Should My Dog Meet Other Dogs On-Leash or Off?

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Q. Should dogs meet each other off-leash or on? At the dog park, the rules are to have them meet off-leash, but I think that's wrong.

A. It seems counterintuitive, but it is better for dogs to meet off-leash. Let me explain why.

Dogs are highly sensitive to our emotions. Our feelings travel straight down the leash to the dog, the same way lightning flashed down Ben Franklin’s kite string and struck the key on the end. When you see another dog and tense up with concern that the two may not get along, your dog senses your anxiety and becomes anxious himself, especially if you tighten the leash and pull back on it. He feels threatened not only on his own behalf but also on yours. His hackles rise, he lets out a low growl, and the other dog responds in kind. What happens next is at best defensive posturing, at worst a fight.

Even if you aren’t concerned about the approach of another dog, your dog may have his own issues with the encounter. Because he’s on a leash, he feels restrained and unable to protect or remove himself from this possible threat. Again, he may react defensively, even attacking the approaching dog, who is dealing with the same issues on his end of the leash. The same thing can happen when a leashed dog meets an unleashed dog.

Keeping your dog on-leash in a dog-park situation is just asking for trouble. Instead, take a look around at first to evaluate what dogs are there, how they are interacting, whether any look as if they might pose a problem and whether other owners seem to be in control of their dogs. Once you are satisfied with the circumstances, take a deep breath, unhook the leash and let your dog sniff and interact in proper canine fashion, without the artificial restraint of a leash.

Do realize that not all dogs are dog-park material. Veterinarians patch up a lot of dogs because owners insist on taking dogs with "issues" into dog parks (and, yes, there are dog-park fatalities, too). If your dog is friendly and well-socialized — and the park is full of others who are the same way — then dog parks are fine. Otherwise, you're better off finding other ways to get your pet the exercise he needs.

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