I love a chance to let my dogs do a little off-leash roaming. It can be fun for them to get to sniff around and maybe chase a small critter or two without me telling them "leave it" or "let's go" constantly. But I try to be very aware of when it's appropriate for them to be off leash and when it's not. It goes without saying that I don't let them roam near vehicle traffic, but the number one guideline in my mind is: Will having my dog off-leash be inconsiderate to anyone else in the area? Even though my dogs have really good recall and I always carry treats and reward them for coming back to me, I never want to take the chance that one of my dogs will have an interaction that's not welcomed by another person or dog. So if we're on a quiet, secluded trail, I'll let them off leash but be prepared to call them to me and hook them up when I see or hear someone else. If we're on a busy path, I just keep them on-leash to be considerate of other people, especially those with dogs.
Unfortunately, some people are oblivious to the needs of other people. I'm not sure what they think--maybe they think their dogs are a free spirits and need to run through he world unencumbered. Maybe they never bothered to teach their dogs to behave on a leash so it's easier to walk without one. Maybe they think their dogs are so special that every other person and dog in the world will welcome them with open arms. The funny thing is ... OK, its not so funny, these people are often the last people in the world who should be out in public with their unleashed dogs--they usually have no control over them whatsoever.
Or worse, they don't think they need to control the dog. I wish I had money for everytime I've had a dog racing toward me and my dogs, and the owner calls "He's friendly!" So I call out "Mine aren't!" This is an exaggeration. Pinky is actually fine with other dogs (so far ... I'm well aware that this could change after just one bad incident), but Lucy can have some issues. Under most circumstances she'd rather mind her business and doesn't pay much attention to other dogs. But she has rules. She dislikes dogs that are overly forward and insist on face-to-face greeting before proper bum-sniffing has been completed. She dislikes dogs who stare at her too intensely. She's wary of bigger dogs in general, especially if the dog at all resembles a Rhodesian ridgeback. None of these problems is insurmountable, and with proper introductions she will eventually get along with anyone, but without proper introductions she can be a snarky little bitch. Basically, she postures big, and even though I know she will stop short of actual contact with the other dog, I can never predict the response of the other dogs. Most dogs just act like "Oh, well I guess I'll just leave you alone then." But what about the one dog who will say "Oh no you didn't just grouch in my face ..." and decide to escalate?
Anyway, the reason I'm thinking of this is that we had another incident Sunday. I live a couple of blocks from a nice walking path around Duke University's East Campus, which is very popular and I would never think of walking the dogs off-leash there. We were halfway around the path and I saw a guy with a golden retriever who looked a little high-energy. I thought the guy had the dog on a flexi-lead, so I veered off the path to allow some distance between us. It wasn't until I realized the dog was running toward us at full speed that he wasn't on a leash at all. I yelled "get your dog!!" to the guy, and he started calling the dog but of course the dog had gone selectively deaf and had his eyes on Lucy. I have no doubts that he only wanted to say hello, but Lucy doesn't care about a dog's intentions. I kept yelling at the guy to get his dog, but of course he couldn't.
Thankfully, Lucy's snark was relatively mild, but enough to let the golden know she didn't want to meet. He backed off and by that time the owner had caught up, and was scolding Bruno: "You know you're not supposed to do that!" Uh, no dude, I don't think he really knows because it doesn't appear that you've taught him. My guess is that the dog gets to be off-leash a lot, and he's learned that he's pretty much free as a bird do do as he pleases. No matter how much he gets yelled at after the fact, he's already been rewarded by getting to take off running whenever he feels like it. In fact, scolding him now is teaching him that it's more fun to run away from his person than to go back or let his person catch up.
Which brings me to another point about a leash: it's a great tool for teaching a dog "you're with me." If a dog can't learn to curb its impulses (running up to people or other dogs, chasing cats and squirrels, following a delicious scent trail) while on the leash, there's no chance of teaching him when he's off. The acts of seeking and pursuing are innately rewarding to most dogs. Unless you've already conditioned another reward (i.e., turning around and coming back to me = delicious treats), letting your dog off leash is really a way to build bad habits by getting to engage in the self-rewarding behavior of running off. If you condition a recall, however, and richly reward it every time, you may eventually be able to call your dog off something as fabulous as a squirrel or rabbit.* (I wrote a post on training recall a while back, FYI). (Also, Steve at Agility Nerd recently posted about a similar experience his partner had with a dog "greeting.")
Unfortunately, the people who need to know this stuff probably aren't the ones who read my blog ;-)
*Results may vary. I have been both successful and unsuccessful in calling Lucy off of critters in mid-chase.
UPDATE: Elayne has her own two bits to add to this discussion!