Take the lead: Why leashes aren’t optional


File photo. File photo.

“He’s friendly!” she shouted as her dog came hurtling toward mine at ludicrous speed on the Rivanna Trail. Retrievers aren’t known for their mean streaks, so it’s not to say I doubted her, but I firmed up my grip on the leash just in case. As it turns out, the encounter was resolved amicably with a good butt-sniffing and a few friendly wags.

It would be nice to just leave this happy ending where it is, but I can’t. Not when I’m all too familiar with the nastier outcomes of unexpected dog fights. Deep punctures, huge lacerations, exposed muscle…it’s so awful, and so needless. Every time I see one of these poor things come in, I can’t help but wonder why some people are so stubborn when it comes to leashes. Is it such a heartache?

I totally get that your dog is friendly. But here’s the thing—you have no idea what my dog is like. Maybe he’s just as nice as yours, or maybe he’ll bite because he’s scared or confused. You also don’t know if that little boy over there is terrified of animals, or if his mother just hates dogs and everything about them. You don’t know if a bicycle is about to round the corner, or if a squirrel is going to lure your dog off the trail and into the path of a car. Really, your dog being friendly is the only piece of information you have. Everything else that happens is completely out of your control. And that means your dog needs to be on a leash.

As an animal lover, it’s easy to forget that not everybody likes to be surrounded by dogs all the time. It’s even easier to forget when you live in a city that, by and large, is very dog-friendly. We have parks and dozens of nearby trails, all teeming with people and pets. We have restaurants that serve water bowls (and sometimes even spare bacon!) to canine patrons. Some nights, it seems there are more dogs Downtown than people. But these are still public spaces, and that means it’s our job to control our dogs, and not everybody else’s job to adjust to our presence.

A leash is the simplest and surest way of doing exactly that. It keeps your dog out of trouble, makes other people feel comfortable, and gives you control when an unexpected situation arises. It’s not a punishment or an admission of defeat. It’s just a necessary part of being a responsible dog owner and a considerate person. Your dog can still meet and greet other people and pets, but you have final say over when and where. Your dog can still join for dinner, but won’t be able to wander into your busy server’s path or try to sneak a French fry off table seven.

Dogs do need time and space to play untethered, no question. As a yardless condo-dweller, I know it’s tough to find places for my dog to run free. But that’s what dog parks are for. They’re fenced and safe, and the only humans around are the ones who don’t mind leaving with your dog’s muddy paw prints and a thick trail of drool across their jeans. And some trails (like Riverview) even have designated off-leash hours if you’re really keen on hiking without an umbilical.

I suppose I could also point out that using a leash is the law. But is that really necessary? Even if it weren’t, it just doesn’t make sense not to use one.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.

  • Anonymous

    If you are talking about a black Lab Retriever, I said “she is friendly”, not he. Lesson learned, thank you Dr. Fietz. We’ll see you for her next check up.

  • good dog

    I completely agree when it comes to using leashes around hazards like cars/roads, or in areas like the downtown mall, but a well trained dog can be just fine off-leash on trails. This might sound harsh, but if you don’t want to run into animals on trails, then stay out of the woods. Should we put leashes on bear and deer also?

    As far as the dog’s safety, I truly believe that if you were able to explain all of the risks associated with being off-leash in the woods to a dog (being bit by another dog, snake run-in, etc) the dog would choose to accept those risks. There are also a lot of ticks in this region, and by taking your dog outside you are exposing them to the possibility of lyme disease… should we all keep our dogs inside then?

    Also, just a friendly thought… you mentioned that you “firmed up my grip on the leash just in case”… a well-adjusted dog will typically follow their owner’s lead, so if you are sending the dog signals that you are nervous and defensive it is likely that your dog will be as well, thus greatly increasing the chances of an altercation. Dogs are pack animals and if you have done a good job of establishing yourself as the alpha, and remain calm and confident when approached by strangers, your dog will be more relaxed and follow your lead.

  • good dog

    one more thought… I regularly run and bike on trails with my dog off-leash, and something that I have found to be very helpful is training the dog to stay BEHIND you when you’re on the trail. That way, even with your dog off-leash, if there are hazards up ahead (like a rattlesnake on the trail), other dogs, or children who might get frightened, you can assess the situation and take action BEFORE your dog acts. Another benefit of this approach is that, again, with dogs being pack animals, keeping your dog behind you on the trail reinforces their view of you as the pack leader.

  • Wha? Chinango

    Good Dog you sound like an jerk with an inflated sense of entitlement, one who values his/her own sense of privilege more than laws and rights of others. What you seem to be completely oblivious of is that it is your responsibility to obey the law. If you want to discuss the law apart from that, then please realize that it’s not just a matter of having your dog effectively under control (and you may have a dog that is that disciplined); you need to present to others who share the space with you as a person who has the dog under physical control. There are people out there who are terrified of dogs, and they have every right to walk the trails without being in fear of your animal. Regarding your infantile logic, there aren’t too many deer attacks and bears don’t frequent the urban trails. Dogs, on the other hand, are responsible for injury and death of people and other animals in a number of incidents each year. Your dog may run up to mine, who is on a leash and feels threatenend by the loose dog and end up hurt because mine reacts like an animal. There are good reasons for the leash laws out there. Grow the **** up.

  • good dog


  • good dog

    ohhh “Wha? Chinango”… you crack me up. although i will admit that my initial reaction to your name calling was a desire to challenge you to a duel on the trail, i reckon a better idea would be to say “lets agree to disagree” and wish you a nice weekend. i hope if our dogs ever meet in the woods they get along famously.

