In Defense of Letting Your Dog Off-Leash

Few sights are as pure and wonderful as a dog, untethered from her leash, sprinting through a grassy meadow, bounding over deadfall in a forest, or losing her mind down a sandy coastline. How beautiful it is to see another creature utterly oblivious to anything other than the freedom of chasing whatever scent flirts with her unrivaled olfactory system. “…Of all the sights I love in this world—and there are plenty—very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes,” writes poet Mary Oliver in her book Dog Songs.

And yet, every park, trailhead, and beach insists we attach a rope to our dogs’ necks. The effects are disastrous—angsty, snarly, dragged-around dogs; angsty, snarly, dragged-around owners; hurt necks, and hurt feelings; and, worst of all, the deprivation of a complete and rapturous joy. And so I have a suggestion for our public spaces: let the dogs be free.

Editor’s note: Of course, we are only referring to dogs who are well-socialized and under voice control. Those who aren’t should remain on-leash until they graduate to freedom. 

Dogs Don’t Live Long. Just Let Them Run.

Dogs’ epigenetic clocks tick disturbingly fast. According to the American Kennel Club, a study found that dogs, particularly larger breeds, age much faster than the traditionally calculated seven years for every one human year. My 75-pound, three-year-old lab-collie mutt, Argo, is already about 30 in human time. Life for our canine friends goes really fast. Better to let them enjoy their freedom and make their own decisions, which, for Argo, means chasing, always unsuccessfully, wild hares, deer, elk, moose, and the occasional feral cat.

Leashes Are Anxiety Tethers

A dog leash is a physical connection that passes your stress directly onto your dog. It’s a perfect circle of anxiety. You see another dog and you tense up, tightening the leash, which in turn puts your dog on edge, making them more likely to lash out at the other dog, who then overreacts to your dog, passing the stress up the leash to their owner, who then delivers a scowl right back to you. Nobody wins. According to the Animal Humane Society, “Often, owners have their dogs on tight leashes, thinking this will help if anything happens. Unfortunately, a tight leash tells your dog you’re stressed, making your pup more stressed in return. As a result, both dogs may start barking, switching from their flight instinct, to fight.”

If You Were on a Leash, You Would Also Feel Trapped

Dogs get weird on leashes. And you know what? I can’t blame them. Have you ever gone for a hike with a leash around your neck? It’s not great. They make dogs feel cornered because they can’t get away from dangers, let alone enjoy the freedom they deserve. “When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on and are often unable to turn their bodies,” says the Animal Humane Society’ website. “Their forced body language, and our own, tell our dogs that we want to fight with one another. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent it. These distance-increasing behaviors includes barking, lunging, or growling—anything to make the threat go away.”

Dogs react better when they feel safe and meet others on neutral territory, free to engage on their own terms. Why stick around to sniff out that kind-of-sketchy hound when there are squirrels to chase!

Dogs Not On-Leash Poop Elsewhere

As long as you’re not in an already heavily-used area that’s overrun with poop, because dogs are literally all over the place, those who aren’t on leash typically poop in places where nobody will see or be bothered by the relatively harmless pile of excrement. I understand this contradicts the sacred Leave No Trace ethos. I also wonder if that might not have some practical benefits. That means less poo on your shoe. It also means less plastic poop bag waste. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that carrying around a thin polyurethane bag full of Bridger’s massive deuce isn’t ideal. Besides, that Texas-sized island of plastic waste in the ocean doesn’t need any unnecessary additions.

Nothing Beats a Tired Dog

According to my own estimates, a typical dog off-leash covers approximately 900 percent more distance than a dog on-leash. For those of us with energetic dogs, there’s nothing better than giving them the freedom to roam and run. Argo and our terrier-mutt, Topaz, are great about sprinting their faces off, but always checking in and staying within a quarter-mile radius of my wife and me. When we get home, they head straight for their beds and enter a state of complete bliss, twitching as they dream about the plump marmot that got away.

Personal Responsibility Is the Best Policy

Is your dog unreliable off-leash? I’m sorry for your loss, but that is not my problem. Don’t bring your dog to my idyllic leash-less playlands. But also keep in mind that dogs are very trainable. You are capable, and they are capable. The middle-aged version of Topaz was a demon with a well-documented habit of pinning fluffy white dogs on their backs and threatening to sink her canines into their necks. It was not great. So we started leaving her at home. Then we always leashed her. Slowly, we worked with her and started to see a change, and we let her off-leash again. Old-age Topaz has given up on posturing and is only interested in chipmunks and steak.

Free Your Dog, Free Yourself

We have to let go of everything sooner or later. And letting your dog go off-leash is an act of trust and faith. It’s empowering for them—and you. Once again, Mary Oliver, designated human spokeswoman for dogs, put it best in the poem “Her Grave” from the Dog Songs collection:

Her wolfish, invitational, half-pounce

Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something.

My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash

Of happiness as she barged

Through the pitch pines swiping my face wither

Wild, slightly mossy tongue.

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