terça-feira, 5 de julho de 2011

Off-leash walks - Yes… No… Maybe…

(portuguese version below)

Summer holidays are here, along with good weather and long days. With them comes the availability to spend more time in the open air with our family – both 2 and 4 legged. And the temptation to have our canine companion off-leash is naturally great, especially because during the rest of the year, for different reasons, we generally have less time available for him. But should we do it without second thoughts?

Hardly anyone will dispute the fact that dogs need to be let loose. They are social and active animals that need to be able to regularly spend their energy and to be physically and psychologically stimulated. The common hygienic walks, on-leash, quick and in familiar places will hardly be enough to satisfy our companion’s needs. Unlike popular belief, even small sized dogs will not see their exercise needs met by just running around the house; they actually often have proportionally greater needs than larger sized dogs.
When they go smoothly, off-leash walks are an excellent opportunity to reinforce the bond and complicity that exists between the owner and his dog. But there are several opportunities for them to go wrong, and the owner should be aware of them so he may take the necessary precautions.

Common sense… and obedience!
Most risks, unfortunately, come form lack of care… Too often we see off leash dogs, even in confined and/or unknown places, showing clear signs of stress, bumping into objects (namely the ever more present glass doors, which dogs do not immediately apprehend as a barrier as they can see what’s on the other side). A loose dogs has inherently a greater probability to get hurt or cause injury, even if unintentionally. A dog that gets spooked or who is chasing an animal will easily run to the middle of the street, risking getting run over. Or crash into someone, due to being more focused on its prey than on what’s going on around him. An off leash dog should be a trained, obedient dog, with a reliable recall to his owner regardless of the situation, in order to prevent problematic situations. This is necessary not only in open space, but also when the dog is loose on enclosed spaces, like dog parks – they still have other people and dogs that should be minded, so the walk is an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Breed propensity
Some breeds tend to be more attentive to their owner whereas others tend to be more independent. Herding dogs, for example, having been bred to work under the guidance of people, tend to be more responsive to their owner’s desires and to keep near him, while the reverse tends to happen with mountain dogs, more independent and explorer of the surrounding areas. Scent hounds, on the other hand, despite being very attentive to their owner, when they find a scent that attracts them and start following the trail, show a remarkable “selective deafness”. This happens because this activity is for them much more attractive and rewarding than the mere presence of the owner (hard as it may be for some owners to admit it). Of course, there are general trends, and there is ample individual variation within each breed, often even more than among breeds. However, it is a good empirical rule to consider the different breed types and their tendency to behave differently when they are on the loose, for when the owners are implementing strategies to ensure their dog’s obedience in any situation – it is necessary to try to ensure they are their companion’s main focus of interest, more interesting than any other activity.

“He just wants to play!”
You’re on the beach relaxing when, out of the blue, comes a running dog chasing a ball someone threw, skidding right on top of you and giving you a sand bath. As if that wasn’t enough to ruin your good mood, another dog comes out of the sea and vigorously shakes right beside you, literally giving you a cold shower. As much as you like dogs, that will certainly not be one of your favorite moments!
When you’re taking a walk on the park, the situation may become even more complicated. Your dog may actually just want to play, but other people are also entitled to enjoy public space their own way without being bothered. He may even be the nicest coolest dog in the area, but that is no reason to let your 70 kg Saint Bernard run like mad on top of a passer-by asking to be petted, drooling all over him, just because “he only wants to play”. Or to let your Collie  run around people trying to get them together in a single group, nibbling at their heels (herding behavior). Special attention must also be paid in places with bikers, skaters, etc., as most dogs tend to associate them with prey to chase.
If your dog is little or not used to children, watch him carefully in places where kids are playing. Children have a shape and behavior different from adults, and dogs that are not used to them may not understand them as people, but rather as animated toys or prey to chase.

