All other things being equal, dogs would of course prefer more freedom, and therefore will be happier off-leash.
However, as we all know, letting our dogs off-leash changes more than a few things. In particular, when dogs are off-leash –
- They may run into traffic and get hit by a car.
- They may attack or harass other dogs that are on-leash and get into a dog fight.
- They may jump and knock down children, seniors, and others.
- They may chase after prey and get lost.
Off-Leash Dogs – When?
Note that even the most friendly dogs may run into traffic, jump and knock down children, and chase after neighborhood cats.
Therefore, it is crucial that we do not let our dogs off-leash unless they are well trained to come to us on command consistently and reliably. Anything less would be irresponsible because we will not only be putting our own dog at risk, but other people’s dogs as well. Incidentally, consistent and reliable recall does not mean shouting at a dog 10 or more times, and maybe he comes back to us after doing whatever he wants to do.
In fact, it is against the law to walk our dogs off-leash in most neighborhoods. Even off-leash parks have strict rules for off-leash dogs.
General Park Rules for Dogs
- Dogs must be leashed (six-foot maximum) and under control at any posted area, parking lot, picnic site, lawn or developed area.
- Owners must always carry a leash (six-foot maximum).
- Dogs may be off-leash in open space and undeveloped areas of parklands, provided they are under control at all times.
Dogs are considered under control when they are within direct eyesight of the owner/handler and when they have the ability to quickly return to leash when called. Dogs that annoy, harass, or attack people, wildlife, livestock or other dogs, leashed or unleashed, or which enter leash-required or dog-prohibited areas, are presumed to be not under control.
- Animals may not be left unattended at any parkland.
Off-Leash Dogs – How?
The question of whether off-leash dogs are happier than on-leash dogs then becomes a question of recall training (i.e., training to come when called). In particular,
Can we train our dogs to consistently come when called without degrading their quality of life?
If we can train our dogs to come to us consistently using only reward training techniques, then we are done. There is little risk of such techniques degrading a dog’s quality of life.
Recall training, however, is greatly dependent on the breed and individual temperament of the dog. For example, independent dogs with high prey drive can be difficult to train because they have a strong inborn instinct to chase after other animals. As a result, a very strong counter stimulus is required to prevent them from following their natural drive.
For these challenging cases, dog owners may resort to more extreme aversive techniques, such as the dog shock collar.
Dog shock collars can apply an electric shock (i.e., a pain stimulus) to the dog from a distance. For this reason, they are often used for off-leash training work.
Are Off-Leash Dogs with Shock Collars Happier?
This is where the discussion becomes interesting. Many proponents of shock collars claim that their off-leash dogs are happier even with the occasional application of electric shocks.
Is this true?
Scientific studies say “No”.
E. Schalke et al. conducted a study on the use of electric shocks collars using 14 laboratory-bred Beagles. The dogs were divided into three groups –
- Group A (Aversion) – Shocked when the dog touched a prey (rabbit dummy fixed to a motion device).
- Group H (Here) – Shocked when the dog did not obey a previously trained recall command during hunting.
- Group R (Random) – Shocked randomly.
The results of the experiment show that groups H and R exhibited a significant rise in stress levels (as measured by salivary cortisol levels). Even more significant is that stress levels remained high when the dogs were reintroduced to the shock area after 4 weeks, even though the dogs did not receive an electric pulse during that time.
Studies by Schilder & van der Borg show similar results.
The ASPCA does not condone the use of electronic training collars except in highly exceptional cases, such as a working with dog who has to be off leash in order to perform her duties. Most dogs who fail to reliably come when called can simply be kept on leash or in confined areas for exercise.
Note that the choice is not between shock collars and zero off-leash time. My dogs have fun digging, smelling, exploring, and hunting for food (Find-It) when they are on-leash. They also have many fun off-leash activities in our fully enclosed backyard.
Are off-leash dogs with shock collars happier than on-leash dogs?
Well … we can listen to random opinions from people on the internet or we can listen to the results of rigorous scientific studies and well-respected dog organizations such as the ASPCA, RSPCA, and Kennel Club.
Who do you want to listen to?