Thursday, May 24, 2012

Promoting Discussion

UntitledAn anonymous comment was left by another Chieka follower on yesterday's post. I decided that it needs to be promoted to a new post because it brings up an issue that's important to me, off-leash opportunities for dogs. Let's kick off with the comment and then start discussing.

"Cheika and Bug are walked in Buena Vista and they are almost never on leads. I have always worried about the tiny dogs who aren't on leads. I think all dogs in a well-trafficked park should be on lead to protect the dogs, people, wildlife and gardens. Although it seems like a drag, the leash laws make a lot of sense."

I'm not going to disagree that there are calculated risks to spending off-leash time with your dogs but I do disagree with the way the comment leans toward victim blaming. I did a quick search and found that there's a relatively large section of Buena Vista Park that is designated for off-leash walking of dogs* so it's important to be clear that Chieka was well within her rights to be walking off leash in an area she knows well.

I don't know the specifics of the Buena Vista laws but I'm extremely familiar with the hard-won off-leash privileges in New York City so I'm going to work with them instead. For years the Parks Department extended a courtesy to dog owners that said that in designated areas of city parks dogs could walk unleashed between the hours of 9pm and 9am as long as they were within their person's vocal control. A few years ago a group of neighbors to a park in Queens made a big legal stink about dog people not cleaning up after their dogs**. The dog community in the city rose up, enlisted legal representation, and had the courtesy made law. Which is all to say that having time for one's dog to experience off-leash play is really important to a lot of people. Living in cities with a heavy reliance on public transportation and a low percentage of privately owned land it can be difficult to get sufficient exercise for young or high energy pups of all sizes. This law is a godsend for many of us. My dog in particular would be unmanageable without his time off-leash. We go every day for at least half an hour in the mornings and sometimes return in the evening. We also go on long leashed walks at other times of day.

7:25Not every dog can be off leash. Emily was off leash for some of her younger years but became unpredictable enough in defending herself from perceived slights by other dogs*** that she spent about half of her life leashed only. We didn't go to the park during off-leash hours because that was a drag for all of us. Sometimes quite literally for me. For the purposes if this discussion let's compare apples to apples and talk about two bully breed dogs, Bu and Stella.

Bu's people describe him as an inherently optimistic dog. Despite, or perhaps because of, spending nearly all of his first 8 months of life in a shelter cage he sees every new experience as an opportunity. Every person he sees on the street could be the love of his life. Every bite of food is the most delicious he's ever tried. Every dog is his best friend...unless they have designs on his ball. Even then he'll give a warning growl and move away. Sure, he's been in tussles. When he first arrived his optimism overflowed into a boundless, unfocused energy to the extent that people feared for the safety of his grown ups and some folks (for instance the first people who adopted him and sent him back) might have given up on having him off leash or living with him all together. But his grown ups have worked with him enough to capitalize on the optimism and he usually looks for their guidance and help before taking action. In fact, when he was so badly injured, Jen, Stella's grown up, said that even in the middle of the melee he looked up out of the scrum as if to say, "This is not fun. Where is my grown up? He'll fix this." Throughout the blood-staunching and travel in a strange car he remained perfectly calm, almost frighteningly so, until the vet techs removed him from Robert's embrace at which point he wigged. So Bu spends a lot of time off leash. He's in the park for a little under an hour nearly every day. Most of that time is spent communing with his ball and leaning up against unsuspecting strangers to get petted. He fetches like a madman but is often just as happy to lie on the grass chewing the toy until he goes into a trance. Robert does make him run a circuit of the park a couple of times a week. That requires withholding the ball so he'll travel at speed until we call him The Coursing Pitbull, an extremely rare breed. He races optimistically around the edge of our couple acres of park enjoying every view and stopping at intervals to make sure that Robert is keeping up.