“He won’t bite!”
When a dog is all worked up enjoying his few moments off leash and notices another dog, often his tendency is to run to the other. Almost automatically, often the owner lets him, just saying to the other dog’s owner “it’s ok, my dog won’t bite!” But is it such a simple and innocent situation?
On one hand, the dog may actually not bit in a normal situation, but his owner doesn’t know anything about the other dog, if he is aggressive, scared, etc. Is it wise to expose any of the dogs to a situation of potential risk without proper precautions?
On the other hand, and often because of the social isolation of most urban dogs are subjected to (often by their owner, who will immediately repel any dog trying to approach his own), many dogs don’t know how to politely meet and greet other dogs according to the rules of canine etiquette. In a correct approach, both dogs will come up to each other calmly, with a relaxed demeanor, without staring at each other (they may alternate staring with looking away), will position themselves side by side to smell their anal area (the canine equivalent to the human hand shake) and, if there is no stress, will either continue their way or try to play with each other. When this is approach is not done correctly, there may be problems due to misinterpretation of intentions. For example, it is common, when dogs are excited, that they come running directly towards the other one, stopping right in front of him. As a human equivalent, think about a stranger that sees you at distance and comes running on top of you, stopping only a few centimeters away. Unpleasant, right?
In such a situation, a more confident dog may show signs to try to defuse the situation, like calmly waking away or staying put but smelling the ground (almost certainly the floor is not more interesting than the other dog, but by showing lack of interest the other dog may calm down), lick his lips, etc. If the dog is unsure and/or doesn’t have the possibility of choosing what to do (as when he is on leash), he may eventually show some aggressive sigs (like raising the hackles, showing teeth, growling…), in order to try to prevent the other dog from approaching. The owners may also unintentionally add to the stress of the meeting. For example, by not knowing normal canine behavior, some will try to stop dogs from smelling the anal areas, because they think that behavior is gross. Even more common is the owner getting nervous with the approach of a strange dog and putting pressure on the leash, in an almost reflex behavior of trying to hold their animal better. But the dog will feel that pressure and think that the situation may indeed be a problem, which will lead to an escalation of the real stress. The ideal, in a situation where both dogs are on leash, is to calmly watch the dogs’ body language and keep a loose leash in order to avoid unnecessary tension. When both dogs are off leash the “complicating” human element is removed, and any of the approaching dogs may choose to walk away, but the animals' behavior must still be closely watched. A misinterpretation by one of the dogs or a lack of knowledge of body language (do not forget that many dogs live in a virtually human environment with little to no contact with other dogs since puppyhood) may lead to the occurrence of conflicts. But when one of the dogs if off leash and the other is on leash, there may be the problem of ever-excitement of the loose dog associated with the tension perceived by the owner and the leashed dog, who has no possibility of walking away if he so desired; if the fearful dog does not have the possibility of flight, fight remains… The owner of the off leash dog thus has the increased responsibility to ensure his animal does not derange the other dog.

Ask first… and watch
A simple way to do it is to keep your dog close to you and ask first to the owner of the other dog if they can greet each other. Should the owner refuse (he may have a fearful dog, an aggressive dog, a frail one, a dog undergoing some kind of treatment, etc.), respect his wishes and carry on with your walk. If he accepts, watch the dogs’ interaction. Watch the way they approach and if your dog starts getting too worked up, call him back, allow only calm approaches, in order to avoid misinterpretations and risks. After the first introduction, should both dogs want to play for a bit, don’t lower your guard. Although when playing dogs normally use several signs showing that what they are doing should not be taken seriously, in order to keep their companion relaxed, different dogs may have different play styles – some like rough games, others prefer calmer playing… Special attention should be given when dogs of different sizes are playing, as the bigger dog may accidentally injure the smaller one. That is actually the main reason for the recommendation for two separate enclosures in dog parks, so animals of different sizes may interact safely with dogs their own size.

Respect to be respected

As much as you may want to always have your well behaved dog off leash (and regardless of the legality or not of the situation), bear in mind that some people are afraid of dogs or, even if they do not fear them, do not particularly enjoy having dogs around. Many people don’t know who to correctly interpret dog body language and may feel threatened by the approach of a strange dog. Remember that in most public spaces dogs should be kept on leash and they are refused access to a number of them. Despite our traditional tolerance to certain of these freedoms, it is necessary to respect others! Learn to interpret canine body language, keep your dog on leash or near you when you’re around other people, do not let him approach other people or dogs without proper permission and never forget to pick up after your dog, even if he is off leash. If we all respect the basic rules of common sense, respect and healthy sociability, we may gradually start to change people’s mentalities and gain legal access of dogs to increasingly more public areas.

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