Dogs Off Their Leashes

Quite a number of people feel that every dog should be regularly allowed off leash, to be ‘natural’ and to ‘run free.’

Well, I agree.

An obedient dog who stops whatever it’s doing when its guardian calls it back is entitled to some extra freedom. A dog that’s not a menace to other pets, wildlife and livestock deserves the reward of some autonomy.

A dog who is wise enough to avoid speeding vehicles, dashing across roads, leaping fences or plunging into rivers – a dog who is able to listen to the calls of its guardian in all circumstances – should be trusted to range through field and forest.

Obedient dogs do exist. Many of them are members or mixtures of breeds such as Shepherds, Retrievers and herd dogs. The problem is, the noble creatures previously described are not the only dogs in our world. Some dogs may grow into the role of perpetually obedient and loyal pets, but most don’t start out that way.

As well, many dogs – such as hounds, terriers and quite a few members of the Northern Breed pack – are simply not wired to be obedient at all times and in all situations.

I learned the hard way.

When I was a kid I had a dog who was ‘high drive’ to the max. To add to our woes with her, she often escaped from our yard while I was at school to hang out with her completely unsupervised and out-of-control mother.

You don’t want to know half the crimes that dog committed in the 1960’s, but they included terrorizing people on bikes and motorcycles, fighting with other dogs, and attacking people delivering newspapers, the mail and even once a police summons.

Our dog was an absolute sweetheart in our home, and a monster outside.          Once this dog was in charge mode, she went like lightning and ignored all calls.  This dog brought much stress, grief and embarrassment to our whole family.

Our family had been firmly stationed on the ‘dogs need a chance to run free’ list, but we were forced to change into practitioners of on-leash-for-everyone’s-sake dog guardianship, lest we were run out of town or the dog had to be shot.

Please, please: Before bringing a dog into your home, whether it’s a purebred or a rescue from California (where thousands of dogs are desperate for homes), DO CAREFUL RESEARCH into the breed or mixture of breeds the dog is. Find out its energy requirements and disposition, and the jobs the breed(s) has traditionally been asked to do. Be honest about a fit with your lifestyle.

Phrases like High Drive, or High Prey Drive are hints that may be key to being prepared for a dog who does NOT live to please you. Others are ‘ independent thinker’, or ‘stubborn’.

Generally the latter are understatements, and if you hear such words in relation to a dog you are considering bringing into your life, ask for more information. Get the details. The truth about the dog you fancy could save both you and the dog from getting into serious trouble.

High Drive means ‘here is a dog you may not want to touch with a ten-foot pole when it comes to having a family pooch.’

A high-drive dog is not suitable for most people. It’s a dog that can leap tall buildings – or fences at least – in a single bound, a dog that may slaughter a fast-moving kitty or other animal just because it’s fast moving, and a dog that just may jump off a bridge because someone tossed a ball into the water down below.

High-drive dogs are used for hunting, anti-terrorism actions, search and rescue operations and police work. These activities require lifestyle commitments.

I learned quite a bit, as stated earlier, the hard way. I had to learn that my high-drive dogs (there have been three in my life now) are not to be trusted to restrain themselves when something exciting is in view. A High Drive Dog – ‘HDD’ – must be fitted out with reliable gear and good containment. A HDD needs more exercise than other dogs, and careful management.

Regarding Containment: This is about making sure gates and doors to the outside world are strong and securely latched, perhaps with springs to pull them closed. Containment is about ensuring the fence, runs and gates that keep your dog and your family’s reputation safe are the right height and in good repair. We have padlocks on the unseen gates, and a bell on the gate most often used.

Containment is NOT about confining your dog to a crate for hours on end. If you can’t afford to fence your yard, you can build a cage-style run or kennel next to a convenient exit and carefully fence that space with strong materials and a secure gate. Your last option is to keep the dog inside, with escorted trips to relieve itself.

Containment is not tethering or tying out your dog where it is exposed to trouble, but it is about teaching everyone who walks or manages your dog to ensure the dog is safely hooked to the leash before doors or gates are opened. Nobody needs a dog to spot a deer or the neighbour’s kitty and take off to be hit by a car because a leash didn’t get clipped to a collar. It takes just a second to be safe.

Collars or harnesses used for walking must fit securely. We found the martingale type, part fabric and part slip-chain, to be reliable. These are adjusted so the collar tightens to a selected snug size when the dog pulls, but releases instantly when the dog relaxes. If you’ve ever seen a dog slip its collar to run into battle- and later the vet clinic – you’ll know why a detail like this matters.

By secure we mean ‘ keep the dog with me so it doesn’t get into trouble and give me a heart attack’ secure. The well-made collar needs to be clipped to an equally well-constructed leash, rated for the weight of your dog and then some.

Every dog needs to be protected from his or her speedy impulses, for the dog’s sake and yours. Unless yours has perfect recall, release your dog to run off leash ONLY in a safe place away from traffic, wildlife, livestock, and dogs they may conflict with. We were fortunate enough in one location to find a landowner who had a fenced and unoccupied paddock he was willing to let our sled dog roar around in. Which brings me to off-leash dog parks.

Many dogs are NOT suited to off-leash dog parks, ever. You may have been told all dogs ‘need to be socialized,’ but I am here to disagree.

Just like humans, many dogs do not want to be partying with a bunch of characters they don’t know or trust. This brings me to the most important point of my essay.

