Thursday, December 11, 2014

Walking Your Dog Off-Leash: Safe or Sorry?

I'm a Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

When I moved from Fort Worth, Texas to Old Lake Highlands in Dallas in 2010, I couldn’t wait to let my dogs off-leash while we walked around beautiful White Rock Lake. My dogs Zoe, a border collie/lab mix, and Buster, a blue-tick coon hound mix, made walking on-leash hard. At around 60 lbs. each, they pulled me down the street, getting tangled in each other’s leashes and around my legs, trees, and telephone poles. After 30 minutes I was exhausted and not looking forward to the next walk. 

So you can imagine how appealing it was to let my dogs off-leash at the lake. I quickly learned, however, that this was not allowed—on our third off-leash walk at WRL, I got a ticket. I was so frustrated, I turned a deaf ear to the police officer’s reason for ticketing me—SAFETY. Not only for other people and dogs, but for me and my dogs, too.

Now, having worked with hundreds of dogs over the past two years,  I see the wisdom of requiring dogs to be on-leash in public spaces, even in large parks. Why? Here’s a few reasons:

  •  Singularity. Each dog is an individual, with particular, precise life experiences. Your dog may exemplify the model canine at your home, where he knows the routine and feels safe. But this doesn’t mean that he will behave the same way outside your home. By the same token, you might encounter a dog who has a history with a dog like yours. Perhaps that dog across the park was attacked by a big yellow dog, like your Labrador retriever. In dogs, fear can quickly turn to aggression. And if you have a rescue dog, who knows what he experienced before he joined your family? He may have been bitten by a dachshund, so he is fearful and possibly aggressive toward all small brown dogs. Keeping your dog on-leash does not ensure safety, but it most definitely gives you more control.

  • Shots. Dallas, like most cities across the U.S., requires dogs to be registered with the city and to be vaccinated against rabies. Veterinarians go further, vaccinating against canine cough, distemper, parvovirus, and other canine diseases that can be easily spread. While your dog may be current on his vaccinations, other dogs you encounter might not. When you let your dog off-leash in a public park, you are putting her health at risk.

  •  Squirrel! As a dog owner, you know that chasing wildlife is often a dog’s most treasured activity. And when a dog kicks into “squirrel!” mode, he’s not thinking about staying within the boundaries of a public park. If he must cross a busy street to catch that squirrel, or bird, or possum, he’s going to cross and this is dangerous. Dogs don’t think about safety. That’s your job.

So. We know that walking your dog off-leash in public spaces isn’t safe, but walking her on-leash is a nightmare. So what to do?  These days, there are several good options.

  • Take your dog to a dog park. Over the past decade dog parks have sprung up all over the U.S. Some are amazing, like Fort Woof in Fort Worth and North Bark Dog Park in far north Dallas. As East Dallas-ites, we have a dog park right in our own neighborhood—White Rock Lake Dog Park. I confess I haven’t visited this park very often; it was usually muddy and messy, with lots of poop not picked up by irresponsible dog owners. However, our local dog park is under renovation, slated to open in early 2015. It will be larger, have a proper drainage system, good lighting, and an awesome water entry point into WRL for dogs who love to swim. I can’t wait!

  • Take your dog to day care. Around much of the world today, people are having fewer children, but adopting more dogs. In the past decade day care for dogs has turned from being an anomaly to one of the fastest-growing businesses in the U.S.  My husband Steve and I opened  Camp Bow Wow – Dallas High Five, a Doggy Day and Overnight Camp, in October 2012. All dogs require exercise to be happy and healthy and this is especially true for working and hunting breeds—shepherds, retrievers, pointers, terriers. Most of our Campers fall within these breeds. Coincidence? I think not. At Camp they can run and play in large indoor and outdoor play yards supervised by Camp Counselors trained in dog psychology and certified in canine first aid and CPR. There are many options for doggy day care in the greater Dallas area. Dogs must be spayed or neutered and be current on vaccinations. To learn more about what we offer at Camp Bow Wow, go to

  • Have someone else walk your dog. For dogs who are not suited to day care but still need exercise, pet sitters are a great option. In-home pet care is still in its infancy, but it’s growing rapidly and offers services from basic potty breaks to 30, 45, and 60 minute visits to your home that can include a walk. A simple Google search for “in-home pet care” will give you a variety of businesses from which to choose, all of them geared to your specific needs and schedule.  If you hire a pet sitting service, make sure that they are insured and bonded by an organization like Pet Sitters International.  We opened Home Buddies, our own in-home pet care service, in November of this year to help our customers who were unable to book boarding at Camp for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can find more information on Home Buddies at our Camp website, above. Click on Pet Sitting and Dog Walking under Services on the left.

While it’s very tempting to let your dog off-leash in public spaces, it’s a really bad idea. You may love to see your dog running free with that big smile on his face and the wind in his coat, and without doubt he loves it, too. But as a responsible pet parent, only you can make sure that he keeps on running for a long time to come.

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