Here is one sad story: An off-leash dog ruined my life.
6. Risk of Eating Something Toxic
With your dog off-leash at a distance from you, he is likely to make some bad choices. He may, therefore, decide to eat things he finds on the ground which may be potentially harmful and even toxic. Examples include poisonous plants, rat poison, random things found on the ground, contaminated dirt (which may contain eggs of parasites), etc. Not to mention the possibility of swallowing things that may lodge in a dog's intestinal tract, causing a dog intestinal blockage and potentially leading to costly surgeries.
7. Chances of Soiling in Inappropriate Places
On-leash, your dog will likely pee or poop in areas that you take him to. Worst case scenario, if he soils on the sidewalk, as an exemplary citizen, you pick up the poop and discard it. Off-leash dogs, on the other hand, are more likely to pee and poop in inappropriate places such as on the neighbor's lawn, car tires or on a mail boxes' post.
You might not always be aware of these "accidents" as dogs can be quite quick to eliminate, but your neighbors may hold a grudge against you and your dog if they witness them as they happen or smell the stench of dog urine hours later, or even worse, if their child happens to put his foot in your dog's mess.
There is concern that introducing off-leash areas could lead to increased dog-fouling due to greater density of dogs in designated park areas and reduced owner vigilance. Not only is the presence of dog feces aesthetically unappealing, undisposed feces can lead to slips, falls, and subsequent injuries, as well as the transmission of zoonotic agents.
— Rahim, T., Barrios, P.R., McKee, G. et al
8. Risk of Zoonotic Diseases
On top of the chances that your dog soils in inappropriate places, consider that exposure to dog feces that haven't been collected may predispose to a variety of infectious diseases that can be passed from humans to dogs (zoonosis).
According to a study, zoonotic diseases that may occur from contact with dog feces include campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis, and E. coli infection. Not to mention, a variety of parasites can be passed from dog to human (most often children) if your dog isn't properly de-wormed. Particularly problematic may be roundworms and hookworms. Of course, these risks go both ways: your dog may soil and transmit diseases and your dog can pick up diseases where other dogs may have soiled.
Potentially zoonotic gastrointestinal parasites of dogs and cats include the maternally transmitted intestinal roundworms and hookworms whose infective stages may contaminate and persist in the peridomestic environment (i.e. in proximity to humans).
— Peter M. Schantz, VMD, PhD
9. Risk of Learning Bad Habits
An off-leash dog risks learning several bad habits, which, become more and more ingrained, the more he is kept off leash and allowed to rehearse these habits. For example, an off-leash dog can learn to rush up to every dog or person he encounters. This behavior is highly reinforcing, so then, once he's put back on a leash, he'll still want to meet and greet every person which potentially leads to leash pulling and frustration and even the onset of barrier frustration.
Off-leash dogs may also learn other bad habits such as ignoring a recall and playing "hard to catch" if no steps are taken in helping the dog succeed. You may have heard people saying that keeping a dog off-leash is a privilege that can be granted to dogs with advanced obedience training and that, unless your dog has a stellar recall and readily responds to your cues to leave it and drop it, despite distance and distractions, your dog is not an off-leash candidate.
Well, here's the truth: even if your dog is highly responsive and comes when called despite strong distractions, he still shouldn't be off-leash for the simple fact that accidents can still happen even to the most obedient dogs.
10. Risk of Being Fined
Last but not least, keeping a dog off-leash is against the law in several cities. This means, that if your dog is caught off-leash in a public area where leash laws are in place, you could be fined. Fines may range from $75 to even $300 and more.
For some reason, many dog owners decide to put on their seat belts and stop at red traffic lights every single day but refuse to keep their dogs on leash. Hopefully, with this article, things will change.
"Safer" Solutions to Keeping a Dog Off-Leash
Unless you have access to safe areas where you have ascertained there are minimal risks to keeping a dog off-leash and you have taken your dog to classes where your dog is taught a reliable recall, your best bet is not to risk it. No off-leash running will ever be 100 percent safe. So what can be done alternatively? Here are some ideas:
- Let your dog romp and sniff to his heart content in a safely fenced yard. If you don't have one, ask family or friends if you can use their yard.
- Use a long line and let your dog explore on trails.
- Train a "go sniff" cue and give your leashed dog some time to sniff in certain areas on walks.
- Take your dog to selected places that are fenced-in and dogs are allowed off-leash freedom, always keeping safety in mind. An example may be an empty tennis court that is fenced all around (inquire if you can use it first).
- Rahim, T., Barrios, P.R., McKee, G. et al. Public Health Considerations Associated with the Location and Operation of Off-Leash Dog Parks. J Community Health 43, 433–440 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-017-0428-2
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 20, 2020:
Peggy, nice to hear that Houston offers many fenced parks for dogs.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 18, 2020:
This is an excellent article, Adrienne. You've raised a lot of good points and shared a lot of great advice. I wish more people did what you advised in your last section.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 18, 2020:
My neighbor has a German Shepherd and this dog is on a leash all day. When he does set the dog free occasionally it goes free and becomes over excited. Your points are valuable and so true.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 18, 2020:
The reasons to not let your dog run around off a leash are certainly very good. Thank you.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 17, 2020:
Exhaustive article. Helpful. Thanks.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 17, 2020:
Your points are well taken. We never let our dogs run off-leash except in our fenced yards or fenced dog parks. They have many dog parks in the Houston metro area which is great for people who live in apartments and wish for their dogs to run free in a safe environment.