The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe

April 13, 2011

There’s a group of people who walk their dogs around our local park early most mornings. Although the areas they frequent are perimeter pathways as opposed to the official enclosed dog park area, all the dogs are off-leash. I’m painfully aware of this on the days I have Bodhi with me, as we have to take care not to get too close, lest one of their dogs wanders over to greet Bodhi and undoes all my hard work on his dog-dog reactivity.

Although I wish their dogs were leashed, the people are super friendly, and we always shout out a greeting when we pass. This morning, while out with Sierra, I encountered the group: six dogs, five owners. Sierra had met the youngest dogs before, a year-old Lab and his older brother, a newly adopted 2-year-old male mixed breed. We’ve also seen the others before, including an adult Boston terrier and a senior Viszla, and they all seemed friendly. I allowed Sierra to greet the dogs as I exchanged pleasantries with the people. We walked along the dirt roads together for a bit as we chatted, Sierra the only one on leash.

When we got to the concrete pathway where I normally turn, one of the men said, “Oh no, we don’t go that way.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because trucks drive up there,” he said.

“Why don’t you just ask your dogs to move over to the side with you when the trucks pass?” I asked, truly baffled.

He and a few others exchanged a look and then burst into laughter: “Our dogs aren’t trained!” It was as though I’d asked, “Why don’t you have your dogs grab a griddle and make us some pancakes?” And so the walk continued.

“Does your dog swim?” another man asked.

I had to think about that one. “You know, I don’t really know. We haven’t had the chance to find out yet.”

An invitation to the Dog Days Party, an annual event held at the man’s house, followed. “You could bring her over, all the dogs come, they swim in the pool and run around and play, and they all get rib bones. They love it, and we have fun, too.”

Forgetting my manners and completely bypassing any expression of gratitude for the generous invitation, I instead blurted out, “What? They all get rib bones in one area and no one fights over them?”

“Well, one dog has to be put in a crate but no, the others are fine. They each take their bone to their own little space, they love it.” Wow. I have two, count ‘em, two whole dogs in my house and if I didn’t separate them with meaty bones, it’d be World War Three.

Throughout the walk, one or another owner would offer cookies to the dogs. This wasn’t done in any special order, certainly not with the dogs all sitting and waiting their turns, but in an unruly mob where each dog would grab a cookie and move off to the side. Sierra got her share, thankfully without getting possessive or snarky. It was so alien to the way I would ever do things, and yet those dogs were used to it and they were just fine.

I was starting to feel like as though I was in an alternate universe. These dogs were completely untrained, and yet they walked together off-leash in areas where they could have run off into the mountains or worse, through the parking lot and out into busy streets. Of course there’s pack mentality—the dogs all knew each other and hung out together—plus most were on the older side and weren’t apt to be dashing off anywhere anytime soon. But still. Had I let Sierra off the leash, would she have stayed with me? I honestly don’t know. She’s well trained and has a solid recall, but she also has an unusually high prey drive—and that’s an understatement. One squirrel, one rabbit, one anything moving quickly and she’d be gone, pack mentality be damned.

Bodhi’s another story. Although he’s reactive toward other dogs while he’s on leash, he’s actually pretty good with them off-leash, as long as they don’t get overly pushy or playful. In addition to having a solid recall, I know he’d stay with me off-leash—he’s my Velcro dog. I may try to work him around those dogs while on leash, or ask if a few of the owners will let their dogs in the enclosed park with Bodhi first, and then see how he does walking on-leash near them.

My morning visit to the alternate universe was certainly interesting, and the social aspect was nice. But for me and my dogs, it’s back to reality.

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