More Off Leash Zones? Why This is a Bad Idea.


They’re having so much fun! Every dog should have the chance to run and play off leash, right? Yes, of course! But also no. I know, it’s contradictory, but bear with me.

I live in Seattle, and I read this article this morning. It did not fill me with warm fuzzies. It says that Seattle’s off leash policy is under review, and the Parks Department is considering allowing dogs off leash in nature parks, like Lincoln Park.

I do not use dog parks, for a number of reasons, but I support their presence and yes, they fulfill a very important need. But dog parks are not for every dog, and not every dog parent who wants to exercise their dog wants them mixing with lots of other dogs. Many dog parents have shy, reactive dogs. Or older dogs who are not looking for lots of playmates. Or disabled dogs that can’t interact with other dogs and are at risk of injury. The list goes on, so I’ll say it now even though it’ll probably make me unpopular.

Your dog’s right to “run free” does not trump my right to be unmolested by loose dogs.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was attacked three times in the first six months by loose dogs while I was out walking my Belgian sheepdog, Domino. In one case I was set on by three dogs. I don’t know what I would’ve done if those two men driving by hadn’t rescued me and helped drive the dogs off. Domino was a great dog, but those attacks scarred him and he was never the same after.  His strategy became “the best defense is a good offense.” It took quite a bit of work to get him past his fearful aggressive reactions. He mellowed even more when we got Golly and at last walking him was not an exercise in stress management – his and mine – when we saw a loose dog.


You want to know what’s really sad? Domino used to love dog parks. I frequented a number of them when I lived in San Diego, and he had a great time. It took just six months to demolish his joy in other dogs. He did eventually become much less reactive, and a perfect gentleman out on walks, even with other dogs passing by. But it would always make me cringe when I saw a loose dog come running toward us. I could see at a glance that the majority of these dogs were not aggressive, but Domino was rarely in a mood to make a new friend.

“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” The owner would call with a smile and a casual wave. When I would put my body between Domino and the other dog and say “Yeah, well my dog’s not, would you please call your dog back?” I would inevitably get the sneer, or the scornful look that said “You’re a bad owner for bringing an aggressive dog out here to the park.” Occasionally I even got a lecture on socializing my dog. Um. Yeah. Listen Princess, you’re the one breaking the law not me, and you do not know my dog’s history. You’re the one putting your little Fluffy at risk.

Sadly, Domino’s story is not an unusual one. Not every dog wants to run free, surrounded by tens or even hundreds of other dogs. Not every dog deserves that either. Yes, I said it. The aggressive, badly socialized dog does not deserve to run free and terrorize other park users, human or canine. The city’s parks are for everyone to use, and this means that everyone needs to act responsibly. This means keeping your dog on leash.

Why? Because people who have been bitten by a dog and are phobic have a right to feel safe walking in the park. People who want to sit on a blanket on a sunny afternoon with their family have the right to not get splashed with urine because a dog lifts his leg on the tree next to where they’re sitting. Or have their picnic trashed when the dog runs onto the blanket, kicking sand all over it.

But what? You’re a good dog parent with a well socialized dog? Yes, I get it. I do. I have a friend who has her dog very well trained. And she sometimes lets him off leash. *gasp* But she is constantly paying attention to her surroundings. When other walkers come into view she calls her dog back to her and leashes him up. This is almost always before the other party is aware of us and our dogs. She also keeps him to the trail. But she is the exception, not the rule.

If you are in this category, bravo. I’m not worried about you. I’ve seen you out there too, because we spot each other at the same time and get our dogs quickly back to our side and under control. We usually let our dogs say hi and maybe have a quick play session before moving on our way.

But to be honest, not every dog or dog parent falls into this category. In fact, most don’t. Because it takes a lot of time, and work to train your dog to that level. Most have their dog sorta trained to come when called but when they turn their dog loose they start playing on their phone and only look up occasionally. And this is what we will get if we ease the leash law. It will be by far the majority of off leash users. Let’s not give the folks who are not dog lovers extra ammunition in their negative perceptions of dog parents and the dogs we love.

I totally agree. Everyone should train their dog to have a strong recall, and exhibit trail courtesy when they’re out, but not not everyone does. That is just a fact. To dismiss that little fact is a disservice to everyone else who wants to go out for a stroll in the park.

Being a responsible dog parent means you control your dog so that you live amicably with your neighbors. This means using a leash to keep your dog from becoming a nuisance. And frankly, that’s what this easing of the leash law would make of dogs. I can guarantee that not every dog parent who unsnaps their dog’s leash is going to monitor and control their dog to the level my friend does with her dog. Guarantee it. Because I see it frequently.

So does the City Parks department, and you can read about the negative impact dogs have on our nature parks here. Dogs are destructive to wildlife and plants. They are; sorry, but sometimes the truth hurts. They scare off nesting birds and resting marine mammals. They damage sensitive habitat either by running over delicate plants, digging them up or eliminating on them. “Not my dog, it’s just this once.” And that’s what the next ten, and the next ten all say. It all adds up. The damaging effects are cumulative.

Our parks would not be nearly as lush, lovely and thriving if it was not for the efforts of staff and volunteers alike who work to control invasive plants and encourage native growth through new plantings. Their job though is made much harder when the habitat they’re trying to preserve and protect is trampled into the ground. It’s bad now. In the study quoted in this article, 25% of the dogs were off leash, with most heading off trail into the woods and other sensitive areas. And this is with a leash law fully in effect. If we want our nature parks to thrive, we all need to be good stewards and protect them. Which means staying on trail, you and your dog.

I don’t want to do away with dog parks. We need them, we really do, and for a whole lot of dogs they are a little slice of heaven on earth. I would support additional dedicated and fenced off leash areas. But I cannot support the idea of easing the policy of keeping dogs leashed in a general use park. It’s simply not the best policy for all park users.