The material on this page is not entirely specific to pit bulls; all dog owners would be wise to consider the points I am going to make here. However, because this is a site about pit bulls, for pit bull owners, some of this material will be pit bull-specific. If it is pit bull-specific, I will use the words “pit bull.” Otherwise, I will use the generic “dog.”
The guidelines of responsible dog ownership pertaining to leashes and dog parks are as follows.
Though these guidelines are quite simple, and the reasons behind them are very good reasons (as we will discuss below), there are inevitably detractors. Most of these objectors do so in the name of “trust,” without really understanding what it means to trust a dog. Further, they tend to believe that none of the reasons for these rules apply to them or their dog or their particular circumstances. Such naive posturing often leads to risk mismanagement, an accident, a lawsuit, breed-specific legislation, and/or their dog’s untimely demise.
In sum, the above rules should be followed for all these reasons: public safety; dogs’ safety; your family’s happiness, safety, and financial security; the hard work of opponents of breed-specific legislation; and the hard work of responsible pit bull owners everywhere.
When is it acceptable for a dog to be off leash?
Obviously, dogs that are performing in canine sports events fall under these acceptable circumstances, as they are usually contained within a ring, and are working in close quarters with their handler. Similarly, working dogs such as police dogs and assistance dogs may need to be off the leash to perform.
Dogs that are contained in their own house or backyard similarly do not need to be on a leash—though there are exceptions even to this general rule. Owners must take the necessary steps to ensure that escape artists don’t jump the fence or race out the front door. In such cases, in addition to obedience training and proper containment, owners may need to keep their dog on a leash when letting the dog out to potty or opening the door to greet the pizza delivery person.
When your dog is off leash and uncontained, you have no physical control over what your dog does, where he/she goes, or who or what he/she interacts with. An off-leash dog can
Detractors have some excuses as to why off-leash is okay for them:
“My dog is reliable when walking off-leash.” This may be true of a small minority of dogs, but it is not true for the majority. Most dogs can be counted on to act like dogs. Though the dog may walk near its owner under normal, unexciting circumstances, if it sees a cat, a squirrel, another dog, or a person, it’s easy enough for the dog to forget all about obedience and run off. Remember, you cannot trust a dog to process information and environmental cues the way humans do. Dogs are dogs, and will behave like dogs. This means they will chase moving objects, challenge other dogs for territory and dominance, and so forth. It takes a great deal of obedience training to create a reliable off-leash dog—more than the average dog owner ever gives his or her dog—and even then, a highly trained dog can still slip up.
“But my dog is friendly toward everybody. He would never hurt anyone.” Believe it or not, some people actually dislike dogs. Others are very frightened of dogs. Imagine that you are terrified of snakes. Would you have good feelings toward a person who threw a snake on you? Or would you hate that person for doing something so horrific? Similarly, a person who doesn’t like dogs, yet is suddenly confronted by a loose dog charging at them, would probably become very scared, angry, and upset. Furthermore, not every other dog out there is friendly. If your friendly-but-loose dog runs into an aggressive dog, someone or some dog is going to get hurt—and you will be partially responsible because you let your dog run loose. So no matter how friendly your dog is, you must be considerate of other people and dogs.
“I live in a rural area.” I have never understood why country living makes it okay to allow one’s dog to run loose on other people’s property. When they leave their own property, “farm dogs” can chase and kill livestock and wild animals on neighboring farms. Neighbors find themselves in the unenviable position of shooting and killing loose dogs to avoid property losses and personal injury. Furthermore, rural loose dogs can get together and form a pack, causing even more damage than a single dog. Of course, in addition to being a danger themselves, rural loose dogs face many dangers, including death by shotgun, death by wild animal trap, death by wild animal, death by poison, and so forth. Living in the country is not an excuse for letting a dog roam loose.
Dog parks are places (usually in the city) where people can take their dog to interact with other dogs in an off-leash environment. Though they are often touted as a great place to socialize one’s dog, in reality they are a rather unsatisfactory way to properly socialize a dog, due to the lack of control owners have over their dogs.