As the Yellow-Ribbon Dog signs proclaim, many dogs have good reason for being less than happy when another dog rushes toward them, leashed or not. Dog guardians should never assume another dog is friendly to all other canines.

Some dogs are natural introverts. Some dogs have injuries or surgeries they are recovering from. Other dogs are aged and may have sight and hearing impairment that puts them at a disadvantage and makes them nervous. Some dogs need to build up trust in another dog by getting to know him or her slowly, one guided walk at a time. My dog, nearly 14 years old, wears yellow ribbons for all these reasons.

Please, if you cannot ensure your dog will return to you immediately when called, simply don’t let it off the leash.

Despite its owner’s attempts to call and restrain it, an off-leash dog attacked and fatally wounded my sister’s ten-year-old dog in a forested park last year. The unprovoked aggressor hunted down my sister’s medium-sized dog and rendered her unconscious in seconds. She died within two hours. The owner of the attacking dog knew his dog wouldn’t come when called, and on the scene blurted, ‘I came here because I thought we wouldn’t see anyone else.’ This was a double tragedy, as the attacking dog was put down by local authorities a week later.

So I’m urging you; unless you have perfect obedience from your dog, keep your dog on the leash when you’re anywhere you may encounter people who are aged, have little children with them, or are simply frightened of dogs. Ask first before you allow your dog to approach or be approached by other people or other pets.

I learned the hard way over the years, but I learned.

Accidents can happen, and a leash won’t prevent your dog from barking or snapping, but keeping our dogs properly contained at home, and on the leash or under reliable voice control when we’re out, CAN prevent accidents, fights, injuries, vet bills, and even death.

My husband and I are grateful for the fence that allows us to relax on the porch with our impetuous dog while keeping him out of trouble. It’s easier to enjoy our pets, and keep people and animals safe when you have a good run or yard, secure doors and gates, and a simple leash to prevent most problems.


  1. Melanie, I share your frustration with people who give us a hard time for keeping our dogs on leash. I’ve had numerous comments, especially this one: ‘ If your dog wasn’t on leash, it wouldn’t be giving off negative energy.’

    If my dog wasn’t on leash ninety-nine per cent of the time, he would have been dead years ago.

    I cannot count the times I have asked others who had Northern (husky-type) dogs how long their wonderful pets lived, and the answer was often a misty-eyed , ‘well, he got hit by a car’ or ‘she ran into the forest and never came back’ or ‘the neighbours shot him,’ or ‘my parents had to take it to a farm’.

    Here is a partial list of the adventures our adopted Malamute/Husky has had:

    Found two Quarter horses he’d tracked to their home paddock and chased them for twenty minutes yet escaped getting shot, hunted a moose on a snowshoe trail, chased a deer up a mountain, ran up a steep cliff and then crashed down again, ran into the road after squirrels and White-tailed Jack Rabbits and was saved by leash multiple times, stepped in front of cars because motor vehicles are friends that take you on adventures, lunged at a pony, tried to pursue Black Angus calves, caught voles and snakes while on leash, started a brawl with a Great Dane in an off-leash park because he was afraid of it, attacked our cat, and once tried to jump into a moving car because the dog inside barked at him.

    He likes people, has perfect house manners, is usually an angel on the leash, and used to spend hours pulling a small sled around our favourite snowshoe trail with all our extra gear in it.

    Another adopted high-drive dog we had rocketed off a bluff while chasing a cat, got into fights with coyotes, and could leap most fences, clearing deer fencing multiple times. She was also a talented Certified Therapy Dog and could learn anything, including riding in elevators, motor boats and canoes, fetching in the water, and riding on a chairlift.

    It so happened that: the cat went to live with my sister and had a long, happy life, and the Great Dane humiliated our fuzzy animal, though we were spared a vet bill. The female ‘Rocket’ who preceded the sled dog was in excellent shape at age 12, slowed down at 13 and passed away the week of her 14th birthday. Over the years in two regions we did find a very few off-leash locations we felt it safe to allow our speedy Northern dog to run free. The Hairy Sled Dog is nearly fourteen and wears yellow ribbons, but still trots jauntily much of the time and leaps to the end of his leash if he sees or scents a deer or bear.

    The people who think we are mean because our dogs are on leash need to know that some dogs are on leash for many good reasons. Instead of being critical, it would be great if more people took the attitude of a man in Calgary when he met my dog and I in a beautiful park there.

    ‘Your dog is on the leash,’ he said approvingly, ‘ so you will be the hero.’

    Happy trails !

  2. I had a dog with a “high prey drive”. I could never let her off leash. People didn’t believe me and told me it was because I hadn’t trained her enough. I know that it was her personality to run and it had nothing to do with training. Dogs are all different temperments, just like humans. Your article confirmed my theories regarding dogs.

  3. Love this article. Thank-you for encouraging people to do their research. I did an amazing amount of research before selecting the particular breed that I have.

    I have heard of too many dogs off leash attacking other dogs. I always have my dog on leash because I know if she gets distracted she won’t listen to me. I now carry pepper spray with me – so a warning to anyone who has their dog off leash that tries to hurt my dog, I will spray your dog and perhaps you for being such an asshole for letting your dog off leash.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Story

Addiction and its paradoxes. Another cheerful mini-essay.

Next Story

Remembering and Reconciliation

Latest from Pets

%d bloggers like this: