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The Invisible Leash

We first started experimenting with allowing our dog, Felix, off the leash on a quiet dirt road in Maine last summer where other pedestrians were rare and we could hear any car coming from a distance. To our surprise, he tended to walk as if tethered to a long invisible leash—walking ahead or behind, pausing to sniff and investigate as he wished, but always checking where we were, and not allowing himself to drift too far from us. And if we called him, he would either return to us, or stop and wait. He’s a medium-small dog, perhaps a border collie/ rat terrier mix, we’re not sure, short haired, white with black smudges, with a tail that curls up like a question mark as he sniffs the path before him. On that vacation, we continued to go leashless, and gained so much confidence that on our return back home to Indiana, I started trying it there too, in our quiet suburban neighborhood.

unnamed-4At first, I’d try it only on the most quiet and empty side streets, but soon more boldly, almost everywhere. I’d leash him if another dog walker approached, or a pedestrian who seemed likely to disapprove, but increasingly, and despite my wife’s disapproval, leashlessness became the norm. Felix had something in him, apparently, that made a leash optional. He never ran away, but trotted along just as he had on the quiet dirt road, keeping close tabs on me, and staying within a certain distance. To my amazement, I discovered that even if another dog passed on the opposite sidewalk, Felix would turn to watch that dog, showing every sign of interest—but would stay unswerving on our path.

Well–almost all of the time. If a rabbit started near him, nothing could stop him, and on those occasions, when he suddenly streaked off through someone’s back yard, I felt a twinge of anxiety–my wife has made clear that if any mishap befalls Felix on these outlaw walks, she will not forgive me. But he has always reappeared 30 seconds or so later, sometimes a house or two down, and at my call, bolts towards me and then sits & compliantly accepts the penitential leashing that follows.

Walking Felix with a leash now began to feel constrained and uptight to me, a crude show of force. Two creatures marching along, one tied to the other: it felt like an outing for a prisoner or an inhabitant of an asylum, led by his minder or jailer. John Berger has written that “an animal’s life, never to be confused with a man’s, can be seen to run parallel to his…. With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange.” Free of his leash, Felix’s companionship on these walks felt not simply “parallel,” going beyond any such simple model of relation; his perambulations traced an evolving series of geometric patterns with the invisible leash I still sometimes pictured attached to his collar, as he would swing back and forward, from side to side, freely wandering within the limited bounds defined by my path, always returning to the center of my forward-moving body. It felt as if we were two celestial bodies, Felix a satellite to me, bound to me by a pull of attraction, obligation, or loyalty, but still partially liberated, able to devise his own paths, follow his own preferences, within the range permitted.
Berger declares that the keeping of pets “is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit…which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.” Is it possible, though, for the keeping of domestic pets instead to open up the household to a more public world outside, to invite civic exchange? In our household, we also keep four chickens who sleep in a hutch and mostly wander our backyard during the day (there had been five, but Princess Catkin unfortunately lost her head to a hawk), as well as two cats who roam imperiously in and out of the house. The hectic presence of all of these animals, with their variously intersecting needs and intentions, works against the closed-off qualities of our home; our animal companions draw in visitors, and make their own friends whom we sometimes do not even know (we once learned that one of our cats had a permanent sleeping spot and a food dish with some unfamiliar neighbors two blocks away). Somewhat as children do, and contra Berger, domesticated animals can open up a richer give-and-take with a world outside the home.

unnamed-2When I walk with Felix tethered to a leash, I feel as if we offer proof of the “personal withdrawal into the private small family unit” that Berger ascribes to the culture of pets: I am bringing my codependent animal into public briefly, under strict constraint, for purposes of limited exercise and defecation, soon to be dragged back into the safety of the home. But when he can run freely up and down the sidewalk, Felix seems in the world, making his own way. It’s not that I have any delusions that he is anything but a coddled creature of civilization. (Oh, you should see his dainty dog bed!) On the contrary: I like the sight of him enjoying his excursion in town, taking in the sights and visiting with the neighbors, like a sociable Jane Austen bachelor.

That Felix chooses to stay with us–has had every opportunity to run away, but instead elects to walk calmly along, bound by the invisible tether of his instincts or desires or anxieties, feels very satisfying, too. As a kid, I had a dog who was always breaking loose, seizing the opportunity of any door left open a crack to bolt and tear off for parts unknown, sometimes not to return until much later in the day, filthy from unknown adventures. He would lie licking himself, cleaning off the mud, and we could sense that he was never happier than on one of these heedless, illicit jaunts. Living with that only half-domesticated, rebellious dog made one feel truly like a prison guard, forced always to be on the alert for a potential escape. A dog who does not want to escape, who wants to stay more or less with us all the time, was a new thing for me. Felix has made me understand domestication in a new way: as a powerfully saturating force, an ideology enforcing the willing consent of the governed; as a rule of law that can become, in some creatures, second nature: organizing instincts, desire, and behavior, insisting on fidelity and closeness to the owner. An invisible leash.

The case could certainly be made that my permitting of Felix his freedom, in a context in which I know he will not take it too far, was simply a further exercise of my power over him: less a granting of liberty than a flaunting of strength. Maybe so, but if this is true, it was also the case that I enjoyed allowing Felix to follow his own instincts, able to stop and start and make small diversions from the forward path without continually having to beg my allowance in the form of an extension of the leash. Perhaps it was a kind of noblesse oblige, but to see Felix enjoying his limited freedom on these walks made me feel a little better about the embarrassing fact of my absolute control of him.

Probably I saw in my leashless dog some symbolic manifestation of my own freedom, as I liked to imagine it. We were both rebels, a little bit, it felt like, as we walked along together, but separate.  When Felix lagged far behind me, I sometimes turned and called to him, and then he would run at full tilt towards me like a greyhound, a joyful sprint. I loved to see him rocket towards me, putting on the brakes as he approached and gliding to a walk a few yards beyond. In these runs I saw a kinetic energy and power, otherwise suppressed and contained.

Other dog owners sometimes remark admiringly on this leashless Felix: “if I did that with mine, he’d be gone in 10 seconds!” But once in a while, I feel some disapproval from a passerby. A trim middle-aged man said as he jogged by on the street: “you know, this town has a leash law;” and once something similar from a homeowner raking the leaves in his front lawn. On those occasions, I always leashed Felix quickly and apologetically; and I tried to gauge approaching pedestrians for any sign of disapproval, and to err on the side of caution. But so many people in our neighborhood had expressed the pleasure they took in the sight of this wonder of domestication–the leashless dog walk–that I’d made an ethical and practical calculus: that in the balance of things, I had the approval of my community more than not.

Felix and I had an encounter recently, however, that shifted my sense of this calculus.  As we rounded the corner onto our street, Felix trotting a few feet ahead of me on the sidewalk, we found ourselves approaching an older woman of 60-some years whom I didn’t recognize, walking with some kind of cane or walking stick. She turned and faced us, I thought initially to say hello.  But instead, her face dark with anger, she pointed the stick at Felix: “Don’t you come near me!” and then turned to me, spitting out words that felt long-planned: “You know, there’s a leash law in this town, and doing what you’re doing is against the fucking law!”—this last as we walked past her, and I, chastened, reached down to clip Felix back on the leash.

We now walk, mostly, with leash on, Felix’s movements checked and trailed by my own slower pace, both resigned to the letter of the law of domestication. Someone mentioned to me a friend who is so scared of dogs that the sight of one walking loose on a sidewalk terrifies her, forces her to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. I get it. What I’ve been doing is not a responsible thing to do.

But on one section of our morning walk, a stretch of road on which we almost never see a soul, I sometimes still look around and, if no one is approaching, quickly click off the leash, allowing him to swing backward and forward, tracing his dizzying geometry of joyful runs around me: once again, for a little while, almost as if truly free.

Ivan Kreilkamp:  Novels are long, life is short.

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  1. I understand your love of your dog and the happiness of off-leash. For me, and I am not alone, I have a wonderful Saint Bernard (that is to say a strong and large dog) who was once attacked by a dog and is now terrified of any size dog. While I will quickly turn away from the sight or sound of another dog, sometimes there is a friendly (so far) off leash dog and it’s terrifying for me, not knowing if I can actually hold onto my huge dog who is barking a warning (fear, not agression) and I, and other dog owners, have gotten tangled up in leashes and injured ourself. It’s terribly dangerous, because not all dogs are social, some (hopefully few) are like mine: gentle, social and nervous to terrified of other dogs.

    I’m not the screaming person you wrote of, I’m the apologetic and frightened one who asks that their dog PLEASE be leashed.

    I can quite easily manage my good dog when other dogs are leashed, or it would be irresponsible of me to have a dog I couldn’t protect. It’s the surprise of an off-leash dog running towards us that is now a frightening and completely dangerous experience.

  2. I presume you live somewhere in the USA. Here in Helsinki the overwhelming reaction of the citizens to any confidence in the decent behavior of any animals, domesticated or wild, is an innate fear verging on hatred. Many people have dogs and cats which they treat well but unleashing them brings on an immediate negative reaction. Even cats are walked on leashes and any attempts to offer a peanut to a squirrel or a sparrow or a chickadee evokes fury in the average person. I grew up in Manhattan NYC and have had many pets, dogs, cats, fish, a muskrat, a rabbit and a sparrow that I raised from a baby when it fell from its nest. I understood and trusted and treated each as sentient and interested friends, even a mated pair of angel fish who reacted intelligently to my gestures. The people here, in general are kind and decent and forgiving and I have no regrets at living here but I sorely miss the warmth and trust and consideration of other species.

  3. I too have an issue with unleashed dogs. My neighbor was fostering a greyhound and had another one they had adopted. My husband, a former greyhound owner (Ruthie has since gone to the rainbow bridge) cautioned them daily about keeping these hounds leashed due to their intense prey instinct. Unfortunately, our 14 year old indoor/outdoor kitty met his fate while hanging in our front bushes and the foster dog, off leash, thought he was a bunny, grabbed him and snapped his neck. We now have 3 strictly indoor cats due to our negligent neighbors. Oh, and the fate of those greyhounds? One was a biter and after it bit 10 people they returned him. The other was given back immediately after our cat incident.
    Resist the urge. Take your dog to a dog park or out in the country to run leash free.

  4. I have a five-year-old golden retriever service dog. When we go out he wears a short traffic lead and a gentle leader which in case you’ve never seen one works on the same principle as a horses halter, where the head goes the body follow. I use this thing because it facilitates communication between us (where I want him to go ) with the least amount of effort on my part. If I had a nickel for every time someone thought it was a muzzle I’d be rich. I often drop his leash because of my own dexterity problems and Gideon simply picks it up and we continue walking. He is still leashed this and I can grab it if needed. Even though Gideon will happily walk with me unleashed (he knows the difference between left and right and understands vague directions such as this way or over here Based on my travel path or a hand signal) he always wears a leash not because I don’t trust him but because I don’t trust most of the other humans we may encounter.

  5. I loved reading this post! I am an American living in London, and people here frequently walk through the city with their dogs off leash. Inspired, I decided to do the same on slower days, like Sundays, when traffic is minimal. To my amazement, my excited little Boston Terrier stays by my side better off leash than she does on it! I have never heard any complaints. Occasionally someone will be afraid of the dog, and I can sense that, and on those occasions I ask her to sit down in front of me calmly until the person or group has passed – I find that simply stopping her motion allays most people’s fears. Recently, I was also in Berlin, and to my amazement almost NO dogs are on leashes in the entire city – they even cross busy intersections off leash. They go on the subway off leash. And you know what? The dogs in Berlin are incredibly better behaved than dogs in any other city I’ve ever visited. It seems to me that the more freedom we allow our dogs to actually live as dogs, the more responsibility we feel to make sure that our dogs adhere to the rules of society. Putting a leash on a dog makes so many owners lazy about actually working with their dogs and creating a bond of loyalty. Instead of the putting in the time to make their dogs socially responsible, instead they put a leash on them and let them behave badly.

    • Thanks for the comment– fascinating about Berlin! In the U.S. we seem to have trouble with certain types of flexibility or grey areas in our laws. For example, I think there could be some analogies to our approach to bikes. (IMO it doesn’t make sense to try to hold bikes to the precise same traffic laws that apply to cars… It’s silly for a bicyclist to have to come to a full stop at a stop sign if no one is crossing, for example.)

    • I observed the same thing in Costa Rica as you did in Berlin. I never saw one dog on a leash the whole time I was there in the city or the country, beach or bars. Dogs were welcome everywhere and they were always right by their owners side, never any issues. The society you live in breeds the dogs we own. If they were allowed more freedoms they would be so much more reponsible animals

  6. I love my dogs to be off their leads. Both Jack Russell terriers, one will just lollop alongside, while his sister [Susie] darts like bullet in front, then back and behind, then forward zoom, zoom, zoom. But then Ollie sees children! Off he goes – now here’s the worry – he just wants a tickle, attention, but too many fussy fussy parents see ‘dog attack’. Shame really. He’s a lovely dog – we rarely walk that way now.

  7. I understand leash laws are important, but if the dog is clearly well behaved and has a CGC I wouldn’t see the problem without a leash.
    But this is a very nice story.
    Thank you for sharing.

  8. My Cocker-poo Charlie loves to run free on my IL’s 1 acre yard. He runs and runs in circles of freedom till his little heart is content. They live just outside of the city in a cul-de-sac so no cars or traffic to worry about either. He never leaves their unfenced yard and always stays close to his pack. (Us) He was bit by a loose dog when he was a puppy so I tend to avoid leash less dogs and shelter him out of my own fear he will be attacked again.. But I understand the contentment of them never roaming to far from us. That is the best things about dogs. They love unconditionally and are very loyal. 😀

  9. My last dog was basically killed by a dog off leash in a public park. As my dog (leashed) happily wagged me on a bright, snowy winter day as we stood in the park together looking at the river flow thickly by, a streak came toward us. The dog (a midsize male) grabbed my 16-pound Westie by the neck and shook her like a dog toy. I started yelling and tried to get the dog to let go; the dog’s owner was by this time next to us and pulled the dog off mine. I picked up my dog–both of us in shock–while the owner repeated “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he’s never done anything like this before, NEVER.” Drove my dog to an emergency vet clinic where I was told that by shaking my dog as he did, the attacking dog had essentially serrated my dog’s skin from her flesh from her neck to her flank, the way you would put your finger or a knife under the skin of a chicken breast to separate it from the meat. There was almost no wound visible on the fur of my dog, but she left the clinic with about a foot of drainage tube under her skin and then spent a week in another vet’s in surgery. She healed but was never the same, was weak and in pain for the rest of what was the very short time of her remaining life. When the owner gave us money for the vet bills, she kept repeating, “I don’t know what happened. He had never done this before.”

    So many of the comments here are about how nice it is from the owner’s point of view to have a dog off leash. But my point is while all owners flatter ourselves that we “know” our dogs, we forget that breeds have been developed precisely to react to certain cues, and we do not control these triggers. It was not the attacking dog’s “fault” that something about my small white dog (who possibly looked like a rabbit to him, I don’t know) triggered something in him that meant “ATTACK.” We should believe in our dogs and in the training we do with them and the beautiful lives we lead with them, but public places are not natural places for animals, and your dog has not been bred for them. And you don’t want to be the person standing in a park on a cold winter day repeating to a shocked, crying woman cradling her crumpled dog (or child) in her arms, “But he’s never done that before. EVER.”

    Keep your dog on a leash. Please.

    • I totally agree with you. If we were all perfect humans and dogs were all perfect dogs….no wait, they are dogs…..perfection is a strange expectation.

  10. Reading this beautiful piece felt like a walking meditation. Nothing makes me my heart soar as reliably as walking in the woods with my happy dog unleashed. I love to see him enjoying his freedom to explore, and I’m touched every time he pauses ahead of me, looks over his shoulder and jerks his head in a zany “c’mon!” gesture.

  11. Great Post.. My dog, Alfie a 6 month Japanese Spitz was a fun of the off leash thing and like all dogs he really enjoyed the outdoors. A very sociable puppy who loved socializing and meeting new friends. One fateful day, as we were out on a walk, we came across a middle aged, well built Caucasian man walking a black Dutch Shepherd on leash. He was very excited to see how easily we did our walk with Alfie heeling by my side and if wandering, just a little bit (less than a meter radius). I knew how much Alfie loved socializing and therefore asked him to sit as I said hi to the gentleman and inquired whether his Dog was a friendly. He replied with, “Mesh is very well behaved and loves small dogs, we even have a Chihuahua back home.” With this affirmation, I gave my Alfie an “OK” to say hi to the dark-muzzled Mesh. Elvis, Mesh’s handler decided to loosen his leash and gave the dogs a chance to get to know each other as we also engaged in a conversation. I love talking to fellow dog-lovers. I said fateful day earlier because it was not even a minute gone after allowing Mesh and Alfie to do their but sniff thing, Mesh, just pounced on Alfie, grabbed him by the neck an began shaking him. Barely out of instinct, I got down on one knee and landed a severe choke hit on Mesh’s throat and he let go of Alfie. All Elvis could say as he accompanied me to the vet was, “I dunno what got into him he has never behaved that way.” as he barked “BAD MESH!!” in a bid to show his frustration to his dog. Alfie lost a lot of blood but we were able to save him. It took me a while to adjust his then developed fear for other dogs to the initial warmness he portrayed but it never got like before. Unfortunately, I lost Alfie to a serious case of pneumonia last year. I learned my lesson and I am very observant when introducing my dog to another nowadays. Lets all protect our pets

  12. Loved the read until the last paragraph. Very depressing. I understand we have laws and they are there for a reason but if you are a responsible owner with an obedient dog that you can take control of similar to a verbal invisible leash why should you be punished for other owners and irresponsible dogs.

    I used to live in a quite Austin neighborhood just a mile from downtown where I and a couple other dog owners would walk leashless. Never had any issues. I recently moved downtown and with the confidence I have in my ability to control my 8 year old Boston Terrier I started walking him off leash in a very busy noisy trafficky part of town with no problems. Yesterday the manager of my apartment building said dogs need to be on leash at all times. It really grinder my gears which led me to do research And found this article. I will continue to walk my dog off leash and continue to control him with dog and human passers by. Just have to put him on leash to walk him thru the lobby now….

  13. Really beautiful post. I absolutely wish I could walk my Husky/Greyhound X off leash but as he’ s a rescue dog with a lot of anxiety, he can only go off-leash in a dog park unfortunately. Especially sad as we live in Berlin where it’s exactly as another commenter described- well behaved dogs off-leash walking just like your Felix.

  14. I genuinely love to hear about tje relationship between a himan and their pets. I am inspired to now write a piece on my two inherited cats, Tootie and Sanai. Love this!

  15. We’ve been walking our dog, Frida, off leash since she was 5 months old. She is a feisty chihuahua mix. She stays with us and won’t cross the street without her command word. Seeing as how we started so young, she is quite used to being off leash. One aspect that causes confusion is when we are at intersections. Cars stop for her because they don’t trust that she won’t run out, and they don’t want to hit her. They can see how badly she wants to cross, and how she is eagerly waiting for the word “cross”. It can be unnerving to drivers. And then there is the issue of squirrels… I say we don’t even go for walks; we go on hunts. She is completely obsessed and occasionally takes off to chase one up a tree. I fear that one day she will run across the street and get hit by a car on one of her mad dashes, but I can’t bring myself to adopting a permanent tether to my beloved. She simply wouldn’t get the exercise she needs on a leash. When I see people coming who look nervous or who have dogs that are not well behaved, I simply give the command to Frida and we cross over to the other side of the street. There may be a leash law in Santa Cruz, but if someone says something I just say, “She doesn’t need a leash”. I believe in the Spirit of the law, not the letter of it, and we follow in the Spirit of a law made to keep people safe.

  16. I sooo relate to this. I love letting my rebel Jasper run free in the wide open spaces off leash. Many times he has taken off to chase something like kangaroos (we are in Australia) and Ive been sick with worry only to get back the car and find him waiting there sheepishly dishevelled. Lately though I find he sticks closer (he is 4 now). I equate my desire to let him run and be free with a healing or rebellion against the leashing restrictions of my own childhood. Jasper gets to be wild and free in ways I was not and now can be. It does something powerful to my soul. I loved this piece of writing

  17. Thanks for the comments! I’m delighted that this piece from last April keeps finding readers. Loved the detail about your dog taking off to chase kangaroos, Deborah– that is an issue I have not yet had to face 😉


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