Off The Leash (A Confession)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I let my dogs off-leash sometimes in our neighborhood in Houston, along the walking path by the drainage ditch. I bring treats and practice recall. I get ahead of them when we pass access points where other dogs might emerge. I keep my phone in my pocket. I watch them. But here’s the deal. Every time we take off our dog’s leash in the name of giving them a chance to run wild we put them in danger. Real danger. I know this.  And I’m sharing my confession so that you’ll know it too. Letting our dogs off leash in public places is dangerous to our dogs. 

A few years back a woman called me to ask about training. She’d been walking her large (80 lbs) mixed breed dog on a leash. A small chihuahua mix had run up off-leash barking and nipping at her dog’s legs. Her dog picked up the little one, shook it twice, and dropped it. The chihuahua mix was dead. It was that fast. No fight. No fuss. Just dead. That could be our dog. Not the big one on leash. The little one. The dead one.

But Michael, you might be thinking, that’s a rare thing. I’d like to think that, too. Unfortunately, though, I know better. Dogs killing other dogs is a real thing. Even if they are similar in size it can happen. I recently worked with a person whose dog bit another dog. It was relatively minor, just a couple of punctures. But the wounds got infected. The dog got sick. And, then the dog was dead.

I’m not here to tell you that letting our dogs saunter or trot along side us (or ahead or behind) off-leash is wrong. Of course, we already know that. We know it’s illegal too. That’s not the point. I’m here to remind us what we so often choose to forget. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to our dogs.

Humans who are walking their dogs lawfully on-leash can get mean in a hurry, let me tell ya. They yell and they curse if your dog runs up to theirs uninvited. They will defend their dogs and their righteous position vociferously.

  • But my dog is friendly. “I don’t give a f”.” They will yell.
  • He just wants to say hi. “Get the f’ out of here.” They scream.
  • He’s well trained. “Really? Call him the f’ back to you.” They retort.
  • We do this all the time. “That doesn’t make it okay,” they claim “it just means you’re a f’ing repeat offender.”

Always the F-bombs. That’s pretty standard. They are angry, they and their leashed dogs barking like crazy.

But here’s the thing that’s really dangerous. Humans walking their dogs on-leash will actually hurt our dogs, especially if a fight breaks out. They will kick our dogs. They will spray them with citronella or pepper spray. They will throw rocks. And seriously, a lot of folks are armed. They will shoot our dogs. It’s happened. Don’t think it hasn’t.

But Michael… That’s illegal, you might be thinking. You can’t discharge a firearm in city limits. Fair enough. Take them to court. But dead is dead. There isn’t a judge in the county who’s going to bring our dog back. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will.

A few days ago we were walking our dogs here in Arizona on a trail in the shadow of the red rocks. They were on-leash. A couple of women on horseback rounded the bend. Their two large and beautiful dogs wove ahead and beside them. It was like a scene out of an old western. We stepped far off the trail to let them pass, hoping their dogs would saunter along with them. But, that’s not what happened.

Their young, unfettered dogs ran right toward ours. “It’s okay. They’re friendly,” one of the women hollered from atop her horse. Tim, my husband, picked up Stewie, our chihuahua mix, and stepped farther away. I stood with Stella, our old arthritic retriever, yelling for them to call their dogs back, afraid of what was going to happen, angry, wishing I had a stick or a rock or some pepper spray. Or a gun. I wish I could say I was cool in the moment, eloquent, acerbic and wry. I so wanted to set the scene right with some perfectly placed F-bombs and a mic drop at the end. But that’s not the way it went. I was just the sputtering guy gripping his dog’s leash while a collective 130 pounds of I-don’t-know-what’s-about-to-happen ran towards us.

Life happens fast. We are all caught off guard. Even when we think we are being safe, there are always cracks in the plan. I’m a good trainer. But, no matter how well our dogs’ recall is trained, there’s always a breaking point. Always.