  • good dog

    one final note for “Wha? Chinango”…. i don’t normally post on things like this, and i certainly don’t intend to start doing it a lot. however, i want to say that although your comment was incredibly callous and rude, i do see the value in considering other opinions and in that sense i appreciate your thoughts. in the future, maybe just consider being a little less insulting, and hopefully a more considerate exchange of ideas will result in a better experience for all persons and dogs involved.

  • Babette Leah Leffler

    Leash is the law and I respect that! Very well written Dr. Mike!

  • Wha? Chinango

    Good Dog I’m happy to take the rough edge of my comments (if I could edit them) and apologize for being harsh. Perhaps I was projecting from the last encounter with an insolent little ****k on the trail, who tempted me to go “off leash” myself.

    Please observe the laws out there; they’re intended to help people coexist in public space whether they agree or not.

  • Duane

    I ride bikes with my kids on the Rivanna Trail and I’m astounded at how many people refuse to leash their dogs. I warn my kids telling them about the “loose dog” in a way that I hope makes the owner realize that they are taking unnecessary risks.

  • Rochelle Richardson Garwood

    Last March I decided to take my four-year-old down to the river at Pen Park for the first time. A couple was walking with their wet, muddy, very enthusiastic and poorly trained largish (taller than my daughter when up on its hind legs) dog off-leash along the river. The dog leapt all over my daughter with glee, much to the amusement of the couple who stood there laughing as my daughter screamed in fright. Other than assuring me of their dog’s friendliness, they did nothing until I started trying to peel their dog off my daughter myself, at which point they reluctantly got their dog under control. Our day of fun at the park obviously over, I took my daughter home and got her cleaned up, and the scratches healed within a few days. However, six months later, I still can’t get her near either a dog or a trail. Moral of the story: your dog’s unfettered joy can be some small child’s enduring terror.

  • DF

    I thought Albemarle Co didn’t have a leash law. I know dogs cannot run “at large” but there is no leash law correct?

    • Bob Garwood

      According to the county’s Animal Control brochure that I just downloaded, all dogs must be on a leash on all school grounds and in county parks except in designated areas. In Darden-Towe and Chris Green Lake, those designated areas are enclosed. The brochure also says that even when off-leash the person with the dog must ensure that the dog is under their immediate control at all times.

      • DF

        Thank you for the response. So it appears there isn’t a “leash law” in the county but if you have your animal in a county park, it HAS to be leashed except in the handful of areas it’s allowable.

  • Woolen Mills resident

    It’s time to change the on- leash designation to full time at Riverview Park. Why? Because there is such an increase in the number of walkers, runners, bikers, elderly, and families with strollers and kiddies on bikes and trikes. Their safety is far more important.

    I hope that city council looks again at this. It’s time!

  • AM

    The Rivanna trail has designated off-leash days and hours. They are clearly posted. So no, having your dog off leash during that time actually isn’t against the law.

    If your dog is aggressive, he or she shouldn’t be there, even on a leash, during those hours, because other dogs will not be on leash and you’re right, they’re likely to run up to your leashed dog to say hello. You can walk your dog literally anywhere on a leash; give those of us who have well-behaved, friendly dogs our (very limited) off-leash time and space. Have a stroll on the Downtown Mall — despite what you imply in your post, I have never seen a dog off leash there. I doubt you see it very often either.

    The Rivanna Trail is miles long. The portion that allows off-leash dogs on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is well under a mile. If you don’t want the company of off-leash dogs on those days, utilize the rest of the trail. It’s that easy.

  • Curious Culture

    I lived in Germany for about 13 years total of my life and dogs are rarely on their leashes. It is just normal to see a dog running along a biker or running free through parks or just walking obediently along side their owners. I would think all dogs would have to come off of their leashes here to create a societal shift in how people perceive and behave. Everyone would need to train their dogs to be leash-free, not just some people. I think this might be the problem with the trail being leash free only some of the time. It is isn’t enough time or space to really encourage people to put the effort in to train their dogs effectively to be truly socialized aka not run over small children or chase people on bikes, etc. It has always baffled me to see how different it is here with people and dogs versus Germany. It is a truly remarkable difference in societal norms and behaviors.

  • Woolen Mills Resident

    In response to AM: Does not the portion of the Riverview Park trail that currently has off-leash privileges begin right from the parking lot and playground?

    “The Rivanna Trail is miles long. The portion that allows off-leash dogs on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is well under a mile. If you don’t want the company of off-leash dogs on those days, utilize the rest of the trail. It’s that easy.” -AM

    Please explain how easy it would be to skip that part of the trail. And do you (and others) then leash your dog for the rest of the trail in the Park?

  • If I wanted a dog

    I think all of you are nuts. Charlottesville is the worst when it comes to animal control and peoples rights. Keep your dog on a leash, don’t bring it into my yard to poop or pee and it doesn’t matter that you have a bag to pick it up. Let the dog go in your yard and pick it up, it still leaves a residue, and my grandchildren play in my yard. Also most people don’t even follow the laws, most dogs are not registered, and should be. Finally, don’t keep your dog outside barking at all hours, it is a pain in the a** for those of us who pay for our property and aren’t interested in having a dog. All of you need to realize that dogs need to be kept under control period.

  • Marcie

    Very nicely put Dr. Frazier – it is time that people take responsibility for their pets in this city, and part of that responsibility is keeping your dog leashed.

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