I’m a fearful dog rehabilitator, trainer and behaviorist, and after over twenty-five years of work with “special needs” dogs, including my own, I agree that the thoughtlessness of some owners make their dogs nuisances–not at all the dogs’ faults. Off-leash dogs that are under voice/hand signal control and who are 100% reliable are rare. I have one but my other two are “unreliable,” although as trained. Hence they are always on leashes around other dogs or groups of people.
What sets off “reactive” and fearful dogs is the speed of movements. All dogs have natural “prey” drive–based in the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. When anything–squirrel, rabbit, or another dog, runs away or around them, that ancient drive is set off. No handler can hope to conquer a strong instinctual drive without hours and hours of training and proofing. On top of that, certain breeds are especially bred to have high prey drive, which most people, even owners of those breeds, aren’t aware of.
If you wish to walk your dog off leash, do not let him or her run around other dogs. It is unfair and insensitive–to the other dogs and their well-meaning owners. Some dogs will never be safe off leash due to their genetic or learned reactivity or just the poor training they’ve not received from their owners. Nothing motivates, frightens, or causes stress reactions like the sudden flood of adrenaline that another fast-moving dog causes in nearby dogs. Dogs confined on leashes can feel vulnerable at the worst, and excited to join the play at best.
Most rescue dogs (especially puppy mill survivors) are highly stressed when they see dogs, especially bigger ones, running around. If you have a large rescue dog who sees a small off-leash dog, your dog may interpret that small, speedy body as “prey.” Neither situation can end well.
Safety Around Children
I am also a professional humane educator and have spent hundreds of hours instructing children what to do and how to act around dogs–those they know and those they do not. But no child can be held responsible for understanding possible consequences in a fast-moving, on-coming dog. An insensitive and ignorant owner can cause a child to have a life-long fear reaction to any dog, if there is just one unfortunate incidence. Dogs may also see small humans as prey as well. Unintentional injuries can result simply from the dog’s natural behavior and the child’s natural behavior colliding in miscommunication.
Rules & Manners
The bottom lines are: 1) keep your frightened, shy dog on leash at all times (shy dogs are always flight risks), 2) if your dog is well trained and reliable off-leash, do not let it run to or around on-leash dogs, 3) always leash your dog, regardless of training and reliability, around children. Children have naturally extremely aggressive body language in a dog’s eyes and can quickly turn your obedient dog into a panicked creature who may react in ways you never expected.
Let the words: RESPECT and CONSIDERATION be the laws of the land. Both for and to our dog companions and our fellow humans.