Downeast Dog News

Off-Leash Etiquette

Ideas for maintaining privileges, peace and safety
By | May 01, 2022

Last month, I talked about handling dogs on-leash in public and how our artificial, designed-for-humans-only environment of sidewalks and cities can be rather dog-unfriendly. I explored the significance of “personal space” and how this single consideration lies at the core of interactions.

Personal Space: “the physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them.” (Oxford Languages)

Our privileges to access off-leash destinations are eroding, little by little, due in part to the fact that we don’t always follow leash laws. We all travel together in the same Dog Owner Ship, and we share the same ultimate goal: to provide our dogs with an enriching, satisfying, healthy life in which they feel safe both physically and emotionally.

There is nothing more beautiful than seeing our dogs fly, chase, and revel in the freedom of being off-leash. I fully embrace the idea that dogs need regular, aerobic off-leash exercise in order to achieve ideal health. It’s not always possible, of course, but we can try our best.

When our dogs are with us in leashed-only areas, it’s fairly easy to maintain our own personal space and respect that of others’. The length of the leash and the way in which the human manages it dictate how much space is being “claimed,” so to speak, and we can navigate our way accordingly.

The Rules of Etiquette as described for leashed-only locations don’t work as well in off-leash areas, but the Personal Space Rule still applies, and we should do our best to follow it.

Please “DO”

• Carry a leash with you, one per dog.

• Take treats! Your dog will be in training, whether or not you intend to train.

• Leash your dog in areas where there is a requirement to do so.

• Leash your dog if you see someone with a dog on-leash and keep your dog from approaching them. The human who has leashed his dog is saying, “we prefer you stay out of our space.” It’s not a personal statement about anybody.

• Leash or restrain your dog when you see other dogs or humans. It’s just good manners to keep your dog with you unless the others give permission to be approached. A dog cannot cause physical harm to somebody he can’t touch.

• If someone asks you to leash your dog while they pass with his or her dog, please do so. Remember, it’s about mutually cooperative respect; it's not a question of your dog's temperament.

Please Do Not:

• Take it personally if someone asks you to leash your dog. It isn’t about “you”.

• Run towards your dog to try to catch him as he’s running towards someone. This may work with some dogs, but if you don’t have your special flying shoes on, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to catch up to your running dog. Instead, try running in the opposite direction - if you have a good connection with your dog, he may decide he’d rather be with you. Granted, this all depends on the individual dog.

• Assume every dog should want to be friends with your dog

• Say, “my dog is friendly.” Lucky you if this is true! It is irrelevant, however, when we are referring to someone else’s personal space.

• Say, “but… my dog just wants to ‘say hi.’" Ditto. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about your dog.

• Allow your dog to charge other dogs or people. This is not a friendly way to start a conversation; in fact, it can incite an aggressive response. Charging eliminates the target audience's opportunity to give consent.

Training to the Rescue!

Skills to train before you take your dog off-leash:

• Recall

• Eye Contact/Attention with Distractions

• Leash skills

A note about Dog Parks

It is expected that dogs will be off-leash at dog parks, and in general the rules are more relaxed and the human audience more forgiving. For these reasons, dogs can pick up some pretty bad habits! It’s still good practice to apply the rules anyway.

"Under Voice Control"

It’s unreasonable to expect a dog or any other being to be 100% responsive to all requests, but it is reasonable to do our best to train our dogs to be good canine citizens wherever they go.

Happy Training!