A few weeks back I had a student in one of my basic obedience classes ask if he ever would be able to walk his dog off leash in their neighborhood. I asked him why that was something he was interested in, and he mentioned that his uncle never leashes his dog while walking him. We had a long discussion, and I'm happy to report that he was pretty convinced by the end of class that he didn't ever need to do as his uncle does. So why should you make sure to keep your dog leashed when out and about in public?
If you've never seen a dog get hit by a car, be grateful. My number one reason for keeping a leash on your dog are the safety issues involved. The fact of the matter is that for me, the convenience of not having to leash my dog or train him to walk nicely on a leash will never outweigh my value for his life. I don't care how well trained your dog is. Dogs are individual, living beings, not robots, and there is no such thing as a 100% guarantee on behavior. Sure, you can proof the dog to the best of your ability, but there is always a chance for the unexpected.
On top of that, if you are walking your dog off leash and they are ahead or behind you, you can't see if they are getting into trouble or picking up something you wouldn't want them to have, like garbage. I know that on garbage day, keeping Regis leashed and close to me is integral to making sure that he doesn't pick up various chicken and rib bones from my neighbor's garbage, and it's also nice to know he isn't eating any cat or raccoon poop that he may have found. My ability to prevent him from eating these illicit substances is critical to keeping him from getting sick or catching various parasites.
2) Other people
As hard as it is for us "dog people" to believe, not every person wants to say hello to your dog. And the vast majority of pet dogs have not been trained to the level needed to be able to recall away from a distraction like a new person. On top of that, some people are afraid of dogs, familiar or unfamiliar. Put yourself in the their shoes, and ask yourself if you were fearful of dogs approaching and saw a strange dog bounding toward you, what would you do? That isn't going to be a positive experience for that person, or your dog. Keeping your dog leashed and near you is key to being a good neighbor.
3) Other dogs
This reason is near an dear to my heart. As a trainer, I work with a fair share of dog reactive dogs and dog aggressive dogs. My own dog is reactive, and nothing can ruin my day like getting rushed by an unexpected, off leash dog while on our walks. In fact, during the beginning stages of his behavior modification, being approached by off leash dogs could set us back in our training by months. And again, it behooves us to discuss the fact that the level of training required to recall a dog away from another dog is very high, and not something which most dog guardians commit to.
On top of that, this category intersects with my number one category, safety, because not every dog wants to say hi to your dog. Dogs on leash being approached by off leash dogs often feel trapped, having no where to go and only the 6 feet of their leash to move around. This may cause them to react differently then if both dogs were off leash. My vet has mentioned to me that a large number of dog bites that they see are due to these negative reactions where a dog who is normally "fine" snaps because he's on the defense. When we remove the "flight" option, our dogs only have one option left: fight. Keeping your dog leashed is the best way to prevent these interactions going south, and saving yourself the cost of a vet bill.
4) It's the law!
And that's that. If you live in the United States, chances are that the county or state you live in has some kind of leash law. In fact, in some towns and counties there are even stipulations that the leash cannot be longer than 6 feet, which makes Flexi-leads illegal as well. Just because you don't want to be inconvenienced by a leash doesn't make it okay for you to bend the rules for yourself and your dog.
I get it, I really do. The idea of letting your dog roam around off leash is very appealing. The freedom, the opportunity for your dog to smell and explore, and your ability to not have to handle the leash all seem so wonderful. But when you weigh the pros and the cons, it's just not worth the risk to your dog, other dogs, and other people. So, next time you decide to unclip that leash, consider the circumstances and ask yourself if it's really the best idea. Happy training!