PETS: To leash or not to leash?

Dog with stickDog with stick


Our dog Auggie was always happiest when she was racing through our nearby woods.  Taking her off leash let loose the animal in her, and she moved instinctually and deftly through the trees and into the water.  And for the 15 years we had Auggie, these walks were a highlight of both her and our days.

Our experience with other dogs and their owners was also almost uniformly positive.  In fact, we met most of our closest friends in the neighborhood when we and they were out dog walking in the woods.

As I started to talk to people about the subject of this story, though, I found out that some others had been having very different experiences; from the annoyance of stepping in dog poop left on the trail to the terror of having two dogs from the trail chase an elderly dog from his backyard into his family’s kitchen with jaws clamped around his throat.  The owner of the aggressive dogs arrived just in time to separate them by judicious application of a burning lighter.

One neighbor sees both sides of the issue.  She enjoyed walking her now-deceased dog through the woods for over ten years with her growing children, but more recently had the scary experience of a large off-leash dog jumping on her with no owner in sight.  Another neighbor says that dogs like people have bad days, and a dog that is fine off-leash most days can be dangerous on others.

People and dogs have been living together for thousands of years.  Leashes were already in use in Ancient Egypt to train dogs to hunt and protect people, and some Egyptians had their pets mummified to remain beside them after death.  Surviving mosaics from Pompeii show dogs wearing chains and collars and performing heroic deeds.  So these past civilizations also had to answer the question of if and when to leash their dogs.

Maryland, like nearly every other state, leaves dog leash laws to local discretion.  The Montgomery County Police Department’s Animal Services Division has 15 full-time employees, including 10 Animal Services Officers. The Division responds to over 8,000 complaints annually regarding animals at large, nuisance animals, cruelty and neglect, noise, unsanitary conditions, animal attacks, aggressive/dangerous animals, and the like.  The Park Police respond to animal-related issues in the areas they patrol.

County animal control laws prohibit a non-service dog being unleashed outside the owner’s premises or a designated dog exercise area with a penalty of $100 for the first offense and $500 for each subsequent violation.  Both Wheaton Regional Park and Cabin John Regional Park have off-leash dog parks in Montgomery County.

County law also bars unwelcome threatening physical contact by a dog including jumping or inhibiting movement.  In addition, pet owners must not allow animals to defecate on another person’s private property, and must immediately remove and sanitarily dispose of waste left by one’s animal on public or shared private property.  All in all, a few more complications than were anticipated when the first primitive human lured a wild canine near his campfire.

No matter how we try to be ideal dog owners, most dogs who are inside all day are understimulated and are eager to run, smell, and explore; i.e. are tempted to ignore our commands to be well-behaved off-leash.  The ‘Perfect Paws’ website suggests that answering the question “When will I be able to let my dog off-leash?” is comparable to the question “When can I let my child take the family car for a spin with his/her friends?”  They suggest a rule of thumb of “when the individual is responsible and trustworthy enough for you to have confidence that they will not bring harm to themselves or others.”

Perfect Paws suggests you ask yourself if your dog is socialized enough to not be fearful or aggressive toward other people or dogs; and if you can trust your dog not to jump on people (especially children), fight with other dogs, chase joggers, or pick up garbage.  Also important is whether your dog will reliably come when called and will stop immediately from a full run when told to halt.

In a large county with a population approaching 1 million, enforcement is a daunting if not impossible job for County Animal Service Officers; they can’t be everywhere and they have to prioritize their work.  And just as in most everything we do in life, it is the respect with which we treat each other rather than any laws which will determine how successfully we live together.

About the Author

Edward Levy
Ed is a native of Bawlmer, Merlin, who has 'temporarily' lived in the DC area since the mid-70s, including the last 31 years in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Interested in travel, politics, public policy, and just about everything else. Enjoys writing for this great progressive community-focused paper.