People take risks every day, we drive our cars, cross busy roads and engage in sports such as cycling. There are things we can do to minimise the risks of such activities such as slowing down in the rain, crossing at the lights on busy roads and riding on bike paths rather than the road, these decisions require risk assessments.
I am an advocate of dogs running off lead in safe areas but only with a good risk assessment first. Every time you let your dog off the lead you are taking a risk, after all dogs do have minds of their own which can sometimes place them in harm’s way. Before you allow your dog off lead you should get in the habit of making risk assessments to keep your dog as safe as possible.
Your off lead risk assessment should be made up of the following, other dogs in the area, other people in the area, your dog’s skill level, your skill level and both of your moods on that particular day. When you visit the off lead dog park you have no control over other people’s dogs, you are placing your trust in the fact that they know their dogs to be safe and obedient but this is not always the case, hence the risk. You can, however, assess the risk other dogs pose prior to allowing your dog to be off lead. Spend time circling the park and observing the other dogs, are they interacting with one another in a friendly way? Are the owners actively supervising their dogs? After some observation you should get a good idea as to the risks associated with allowing your dog off lead and you can then make a more informed decision.
Walking around the park with your dog on lead before letting them off also allows you to assess the other risks within a designated area such as small children playing close by, joggers, cyclists, people enjoying a BBQ and access to roads. These are all things that should be taken into consideration during a risk assessment. Does your dog pose a risk at disrupting other people’s activities? The best way to decrease the risk is to increase the distance between these activities and your dog, if the park is too small then the risk may be too great and you should keep your dog on lead.
Much of your risk assessment will be determined by you and your dogs’ obedience skill level. Dogs who have a higher level of training can usually enjoy more freedom because the risks associated with allowing them off lead are reduced. Train your dog in at least the three basic skills of “come”, “heel” and “watch” and you will find that most of the possible risks can be countered with these skills to keep everyone safe and happy.
Another consideration for your risk assessment will be the mood you and your dog are in. We are all susceptible to mood swings and you should always test your dogs mood before allowing them off lead. You can do this by asking your dog to perform some basic skills while they are on lead to determine their level of focus on you in certain situations. If you are getting little attention from them while they are on lead it will be a greater risk allowing them off lead. If this is the case you might find that you need to keep them on lead until the park becomes quieter or you may need to start formal training.
Likewise, your own moods will have an impact on risk levels. If you are feeling tired and cranky it is unlikely that you will have the energy to actively supervise your dog this will increase the risk of mistakes occurring. In this case you may choose to only do an on-lead walk that day or find a fenced quiet area to exercise your dog.
Other dogs and people in the area, your dog’s skill level, your skill level and both of your moods on a particular day should all be considerations when making a risk assessment for off-lead time. The better your risk assessment skills are the more you will be able to anticipate problems before they even happen, this means you can effectively control your dog’s behaviour and reduce the likelihood of mistakes. Start thinking about risk assessment and you will be surprised how much more in control you will feel.