In fact, I know not a single reputable dog trainer or behaviorist that would actually take their own dog to a dog park. Why? Because they are not willing to put their dog at risk.
Dog park dangers include
Of course, the biggest danger is the risk of a dog fight. Face it—dogs fight. It’s what they do. Sometimes, the fight is just a little tiff. But other times, the fight can get serious. The consequences of a major fight are heavy. One or both dogs could be seriously injured or killed. Owners can be bitten while trying to separate the dogs. One or both owners may sue the other for reimbursement of medical/vet bills and so forth. Animal control may hand out fines or declare one or both dogs “dangerous” or “vicious.”
It all depends on how bad the situation is and how angry the people involved are.
And this is exactly why pit bulls and dog parks do not mix.
It goes without saying that dog-aggressive dogs of any breed do not belong at a dog park, period. However, just because your pit bull is not dog-aggressive does not make it okay to go to a dog park.
Even if your pit bull does not start a fight at a dog park, that doesn’t mean your pit bull will never be in a fight at a dog park.
Not very many people like pit bulls, and those that are sort of “okay” with pit bulls usually harbor a secret fear that “the pit bull could snap at any moment.” The mere sight of your pit bull being involved in a dog fight, even if the involvement is minimal and no one gets hurt, confirms this fear. It is enough to knock most fence-sitters firmly over into the “pit bulls are vicious” camp.
Guess which dog is going to be blamed for a fight should it break out. You got it—the pit bull. Guess which owner will get the support and sympathy in a lawsuit stemming from a fight between a pit bull and some cute “family” dog. Yes, the “family” dog’s owner. Guess which dog is going to be declared “dangerous.” Well, it won’t be the “family” dog.
Is it fair? No. But that’s the way it is.
Dog fights are not always minor scuffles that are easily broken up. Some pit bulls will not start a fight, but have no problem finishing the fight. Generally speaking, pit bulls are large, strong dogs. One or both dogs can be seriously injured or killed. These sorts of stories almost always make the news.
And the consequences of a fight between a pit bull and another dog are not just limited to those two parties, either. The repercussions have a ripple effect, and ultimately impact all pit bull owners and their dogs. The end result could be increased animosity toward pit bull owners in general, or increased media coverage of incidents involving pit bulls, or breed-specific legislation.
But all of these dangers and serious consequences can be avoided. Simply put, do not take your pit bull to a dog park. It will be safer for everyone, especially you and your dog.
For people who are not sure how to socialize their dog without taking the dog to a dog park or letting their dog off leash, there are a few excellent alternatives.
Form small “playdates” with other responsible dog owners; hold the playdates in someone’s backyard or in a reserved public place (so strangers can’t just wander in), and keep your focus on the dogs’ interactions. Limiting the playdates to a few dogs at a time keeps things manageable; hanging out with known dogs and responsible owners will prevent the transmission of disease—and bad habits.
Join a socialization or obedience class. These classes offer socialization and training under controlled circumstances. As an added bonus, your dog will learn to pay attention to you and obey commands even in the presence of other dogs.
Participate in canine sports. Depending on the sport, this usually requires quite a few initial training classes. Once the classes are done, and your dog has proven his or her ability to obey even in highly distracting situations, you can move on to competition. In addition to being surrounded by lots of other dogs and people, your dog bonds closely with you as you work together in the sports routine despite distraction.
Take your dog to on-leash places or events. Examples include dog-friendly restaurants, benefit walks, festivals, and parks. Interactions between dogs should be controlled, assuming everyone follows the rules and keeps their dogs on leashes. This is a great way to teach your dog proper leash manners, and a well-behaved pit bull on a leash at a public event does a world of good for the pit bull’s reputation.
With all these safe, positive alternatives to the dangers of off-leash roaming and dog parks, there’s no reason to put you and your dog at risk. Keep you and your dog safe, and keep the pit bull’s reputation from further tarnishing—keep your dog on-leash and out of dog parks!