I am often asked why I prefer leash-walking in small groups through local neighbourhoods, parks and trails rather than taking dogs en masse to off-leash dog parks. There are a number of reasons, all of them having to do with ratios, safety and your dog’s heath. None of the reasons are because I don’t like off-leash dog parks.
I love off-leash dog parks. They are an important part of your dog’s life as they offer a great opportunity for you and your dog to burn off energy quickly and get to know the other dogs in your neighbourhood. Also, with proper direction from you, dog parks are a great place for your dog to learn valuable socialization skills. In mornings and evenings at the dog park there is usually a ratio of 1 or 2 owners per dog.
However, the dog park you know and love can look very different in the middle of the day. The ratios of dog handlers to dogs can be very dangerous. I’ve seen crazy (and illegal) ratios of 1 handler to 8 dogs. Seeing 40+ dogs with only a handful of dog walkers (some smoking or texting) is not an environment I want to bring other dogs in to. Especially when I don’t know anything about the medical or behavioural history of the other dogs – and I don’t know anything about the standards and practices of the other dog walkers.
PLEASE NOTE – MOST DOG-WALKERS who use dog parks ARE VERY RESPONSIBLE, are great dog handlers, and never take on more dogs than they can handle. Most know the medical history of all the dogs in their care. I know a lot of them personally and they are great at what they do. But some are not. Some dog walkers take on every dog they can to maximize profit and minimize their number of outings.
No dog handler, regardless of skill and experience, can handle all situations with that many unknown dogs. It’s just not possible. It’s in these environments where the most amount of accidents or injuries occur. And in these environments situations can arise which teach your dog unwanted behaviour – and repeated exposure can cause your dog to develop ongoing behavioural problems. Finally, the added risk of spreading of infection or disease is not a risk I am willing to take with any dog in my care.
My experience has taught me that leash-walking combined with small group activity on a daily basis leads to a calmer, well-balanced and happy dog. I am not alone in this philosophy; many walkers, trainers and veterinarians in my network share this view.