Dear Dog Owners,
“She’s big but she’s friendly,” you say about your unleashed dog when you see me freeze. And in an instant, the disregarded leash law is no longer the problem — my palpable fear is. If I stop to change course when I see a loose dog, I’m seen as a dog-hating jerk. It’s impossible to explain my fear to every stranger with a dangling leash, though; there is no time to convey my worry and its origins. And, even if there were, no one thinks their dog would ever be the one to unexpectedly go off on a child or adult or someone else’s pet. But I do wish that you would consider how not leashing your pet impacts me and lots of other people.
When I was eight months pregnant, my partner and I were viewing a home with our realtor when a snarling dog charged through a fence and ran towards us. The dog stood his ground several feet from my bare legs, snapping and lunging; my partner, James, whispered for us to walk back to the house. The realtor and I made our way to the house and James stayed behind to allow us an escape. In that short time, another dog joined the first and they circled him on either side, working as a team, calculating how to bring him down. After a couple of minutes, the dogs’ owner heard the snarling and called the animals off. I cried most of the rest of that day, my pregnant-mama brain thinking obsessively about what could have happened.
Even if you’re sure your dog wouldn’t come unhinged in the same way, please think about how loose dogs — friendly or not — can trigger fear and trauma in those who have been attacked or chased or cornered in the past.
I wish that was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. Over the years, my family has had multiple scary encounters with unleashed dogs — most with dogs that were with or near their humans or their homes. Every person whose dog has chased us has said the same thing: “My dog has never behaved like that before!” and “My dog loves kids!” Neither assertion erased our experiences and both only served to affirm the reality that dogs are animals and sometimes unpredictable.
A walk in the woods turns nasty
When we go on a family hike, my youngest child loves to run ahead to alert us and all trail hikers of impending doom with a loud, “There’s a dog not on a leash!” It would be embarrassing if it weren’t also somewhat satisfying: My child is the direct mouthpiece I don’t quite dare to be. She likes to explore a premeditated off-route section at one particular stretch of a trail we frequent. About an equal distance between the swamp and the path, it has just enough tall grasses and logs to balance on to feel like a survivalist obstacle course. Once, when she was 5, instead of looking for danger, my kid was preoccupied by her own imagination. That time, she wasn’t the warning bell or the mouthpiece.
It happened fast. A dog, with its human and a propensity for herding, came around the corner, saw my kid, and before its human could react, darted for her. “He’s nice, he won’t hurt her!” the owner frantically yelled, though the uncertainty and panic in her voice were undeniable.
My kid turned to see the dog, barking and on her heels, then bolted in terror, never looking back. I knew this run, I knew this terror. I knew she couldn’t process our yells to stop running, how those instructions bounced off of her panicked brain, like a Super Ball on concrete. James bounded over the uneven terrain, leaping over reeds and fallen logs. When he scooped her up out of the dog’s reach, she hiccup-cried that she never wanted to come to the woods again.
I understood her exasperation, understood that excessive fear that could compete with her need to be in the place she loves the most. The woods are also my favorite place, but I don’t go there alone. I carry a water bottle, a heavy tin one, filled to the brim. I watch for walking sticks, the kind my kid would love to lug, the kind that makes her feel like a real explorer. The kind that I can snatch from her and wield if I need to. Just before the preserve put up signs alerting pet owners that police would be enforcing leash laws with fines, I saw a laminated paper rubber-banded to a tree. Someone was looking for the owner of a loose dog that had bitten their pet. I guess an injured pet was the last straw.
Obey the signs
I wish the signs and ordinances that read “Dogs must be on a leash at all times” were simply read and followed, that people didn’t have to be threatened with fines in order to comply. I wish that people would consider the importance of leash laws and would calculate the risks. I wish they could empathize with the fears of parents and fellow pet owners. I don’t want to be the Leash Police. I still don’t know how to state my needs or make reasonable requests to strangers. I wish it wasn’t personal. I wish my fear didn’t have to be someone else’s irritation.
If I could muster the courage to stop and ask you to leash your pet, I might try to tell you all of these things, but I don’t know how to whittle it down, succinctly. I don’t know how to say it and not expect you to assume that I think your dog is a monster. There is no way to convey to you what happens in my body when I see your loose dog. The code of the trails is a passing nod or a benign comment about the weather.
As you consider your pet’s desire to roam and run free, I’d ask you to consider the story of my neighbor, who almost lost his arm and who missed months of work after a dog attacked him while he was riding his bike home from the store. Even if you’re sure your dog wouldn’t come unhinged in the same way, please think about how loose dogs — friendly or not — can trigger fear and trauma in those who have been attacked or chased or cornered in the past. I can tell you from experience that just anticipating the possibility of encountering a dog off leash can sometimes make walks and hikes emotionally unbearable.
Try the off-leash dog park
I know that it’s important for your pet to have spaces to explore and run free. But communal spaces, where it’s illegal to do so and where not everyone consents to that kind of shared space, are not appropriate places for unleashed dogs. Safe, accessible outdoor spaces and walking paths require neighbors to be considerate of one another. Leashing your pet is one consideration that is respectful, empathetic and kind, and it allows everyone to share and enjoy communities, together.