Stella is relatively new to life, the park, and everything. Her people got her when she was under a year old and they've worked diligently to make her a good citizen. She's a favorite among our group of friends and has a string of dogs who seek her out for a good, tandem roll in the dirt. She is easily as strong and sporting as Bu but if he's Michael Phelps she's more George Foreman. Bu is loose and ready for the next race, looking to his inner music and teammates for cues. Stella loves her people, that's not up for debate. She seems, though, always to be waiting for the guy in the other corner to trash talk her. She'll shake hands, she'll put in her mouth guard but she wants to tussle be it with a toy that needs destroying, a squirrel that needs skinning, or another dog who needs to bow to her superior skills. She embodies the thrill of the chase and the joy of a battle to be faced head on. Her people, too, have worked hard to capitalize on her focus, speed, and strength with a number of unleashed strategies but have recently come to the conclusion that it's safer for them, for her, and for other dogs if she doesn't spend significant time off leash any more. She gets to wrestle with her favorite dogs, like Bu, and she's allowed to chase squirrels (who have a healthy head start) up nearby trees but the leash never comes off. It's always available to pick up again. At first her grown ups were apprehensive not because this meant more work for them (they now run with her several miles per day) but because they feared she'd feel left out. After a talk with a great trainer and some dedicated observation of their girl they realize that it's not the case at all. As long as she's getting enough exercise and getting to interact with people and dogs in some way she could care less about how much leash freedom she has. She is, also perhaps like Foreman, perfectly happy just to be at the party. Lesson learned and now everyone in the family feels good about the arrangement.

UntitledIn relation to Chieka's situation I want to stress again that I am not privy to any details of the altercation. I only know what's on Flickr (that photo is not for the faint of heart, it's new and she's still doing well but it's upsetting). Under the assumption that a larger dog approached her and injured her, I would place not blame but responsibility. I would say that the responsibility for controlling and perhaps leashing a dog lies with the other dog not with Heather and Derek in this case. I'll use my dog as an example here. He has a few triggers that will put him over the emotional edge into a place where he will not respond to my verbal, and sometimes physical, restraints. One of those triggers is unneutered dogs. There is a gorgeous red headed, unneutered pit mix in the park who is escorted by a man and sometimes a small yorkie mix. The dog used to be off leash regularly but is less so now. He's always sported a big harness for use as a handle. I've never seen him act aggressively toward other dogs. Eddie will run at him from yards away and just harry him. He nips at elbows and barks in ears and runs in circles until anyone in their right mind would give him a smack down. To date that dog never has. The man usually leashes him and holds him tight, despite a lack of overt reaction by the dog, and I'm left running in circles like an idiot around man and dog trying to retrieve my single-minded, ever-elusive terrier. By and large Eddie is a great dog off leash. He has good recall from far away, he checks in with me frequently of his own accord, and he's not especially inclined to stray. This dog is a trigger and the situation always goes the same, embarrassing, possibly dangerous way every time so when I see the man and his dog I take it upon myself to leash him up until we're well away. My dog is the aggressor in this situation so I think it's my responsibility to prevent an interaction that could go South.

It's a risk to allow off leash interaction between pets. There are fights in our park nearly daily. Usually it's a small scuffle akin to the shoving to wedge oneself on an overcrowded subway car. Occasionally something tragic and frightening happens. Yet I still believe it's invaluable, especially for high energy dogs like my own, to have this freedom, within parameters. Having that benefit outweigh the inherent risks depends on owners and training and the community at large. As the saying goes, one bad apple ruins the barrel, so there are no perfectly safe situations, that's what led me to write a whole post about my fears for my dog (and the realization that he can be a bad fucking apple). However, I know that for me for now the benefit is on the heavier side of the scale, keeping me rising at 6, loading my pockets with treats and trudging the blocks to the park. Inside the walls I unclip that leash and, after a quick treat and a release command, my dog's joy is, for me, undeniable.

*If I understand correctly what I read that section has some cross over with a designated hot air balloon launching section of the same park. I'm putting that on the list of places to go in case I need my dog's head to explode.

**It was later proved that the neglected excrement belonged to migrating geese and therefore had nothing at all to do with dogs or lazy dog people.

***For better or for worse she never injured other dogs but did sustain a number of small injuries herself. Eventually I was too afraid for her safety.


  1. Anonymous9:11 PM

    So weird this came up today. I saw a woman at the park with two dogs, one fostered and one recently hers. Both were on leash. Her dog is a little reactive. Recently, a small dog off leash and with a remote, texting owner, started humping her on leash dog and he bit and hurt it. The texting owner thinks the on leash owner should be 100% financially responsible. It felt very off to me.

  2. Anonymous9:19 PM

    I feel like off leash, as we've known it in Brooklyn, is amazing! Going to Boston it is a struggle to find local convenient places to exercise our dog. I am okay with Stella not being off leash with groups of dogs, its beyond what she can handle. I like to dream that when she's 5 or 6 she'll coolly follow us wherever we go and ignore any distractions. What we have with her now, where she is off leash with none or very few dogs around, and is able to sniff and chase squirrels and feel like a wild dog and then happily (on leash) greet her friends and new dogs alike, feels good to me. City dogs tolerate a lot to be our sweet companions and to not give them access to the nature we do have doesn't seem fair.

