By Diana Logan
You can google any variation of “Rules for Handling Dogs in Public,” but because there is no official Dog User’s Manual or even a standard recognized resource for such information, you are unlikely to find a consistent or concise answer. Expectations regarding our own behavior and that of our dogs varies wildly. Our point of view usually boils down to a preconceived notion of what’s appropriate and what is not. Unfortunately, these individual, very subjective, interpretations do not serve us well as a whole. In fact, they can lead us into dangerous situations.
If we filter out the confusion, chatter, and differing opinions, we can pare the rules down to one basic component: the need to respect and protect each other’s’ personal space. That’s it. Full stop.
There would be no dog bites, no uninvited interactions, no dogs jumping on strangers, no dog-dog conflicts in public if we would all heed The Space Rule. Dogs would be much happier and have better skills, too.
First, we need to define “personal space.” One individual’s personal space may be different from another’s, but Oxford Languages clarifies it with this helpful definition:” the physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them.”
Additionally, “proxemics” (/präk sēmiks/), the study of how people unconsciously structure the space around them, offers us more insight. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall “delineated four zones of interpersonal distance specific to Western culture: intimate (up to 18 inches); personal (18-48”), social (4’-12’) and public (greater than 12 feet).” An arm’s length (3’, plus or minus) is a good general measure for appropriate personal distance between humans in our Western culture (this distance varies by culture).
We are responsible not only for the safety of our own dogs, but also for keeping others safe from them. The Problem Waaaay too Close for Comfort Three feet is too close for most leashed dogs in a public space. We may feel comfortable briefly do-sido-ing around a stranger at arm’s length, but most dogs will have a very hard time maintaining their composure when a strange dog is that close. Or a strange human. Or anything that may potentially make him feel threatened or uncomfortable.
We go about our lives unconsciously charting our way based upon our own concepts of comfort and safety. We don’t even think about it; it’s just how we live. The world we inhabit and in which we involve our dogs is, of course, often an artificial construct, designed by and for us. Doorways, sidewalks, accessibility, public spaces, etc. are all dimensioned for the standard human. When our dogs accompany us, they are forced to try to fit themselves into our personal space despite its inadequacies.
It’s time we factor our dogs’ comfort level into this equation, don’t you think?
Bubbles When you are out and about with your dog, establish a predictable personal bubble that includes your dog’s spacial needs. This means that instead of 3’, you are going to increase the distance between your dog and others to about 10’. This doesn’t mean you have a 10’ leash - absolutely not. If there’s another dog on a 6’ leash and you want 10’ between them, you may have to go to 16’.
You are right, though, 10’ or more is challenging when our sidewalks are a standard 4’ wide. Read on…. Adding space or the concept of space requires creativity
You can add distance by 1) preemptively crossing to the other side of the road, 2) using any available “pull out” space such as a parking lot, driveway, etc. or 3) adding visual blocking to help compensate for the inability to add actual distance. Visual blocking may take the form of positioning yourself between you and the other dog/human, inviting your dog to be on the opposite side of you relative to them, or taking advantage of a parked car or other nearby object.
Assume the person or dog approaching does not want to interact with your dog. Be respectful and stay out of their bubble unless you are invited. The distance between you should be sufficient for each dog and human to be able to pass by calmly. Maybe your dog is a cool cucumber, but the other dog is starting to stiffen - be considerate and give that dog more space, even if the owner doesn’t seem to notice that his dog is in need of it. Proper Leash Handling is Key A Leash is a Safety Line
If nobody is nearby, of course, we want our dogs to have the freedom to explore their environment as appropriate. If somebody is potentially going to get close to your bubble, gather your leash so that your dog doesn’t have the option to invade the other’s space. Engage your dog. Build skills through training.
Flexis/Retractables/Dragging or No Leashes The typical flexi/retractable leash is 15-20’ long. A dog who is on a flexi can claim a bubble of over 40’ in diameter, and it’s wholly unpredictable. It’s impossible to know if the leash is locked or will stay locked. Retractables can get wrapped around objects and body parts. Please don’t use a retractable in public; it is too unpredictable. If you see someone using a retractable, give him a very wide berth.
What if: “My dog is so obedient, he doesn’t need a leash, even in the city.” I’ve heard this statement too many times to count, and I cringe every time. In some circles, this one behavior is heralded as the ultimate proof of a perfectly trained dog, and therefore the loftiest goal one can achieve as a dog owner. It effects a “WOW factor” when witnessed.
This awe is very misplaced. In my opinion, it’s not only disrespectful to the public to fail to leash your dog on a public street, as required: it is dangerous. Stay way the heck away from unleashed dogs in public. There is no predictability, no clear indication of how big their bubble is, no guessing what the dog may decide to do. The dog owner is claiming infinite space through the absence of a safety line. The same goes for owners who let their dogs drag their leashes. The only thing that is being demonstrated here is an over-inflated ego and lack of consideration for others, not a welltrained dog.
Please keep your dog leashed when required. Privileges to access public spaces with our dogs are gradually eroding in part because we do not follow leash laws and rules. In the long-term, it backfires on us. PART II next: "Off-Leash Spaces"