Why Dogs Belong Off-Leash: It's Win-Win for All

A new essay raises important questions about dogs and human responsibility

Posted May 25, 2016

I often have people ask me if dogs should be allowed off-leash in areas where they are safe from harm. And, often tagged on to this question is a query about whether on-leash dogs are more assertive or aggressive than off-leash dogs. I wish I knew. Despite a great deal of interest in this question there are no formal studies to the best of my knowledge. However, the answers that come my way overwhelmingly claim that off-leash dogs are, indeed, less assertive or aggressive than on-leash dogs (some interesting discussions can be found here). 

A recent essay by Wes Siler in Outside Magazine called "Why Dogs Belong Off-Leash in the Outdoors" claims, "If the owners are responsible, the presence of off-leash dogs can actually make the outdoors a better place." My own observations and studies about the behavior of dogs at places where they're are allowed to run freely support this contention.

Because some people have written to me or posted comments implying that I am the person who wrote the essay about which I wrote -- I did not -- I want to make it clear that I do not agree with everything Mr. Siler writes and that "owner responsibility" and context are key. I do think that questions about off-leash versus on-leash dogs need to be openly discussed and it's clear that we need data about if and how the behavior of off-leash dogs differs from the behavior of on-leash dogs. 

People are usually more of a problem than dogs

Mr. Siler's essay is available online and I'm sure it will attract a lot of attention both from those who agree and those who disagree with his views. One point he stresses is that it's most often humans who are the problem, and the results of two studies my students and I conducted support this conclusion. In one of these studies titled "Interactions Among Dogs, People, and the Environment in Boulder, Colorado: A Case Study,” we observed that dogs really were not a major problem for wildlife, other dogs, people, or for destroying vegetation. We also learned that "Many more people reported seeing other people disturb wildlife (92.2%) … significantly more often than dogs (49.7%).” For more data on this topic please also see "Behavioral Interactions and Conflict Among Domestic Dogs, Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, and People in Boulder, Colorado."

Human responsibility is critical as is enforcement of local regulations: Many people are lame when it comes to stopping their dogs from misbehaving

​The bottom line in our studies is that enforcement of local regulations is critical for keeping dogs and humans in line. If someone chooses to let their dog run off-leash where it's assumed to be safe to do so, she/he needs to be responsible for their dog's behavior. This is not always or nearly always the case. In our study of dog-prairie dog interactions, we learned that "People tried to stop dogs from harassing prairie dogs only 25% of the time. A survey showed that 58% of people polled at Dry Creek (all dog owners) did not believe that prairie dogs should be protected even if dogs are a problem. Increased human responsibility would likely go a long way towards reducing existing conflict among people wanting to protect prairie dogs and those who do not." We also noted, "proactive strategies grounded by empirical data can be developed and implemented so that the interests of all parties can be accommodated."

I want to call attention to Mr. Siler's essay to a wide audience because questions about who behaves better, on-leash or off-leash dogs, are not going to go away any time soon. And, it also stresses the humans who choose to share their lives with a dog and who choose to let their dog run free must be responsible for their dog's behavior. I've heard numerous excuses when something goes amok, which is very rare. However, a few fines here and there will surely help to get humans to take responsibility for their dog. And this will be a win-win for all.

Once again, as in many other areas of dog behavior where myths prevail (please see for example, "We Don't Know if Dogs Feel Guilt So Stop Saying They Don't"), we need research on the question of whether or not off-leash dogs are really less assertive or aggressive than on-leash dogs. And, most importantly, regardless of what we know or think we know, and regardless of what scientific studies might show, we must pay attention to the specific context and to each individual dog and know just what makes them tick, because there are rampant individual differences among these fascinating beings that need to be given serious consideration. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)