Dogs are fast. Very fast. They approach too fast; the leashed ones are ratcheted back too fast; the fight starts too fast for us to see it coming. The dogs get hurt. People get hurt. I’ve had clients who showed me photos of gaping wounds on their own arms. They were trying to pry a dog off their dog – or their dog off another.  In that moment, I’m told, no one thinks about the justifications for what they did or what they failed to do. It’s just a scramble. It’s an uncoordinated rush to get the dogs apart. It’s a f’ing mess.

On the trail the other day, the approaching dogs slowed to a trot, circled around me and Stella once and approached politely to sniff her. They really were good looking dogs, big, strong, elegant.I know better than to yank up on Stella’s leash. So, I let out a bit of slack and let her sniff them as well. Then I called her away to follow me. The other dogs wandered after the horsewomen, if not into the sunset then into the shade we were still throwing at each other as they plodded off.

But Michael, what are you trying to say here, you might be asking. I don’t know, really. Confessions are tricky that way, especially the personal ones like this. I’ve had many clients and friends, too many to count, who’ve stood terrified and vulnerable just as I was on that trail. They endured incidents like this one but not like this one because they did not end as well. Dogs were hurt (some killed). People were hurt (some seriously). There was physical and emotional trauma. Behavior care for the dogs. Therapy for the humans. Lawsuits. Lives turned sideways and upside down. Suffering all around.

Our dogs have never run up to another dog when they were off leash. That’s the truth. But here’s the other truth: a lot of our success has been good luck and luck aways runs out. So, maybe this is a cautionary tale with a stretch toward empathy. I’ve been that guy – the one with the friendly dogs romping off leash – and the one white-knuckling the leash bracing for the dogs romping toward him. And honestly, I don’t want to be either of those guys again.

Confessions and cautionary tales and empathy all have this in common. In our best moments each is impetus for change, real change, a change in our behavior. I love my dogs. In fact, I’m fond of most of the dogs I meet. And when cooler heads prevail I actually like most dog people, too. So, when all is said and done the only real questions left are: How to we keep our dogs safe? How do we help keep other dogs safe? How do we get to know and enjoy the other dog lovers who come into our lives?

But Michael, you might be thinking, why don’t you just leash your f’ing dogs?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training and specializes in aggressive dog behavior. He lives in Houston TX and part-time in Sedona AZ.

Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?

First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.

Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.

IMG_9994Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.

Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).

Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.

I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.

Fireworks Safety for Dogs

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Most dogs are at least mildly afraid of the sound of fireworks. Some are more frightened. A few are downright terrified. No matter where your dog falls on the scale. It’s important to help your dog stay calm and keep him safe.

1. Staying Put. Make sure your dog doesn’t bolt off in terror when the fireworks start popping. July 4th is the single biggest day for dogs going missing (and being found as strays). Some dogs literally can’t find their way home because the run so far in fear. It’s best to make sure your dog is safely confined inside your home (not in the back yard). And keep his collar with current tags on him just in case.

2. Block the Sound. Many dogs do well in an interior downstairs room with carpet. This blunts the sounds from outside. Add some white noise like a fan or music, and you may be good to go. Include your dog’s bed and a nice chew toy or stuffed Kong toy for added comfort. Make sure your dog has peed and pooped before the big fireworks get going. If you need to take him out later, do so on-leash for added safety.

DSC000173. Calm from within. Some dogs are inconsolable when it comes to the sound of fireworks. These are also the dogs who often have thunder phobia, too. Your vet can prescribe short acting anti anxiety medication that can definitely help. My dog, Stewie, takes medication for thunderstorms and fireworks. It has no side effects and it helps him a great deal.

Do not take your dog to a fourth of July party or fireworks display with the idea of “getting him used to it.” I’ll be blunt here. It won’t help. In fact it will likely make the problem worse. Better to enjoy the day with your fellow humans – and let your dog chill out as best he can.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and dogs with issues related to fear.