Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: To leash or not to leash

Charlotte, a border collie cross. Photo Courtesy of Pam Goff

Dear Tom:

Charlotte is a border collie cross. That is a guess, because she was a rescue dog. She is quite obedient off-leash, so she is usually free. When we encounter a distraction, she will obey a “sit” command, and sometimes, if I have my hand on her collar, she’ll stay while the distraction passes. If she is on a leash, she becomes very agitated and stupid. For instance, I was walking on a dirt road with a friend when the UPS truck came up behind us. Charlotte is particularly bothered by UPS trucks. In a former life, she went to work with her owner, and got to bark at the UPS driver several times a day when he or she made deliveries. When we heard the truck coming, we stepped about six feet off the road and she sat, and I gave her a treat with my hand on her collar, and she didn’t bark or chase the truck. I knew the truck would be returning after the delivery, so I put the leash on her, just to be safe. When the truck came toward us, we stepped off the road again, and she sat for a minute only to jump up and hurl herself to the end of the leash, barking crazily at the passing truck. The same thing happens when we meet strange dogs. If she or the other dog is on a leash, she behaves very badly. If she’s off-leash she will “come,” “leave it,” or “sit” when asked. Is it worth training her to be good on the leash when she’s so much better off it?


Dear Pam,

Your last question is the first question that needs to be addressed. To me, “Is it worth training her to be good on the leash …” is not something questionable. It’s mandatory. Living on this beautiful Island, I understand and appreciate the ease of off-leash walks on dirt roads and beaches. But the realities of everyday life will require Charlotte to be on-leash when you go the the vet, or anytime she’s with you in town. Would you be comfortable walking down Main Street, Edgartown, with Charlotte off-leash? Or getting on the ferry with her off-leash? Or crossing streets other than dirt roads? The reason Charlotte’s so tough and bold on leash is because when she’s physically attached to you, she feels fully supported by the leash connection. She interprets it as you saying, “I got your back, Charlotte.” It’s like the little kid acting tough because he has his big brother standing behind him. Solitary dirt roads and paths with the occasional car or hiker heighten a dog’s response, as opposed to crowded streets. Pam, picture yourself walking down Circuit Avenue in August weaving your way through all the people — you hardly notice most of the them. Now picture yourself walking down an empty street, or better yet, an alley between buildings in Manhattan, and all of a sudden a person appears at the other end of the alley. Boy, you’ll certainly be focused on that one person coming toward you!

Same with the occasional truck or hiker or dog coming toward Charlotte on the path. Having Charlotte sit and stay while the truck is coming at her is like me having you sit on a railroad track and telling you to stay as the train approaches. As the offending distraction approaches, Charlotte needs to keep moving forward and obey your “Leave it!” command.

I’m glad to hear that Charlotte is being cooperative off-leash, but do you think she’d obey your “leave it” command if, for instance, you encountered a skunk? Pam, Charlotte needs to be taught by an expert, followed by a leash transfer, meaning you are handed the leash and taught the right timing, body language, and voice intonation to elicit her full cooperation. I think you need a couple of lessons with a pro to make your on- and off-leash walks a lot more relaxing.

Best of luck,
The Dogcharmer