“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.