  3. I do think that humping gone bad incident is reversed. I'm given to understand that the general scuffle etiquette is to half the vet bills but in that case, were I a judge, I think I'd absolve the leash holder. If she called out to the texter immediately to ask for help and explain her dog and didn't get an immediate response I'd definitely absolve her.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who dreams of an older Stella who happily chills with a ball or toy next to the group. I mean, you know the story of Emily, getting less reactive as they get older is not exactly logical, but I dream of it. And I agree, she doesn't seem to be suffering at all so it's really probably a dream that just makes me feel better, she doesn't care.

  4. Anonymous11:37 PM

    Nice post; I really appreciate it. I walk my older, 40lb. dog in Buena Vista Park. I keep him on leash in BV for a number of reasons. Although the park is beautiful, it is ridded with city park potential hazards (used needles, etc.) Also, I don't want him to go after small dogs or squirrels (he's well-behaved, but not 100% of the time!). Most of the regulars know each other and each other's dogs. I know that certain dogs who are routinely off lead are going to lunge after my dog, and I wish guardians/owners of tiny dogs would realize that their size does not make them less dangerous (especially to themselves). Also, when they're with humans who are taking pics, talking, texting, whatever...that's a struggle to deal with. Unfortunately, adult conversations regarding this are often met with disdain, etc. Neighborhood politics can be childish. I love all dogs, but I am always fearful for the tiny dogs. Two years ago, one of the tiny dogs was scooped up in another dog's mouth and he ran with the small dog toward the top of the hill and under bushes, so that had a very bad ending.

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments and I admire your responsible behavior. I wish this had not happened; but I am so grateful that the healing seems to be going much better.

  5. There's a difference in off leash with no parental control and off leash with parental control. Hooper is always on a leash unless he's in is own (fenced in) back yard. He's runner. That's what he does. Eventually he comes back, but it's in between those times that scare me the most, so I keep him on a leash. When an owner of an off leash dog does nothing while his/her dog is seriously hurting another dog, that person is negligent. When we lived with Chris's mom, I took Hooper out for his nightly front yard patrol and one evening the guy across the street had his two large dogs out and playing in his front yard off leash. I had no problem with this. His yard. But when those dogs crossed the street to jump my dog and the guy stood there doing nothing, I was furious. He stood there doing nothing the entire time I was trying to break things up and herd Hooper back inside. Even while I was screaming at all parties. Finally, as I got Hooper half way inside, the guy came over and got his dogs and mumbled and apology.

    It's not the dog. It's the owner. Leash or no leash.

  6. I think that every dog-owner has a responsibility to train their dog to behave on leash. And especially in a city.

    We live in the country, and I still walk my dog on leash. Almost everyone in my neighborhood has a dog, and he gets along with them. But even so, he stays on leash unless we all agree to let them off and go play.

    I take him off leash only in "off-leash" dog parks or when other dog owners agree.

  7. kabbage7:35 PM

    Off-leash in public places is such a tricky thing. I am glad I live in suburbia and have a decent yard. It's not big enough for my 40lb dog to really run, but she can stretch her legs a little. Even here, though, we need to use public spaces to allow her to run. She's a marginal dogpark dog because she's a bit pushy and doesn't tolerate other pushy dogs well. We end up walking in other public parks at low-use times. Fortunately she has a very good recall and isn't very interested in other dogs or people, especially if I have her Kong Flyer.

    My old dog (16 when I lost her earlier this year) was good in dog parks as a young dog, then had some bad experiences and became defensively aggressive in them. She mellowed out around the age of 12 or so and could be in dog parks again, although by that time she had to be protected from the young rowdies.

    I do worry about the tiny dogs with Napoleon complexes in dog parks or out in public, especially when the owners do nothing to manage their behavior. Even my 40lb-ers could kill a small dog if they lost their patience and picked it up and shook it to make it stop bugging them. Since I'm down to one dog now I suppose I could pick mine up and kick at the little one so mine doesn't get blamed for being "aggressive."

  8. Miflohny1:16 PM

    Saying little dogs should be leashed because it's easy for big dogs to harm them is like saying small cars are unsafe because big cars can crush them - it's not the small cars that present the safety problem - it's the big cars.

    Small dogs should be considered a problem off leash only if they cause a problem because of their personality/actions.