There's nothing quite like watching your dog romp and run full-speed off leash. Seeing their faces light up as they rip across an open field is enough to delight any pet parent. Unfortunately, this means that many people with the lovely intention of giving their dogs more freedom and enrichment make the mistake of unclipping their dogs' leash in public places. We're not here to be the dog police and tell you that your pup should never ever be off leash, but there are great and not-so-great times and places for that.
Why can’t I let my dog off-leash?
The first and most obvious answer to this is safety. Off-leash dogs in public settings are much more likely to get themselves into trouble, even if they don't wander far from you. Your dog could easily find something dangerous and consume it before you even have a chance to say "leave it." If you live in an urban environment, cars, bikes, and other traffic can be a pretty serious risk, and if you're out in the country, local wildlife can be just as hazardous. Us trainers have heard a tragically long list of different ways dogs wind up sick, hurt, or lost because they were allowed off-leash in an unsafe and explicitly on-leash area. At the end of the day, it just isn't worth the risk!
But my dog is friendly!
Your dog might be a social butterfly with any new dog and person, but not everyone wants a strange dog barreling up to them! You have no way of knowing whether or not another dog or person is okay with your dog rushing up to greet them just by looking at them. Some people are deathly afraid of dogs, and they deserve to feel safe talking a walk through a public park with leash laws. Similarly, some dogs really do not enjoy strange dogs approaching them, especially while they're stuck on leash, and that's perfectly okay.
Every reactive dog owner dreads hearing the phrase "it's okay, she's friendly!" as an unknown dog approaches, because they know the encounter will likely set their hard work back by weeks, months, or years in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, this is a very common cause of dog fights. Many dogs wind up becoming reactive in the first place because they are attacked by off-leash dogs. You're doing every other pet parent a huge favor by keeping your dog on leash in public, even if they love everybody!
But my dog is VERY well trained!
Using a leash in public places is not a training issue, it's common courtesy and an extra safety precaution just in case. Even in the case of exceptionally well-trained dogs, they're still animals and they are still capable of having off days and making mistakes (just like we are). When working with animal behavior, there is no way to say with 100% certainty that our training will stand up to the massive disruption of say, an earthquake. Accidents happen, so we are better off having that safety line between us and our dogs.
What can I do instead?
If you still want your dog to have safe (and legal) off-leash time, you do have some options! Some areas have designated off-leash areas or trails, which is the perfect place to unclip that leash and let Fido run. You can also seek out areas of private property by either convincing friends and family to allow you to borrow some time on their land, or by using Sniffspot to find an area to rent by the hour for your dog to enjoy! Even if there are no completely off-leash options near you, you can still utilize a 15-30ft long leash to give your dog more freedom and room to run while still obeying the leash laws and keeping everyone safe.