When I was 21, I lived about 800m from a dog beach and I would proudly walk there morning and night, through a small shopping village with my dog off lead, healing by my side until he was at the park.
I want to share the knowledge I have gained over the past decade, from working with many on lead reactive dogs and people suffering from Cynophobia (a fear of dogs), in an attempt to explain the effect this seemingly harmless activity has on the wider community.
On lead reactivity is an increasingly common behavioural issue in suburbia and as a dog trainer I hear more often than not people say, ‘back in my day there were very few ‘dog trainers’ and dogs seemed to be fine’.
That’s possibly true, however 30 or so years ago, life in the suburbs for dogs, was very different compared to today. With lower density living and more relaxed laws on pet ownership, dogs would frequently jump the fence (if there was one), roam the streets, have instinctive interactions with other dogs, (without human supervision), and be home in time for dinner.
Today, with increased population and the rise in pet dog numbers, rules around on lead use are essential for the safety of dogs, road users, native animals and people.
Leads unfortunately create a brand new set of issues. If the dog isn’t conditioned to being on lead properly and the owner doesn’t understand how a lead can effect a dogs psychological state… on lead reactivity is highly likely.
Fight or flight response in dogs is an innate survival instinct. A dogs primary defence mechanism if they find themselves in a stressful or scary situation is ‘flight’. If a dog is on lead and unable to escape something they deem to be scary, then fighting back is inevitable. This can be dangerous because, if an on lead dog is surprised or rushed by an off lead dog, the dog on lead may act uncharacteristically towards the off lead dog due to the unfair position they are in. Dogs can pick up immediately that they are restrained and another dog isn’t, making them feel more vulnerable.
Every dog trainer will work with an ‘on lead reactive’ dog on a weekly, if not daily basis. In most cases, it’s reactivity towards other dogs, stemming from aggression, fear or sometimes excitement/frustration upon seeing another dog and being stuck on lead.
The owners of these dogs are going above and beyond, not to mention spending a lot of time and money, trying to help their dog overcome it’s issues and abide by the rules of society. This relies on controlled measures in normal situations, such as walking out their front door or down their own street, in order to condition their dog to being comfortable on lead around other dogs.
An unexpected dog entering their “threshold distance” or even the SIGHT of a dog roaming off lead in the distance can set their training back literally months if they are not ready for it yet. The anxiety and frustration this causes in those dog’s owners is really upsetting when you consider the lengths they are going to in order to fix the situation. Many of my clients will go for midnight walks, take “dog spotters” with them or drive to particularly quiet or industrial areas just to walk their beloved pet where there isn’t the fear of an off lead dog setting them back.
All of these dog owners know the places they should stay away from, but sometimes it feels impossible to avoid these trigger situations when they are confronted by it outside there own front door in areas they shouldn’t be worried about.
Now I want you to imagine what this would be like if you or your family member suffered from Cynophobia. A morning walk to the local corner shop becomes a huge ordeal from fear of being greeted by an unleashed dog and the unpredictability of that situation. Simple life activities become incredibly stressful; sitting at a cafe with friends, attending a child’s sporting match or the freedom of just going for a stroll around the block. An off lead dog is far more intimidating than one on lead and just the way humans can immediately spot the difference, dogs can too!
Generally speaking, the person walking the off lead dog may never realise they are impacting those around them, I certainly didn’t. No one will complain, act out of sorts or even present visible signs of distress. What’s really happening though, are dozens of dog owners and people with Cynophobia are frantically running through their training and calming exercises and putting all their effort into ensuring they feel like they can survive without making their condition or their dogs worse, so it is unlikely they will even make eye contact with you.
I’m not targeting the owner who sneaks across the road to the oval for a cheeky game of fetch before work. I’m wanting to give confidence back to people and dog owners who are anxious to step outside their own front door, by encouraging people to keep all dogs on lead in suburban streets and through busy thoroughfares. People and dogs are already faced with enough issues such as narrow walkways, blind corners, high stimulation and unpredictable moments when walking around urban streets. Let’s remove the added obstacle of dogs off leash.
If your dog is trained well enough to heel beside you when going for walks in these locations, the addition of a lead shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience but rather an appropriate accessory, helping out your fellow community members.