The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe

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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11 Responses to The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe

  1. Nancy Tucker says:

    Oh, how I can relate to this post! These situations sometimes make me feel painfully inadequate as a trainer, or at least a little overprotective or overanalytical. Thing is, though, that often when I hear people describe a group of dogs interacting together as “…just fine! No problems at all! They love it!…”, I actually pick up on quite a few potentially volatile situations when I take a look at the group myself. Still, things usually turn out okay for the most part. Maybe we just know too much and can’t relax long enough to enjoy the moment. ;o)

  2. wildewmn says:


    Yes, exactly! I admit to having moments where I think, “Am I too controlling with my dogs? Should I be a bit more relaxed?” But like you, when looking at situations others think are “fine,” many times I realize they’re not. Although I sometimes think it would be nice to know less and just relax and enjoy the moment, I’m grateful to have the knowledge and experience to keep my dogs (and others) safe.

  3. Karen says:

    It pains me to see “untrained” dogs behaving fine when I put in hours upon hours of work on my reactive dog and I could never hope to have him off leash anywhere. And the owners of these lovely dogs don’t know any better, don’t know how to read body language, are blissfully ignorant of training methods (+R vs dominance theory), etc. I wouldn’t trade my dog for anything; he is my constant teacher and a lovely companion (aside from the reactivity). But sometimes I wish I could be blissfully ignorant and let him run and play off leash with other dogs without worrying that he’ll take off after a squirrel or suddenly become afraid of one of the male owners or, or, or…

    Glad I’m not the only one.

  4. Sara says:

    Interesting. I know it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find an area to take dogs off leash and not encounter other dogs. Sad state for our society in some regards. Of course, for me to take mine off leash in the great outdoors would truly be a type of pack, a basset hunting pack on hare. I have done it in remote parks when no one else was around successfully, by keeping the most intense hunter (hmm, alpha hunter? nah, I hate that term)… intense hunter on leash. The others stayed with us and returned to us due to that, I am pretty sure. If he had been offleash, I can almost assure you that when they hit rabbit scent, the entire group, including puppies would have been gone. Could I have called them all back? Probably after they lost the scent. As it was, one rolled in bear poop. He felt mighty, mighty, I believe…. took a week of washing for little “Smokey” to get past that odor! I also cannot imagine a group of chewers of ribs without fights, unless their dogs have learned to gulp the ribs, which I suspect some of which occurs. God bless the crate and fence manufacturers.

  5. Nicole, I couldn’t agree with you more. The dogs that roam loose right next door or across the street, are the result of owners who are violating city law. And in dog parks we all take a little risk of “will my dog mix and mingle well today” thinking? But, my gentlest dog, years ago, when I thought she could jog loose with me, ran into a near field and killed a rabit. She totally ignored my calling, and I am so glad she did not run across a street to get to her prey. I vote for leashes at all times, because any dog can be unpredictable, should a stray cat or rabbit tempt them to go for a chase.

  6. Hey Nic, Loved this post. I have a group of dog friends I hang with on occasion and we all walk our dogs off leash. As you know I live quite rurally and feel very fortunate to have many options for off leash walks. Some of the dogs are well trained; some not so much. I started doing off leash walks when I got into greyhound rescue many years ago. We would take large groups of greys to a local orchard. Acres of apple trees with a fenced in perimeter to keep the deer out. It took a HUGE leap of faith for me to let a greyhound off leash! We never lost one! Since then when we walk in rural areas, which we always do, I am fine letting my guys off leash. As you mentioned a lot of the tension from the dog seems to dissipate when the leash comes off. We have yet to have a dog fight or even a scuffle. People do not bring bones out however!!!! Great article.

  7. […] my blog entry “The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe” I mentioned the group of owners who walk their dogs off-leash around the park in the early morning […]

  8. dogs4ever says:

    I can’t understand why people choose to have their dogs off leash. I would be very afraid to let my little dog Freckles off leash for a second. She would immediately dash after a car, or some small rodent or bird. I’m always careful to have her on a leash whenever we’re out walking.

  9. jan says:

    found your blog today. i have a lot of articles to go, especially in this area. hoping to find some about dogs (in this case adopted at age 4- history unknown) who don’t play. thanks for the good reads 🙂

  10. jan says:

    ps… mine is somehow quite good off leash (when allowed), and never runs outside … more like runs inside. she also stops in her tracks if a car goes nearby. that came built in…. i go with it 🙂

  11. I always walk my two rescue staffies (one of whom is reactionary,one of whom is just not social) on leash to the park and once I have found an area where there are no other dogs they go off leash and we play chase and with balls / frisbees. They both have excellent recall and don’t ever go far away from me anyway. Our only danger is if another dog belts over to them out of nowhere and they perceive its approach to be aggressive (or just boisterous), which makes Arthur very nervous and may end in a pre-emptive strike. If other dogs appear close by they ignore them – they have no interest or desire to approach other dogs themselves. However I am vigilant at all times and have found this is be very successful for achieving a balance between on and off lead exercise.

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