On Saturday, something very sad happened: One of my puppy clients was killed by a truck on First Avenue. Alex was a 14-week-old lab mix who'd come to live with Manhattanites Jim and Amy by way of Social Tee Animal Rescue in the East Village. He'd been coming to puppy class with me at my training facility, School For The Dogs. Friday afternoon, I went over to Amy and Jim's to help them get him used to his harness, and we worked on getting him to be less fearful about doorways — for whatever reason, he was scared to leave the threshold of their apartment door. By the time I left, he was waltzing back and forth through that door.
Amy and Jim were dream clients. They did everything right. They were educating themselves about dog parenthood from the excellent book, The Other End Of The Leash by Patricia McConnell, and were feeding Alex high quality food out of the "work to eat" toys my training partner and I always recommend. I left Friday's session feeling so happy that Alex had found this couple, that they'd found Alex, and that I was playing some small part in helping this family get started on the best possible foot. It was one of those I have the best job moments. The next morning, I got a garbled voicemail from Amy. The only word I could make out was "truck." I called her back, fearing the worst. She told me that some girls had stopped to pet Alex on the street, and somehow, in playing with him, they managed to undo his leash. He ran into the street and was hit. He died right away. (As if my heart wasn't broken enough, she ended the call by telling me that, on their way out for that last walk, he ran through the apartment door like it was his favorite thing to do in the world.)
Opening up your home and heart to an animal whose life is likely going to be shorter than yours means accepting that, at some point, there will be heartbreak. But you could say that about entering any kind of meaningful relationship. Whether it's a child or a lover or a pet, there's always that risk of loss, even if you're the most careful custodian. It's part of the bargain we make when we let ourselves love. As far as I'm concerned, there is no reason here. No fingers to point or proscriptions to make. A puppy is dead, and it sucks. Nevertheless, I've been digging in my brain to try to find some way to make sense of this tragedy —surely there must be some lesson to impart that will help me swallow the sadness. So, in Alex's honor, and to make myself feel a little better, I offer a few suggestions on how we can keep our beloved puppies — and adult dogs, too — as safe as possible on city streets.
1. Use a fixed-length leash A leash is the most important safety tool any dog walker has. Retractable leashes, which can change length based on the click of a button, mean that the radius wherein a dog can go is not fixed. And that defeats the major purpose of having your dog on a leash to begin with. Also: many retractable leashes are made of very thin cords, which can snap or twist. And these leashes have a snapping mechanism, of which I'm not a fan: Their retractability means that, if dropped by mistake, it can snap towards the dog —which usually means a big plastic handle hurdling toward the dog's face. Or, better case scenario, if you drop it, it'll hit the ground with a bang. Either way, it can spook a dog, causing him to run. It's more dangerous than if you just accidentally drop a nylon leash for a second. While a leash of this sort might be a nice way for a dog to have some autonomy on, say, a rural trail, I think they have no place on a city street. If you must use a leash like this, keep it in a locked position at all times.
2. Attach the leash to both a harness and a collar
If you are using a collar and a harness, clip your dog's leash to both. I didn't instruct Amy and Jim to do this, but how I wish I had. Some dog walkers I know affix a carabiner to both the collar and the harness. (Jessica Dolce of the blog Notes From A Dog Walker offers five excellent tips on improving leash safety with this one simple tool). My friend Ellen, also a dog trainer, replaces the standard leash clips with trigger snap clips, which she feels offer more security than the standard leash clip (she has the local shoemaker change out the clip for about $3). I also know dog walkers who always walk their clients' dogs with two leashes, just in case one fails. Like doubling up on condoms, one walker friend describes this procedure as "kind of a drag." But much less of a drag than losing a dog — and your job — in one fell swoop.
3. If necessary, walk your dog with a muzzle
If you have any fear of your dog biting, or if your dog is a garbage eater, invest in a muzzle. Many people resist muzzles. But city streets are places where unexpected things can happen, and dogs who are scared are likely to bite. if you have even the smallest fear that your dog might nip another dog or a person on the street, or if you worry about your dog ingesting cigarette butts, a muzzle is a must.
4. Choose your walking path wisely
I know how anxious I feel when trying to maneuver 6th Avenue at lunchtime; I can't begin to imagine how your dog must feel trying to do the same thing at ankle level. To reduce walking stress, pick strolling paths that are as open as possible. There are a million things that could happen on a city street that could spook a dog, most of which you cannot control. The best you can do is try to guess what's going to be the quietest route — the one with the fewest people and strollers and honking cars and delivery guys riding on the sidewalk. Bonus points for walking on the building-side of the sidewalk, rather than by the curb. If your dog does get loose, that extra two or three feet will mean a little bit more of a buffer area where you might be able to grab him before he enters traffic.
5. Always ask for a "sit" at the curb
Your dog can have different cues for "sit." One might be the word "sit." One might be a hand single. And one should be a visual, environmental cue: The sight of a curb. Every time you get to any curb, cue your dog into a sit (use a food lure if you need to — do whatever you need to do get their butt on the ground). You can then either reward the sit with a food treat, or with the real life reward of the opportunity to get up and keep walking when you say "Okay." With enough repetition, your dog will associate the curb with sitting and it won't be something that you even have to ask for. The goal here, of course, is that, if ever given the opportunity to cross a street off leash, he will first sit and wait for your signal to go.
6. Carry treats
When you have a dog, you're not just training him to behave properly on the street — you are training people to behave properly, too. "Proper" might be different to different people. My ex, for example, will never let anyone touch a dog when on a walk. "Would you let someone pet a baby?" he says. My rules aren't so stringent. I want my dog to be able to interact with people. But, I do think that people do a lot of improper things when greeting unknown dogs on the street. They often get in a dog's face, which is rude, or pick up a dog, which can be dangerous and unpleasant to the dog. They squeal and kiss, neither of which is necessarily polite in the dog world. The best way to avoid these kinds of interactions? When a person shows interest in your dog, hand him a treat and ask him to give it to your dog. Your dog shouldn't have to sit for it, or do anything for that matter. The "trick" they're being rewarded for is just the behavior of co-existing with a new human. It'll help your dog build good associations with that kind of person (be it a giddy child, man with cane, or a woman with beard), and will give the person a safe way to interact with the dog.
7. Communicate with other people on the street before letting them, or their dog, interact with yours
Dogs can't talk, but we can. Before you let your dog greet another dog, ask the owner if their dog is friendly. Plenty of dogs can't do safe leash greetings with other dogs on the street, but that doesn't mean everyone involved can't leave the situation safely. Just ask: "Is it okay if my dog says 'Hi?' to your dog?" If the human says "No," it's probably not because he or she is an asshole. It's because they're looking out for their dog's safety. And for your dog's safety. And yours! That kind of person deserves a treat. Likewise, many dogs don't want to be pet by strangers. The best way to judge if a situation is safe is simply to thank people when they do ask, "May I pet your dog?" Reward this behavior in humans, and more people will do it. And we will all be rewarded by creating a world where there are fewer dead puppies to cry about.