January is National Walk Your Dog Month — it’s also a great opportunity to walk off holiday cookies and coquito! Walking our dogs helps keep their bodies fit, and their minds sharp.
But just as human interactions come with rules of common courtesy, there are certain rules of etiquette which should always be observed when walking our dogs.
For starters, obey all leash laws. Many dog owners work hard to achieve off-leash obedience skills with their dogs. Yet even dogs who behave perfectly off-leash are still legally required to be leashed in public spaces.
It can also be disconcerting for others to see a dog who is not on a leash. While we may know our dogs have earned this privilege through training, people we encounter have no way of knowing this.
Additionally, animals can be unpredictable. My wife and I have lost count of the number of times we have been charged - sometimes bitten! - by off-leash dogs.
The miscreants are usually hauled away by apologetic owners who insist such behavior is out of character for their pet. Our canine companions can - and often do - surprise us.
Next, use the right equipment. Arguably, the dog-walking tool most thoroughly reviled by vets and behaviorists is the retractable leash. These leads give owners very little control, and can cause an excitable dog to become tangled or injured.
The more common scenario however, involves injury to the handler. A handler who has been “clotheslined” by a fully extended leash can suffer a nasty fall, as can passers-by who do not expect to see a string of paracord in their paths.
This material is remarkably strong. When it makes contact with human skin, the results can range from burns and lacerations, to cuts that gouge straight to the bone. Other reported injuries include skin degloving and finger amputations. A little girl in Canada was badly hurt when a retractable lead made contact with her neck. An online search for images of retractable leash injuries turns up all sorts of graphic images.
On the other hand there are many humane, effective products designed to help owners control dogs who pull, strain, or veer to the side during walks. A harness may be a great choice for a dog with a soft trachea who chokes himself during walks.
That same harness, however, may not be the best choice for a muscular dog who tends to pull. Your veterinary team or Certified Professional Dog Trainer can offer advice you on which tools are best for your individual pet.
Next, don’t insist your dog “say hi” to every other dog you may encounter. When our dogs leap and squeal with delight at the sight of another dog, we tend to think it’s cute.
Yet in “dog-speak”, this behavior is over-the-top and obnoxious. What we call “being friendly” is perceived by other dogs as “being a jerk.”
A happy, well-intentioned dog who body slams another dog in an attempt to initiate the butt-sniffing ritual probably means no harm, but is being disrespectful just the same. It is the equivalent of us acknowledging a new acquaintance with a tackle as opposed to a handshake.
A dog on the other end of such a greeting may choose to correct the inappropriate behavior with a nip or a bite. In the worst case scenario, the greeting-gone-wrong may escalate into a full-blown dog fight. I’ve sewn up many patients who were “just being friendly” when all merry hell broke loose.
Finally, always pick up after your pet. There are all kinds of stylish poopie bags and holders which attach easily to leashes. When nature calls, pick it up and dispose of it properly.
Not doing so can spread parasites, some of which can be transmitted to humans - children in particular. Don’t be that neighbor. Seriously, it’s gross.
Happy New Year, South Florida! Now get out there and walk your dogs - politely.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.
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