Covid-19

On-lead or off-lead? The great dog debate

Of all the rules Kiwis have to follow under lockdown – social distancing, only driving for essential reasons, staying at home – one appears to be disregarded more than others: walking dogs on a lead. Bonnie Sumner reports.

A man whose Huntaway dog was attacked by two off-lead dogs near a Napier river last week says not enough people are aware of the lockdown rule that all dogs must be on a lead when out walking. 

The man says a middle-aged couple were walking three dogs, two of them off-lead, when one ran up and put its jaws around the back of his dog’s neck. 

“The couple then strolled past me like nothing was wrong, I gave them a barrelling and told them all dogs are supposed to be on lead. He just said sorry about that mate, like it was nothing. I was pretty angry. It’s not quite getting through to people. The information is there but you do have to look it up.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries clarified on Sunday that dogs must remain on a lead at all times when out walking. In a statement released on their Facebook page, they wrote: “Walk your dog on a leash. Keeping them on a leash minimises the chance of needing to break your bubble to retrieve your pet, as well as the risk of accidents. Don’t do anything that may require help if you or your dog end up getting into trouble.”

On-lead exercise is still the recommended policy for the duration of the lockdown. Photo: Supplied

A Cambridge woman knows first-hand the kind of trouble off-lead dogs can cause during lockdown. Jude Campbell says she had to throw herself on her dog last Thursday to protect it from three off-lead dogs who launched an attack by the entrance to a park. She wants people to realise the damage not following the lockdown rules can do. 

“A vicious attack happened out of the blue, they’ve virtually torn him to bits. I lay on him because I couldn’t get them off him. I was kicking and screaming, but there was nobody around anywhere.” 

She says about three minutes later the owner came around the corner but he also couldn’t get his dogs off. 

“He was yelling at them to no avail, but carried a piece of flexi tube and started hitting them with that. I sat there for a while with my dog and then this idiot shuffled over and said ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, if I’d seen you I would’ve put the dogs on the lead’. He came back three times and repeated that, and he was well in my bubble.”

She has spent more than $2000 on vet fees and says there need to be more signs up at dog parks and places people walk their dogs. 

While there is no evidence dogs can transmit Covid-19, and the American Veterinary Medical Association says there is low risk of contracting the virus from dog fur, the main concern is that uncontrolled dogs will cause owners to break each other’s bubbles.

Some dog owners, however, say the blame lies with irresponsible dog owners. A Napier woman, who did not want to be named, says her friendly Labrador is well-behaved and she doesn’t have a problem walking him off-lead in a local dog park during lockdown. 

“If they’re well-trained and in an area zoned for dogs, then why is that a problem? I don’t let him go near people, as soon as we see people I put him on a lead. He has great recall and he’s not going to hurt anybody. And they like to get out and have a bit of fun. It’s very hard for dogs to get used to being walked an hour and a half off-lead to being on-lead all the time.”

She is more concerned by the judgment of others than a few well-trained off-lead dogs. 

“The judgment of people who point the finger and get on their high horse is probably the biggest issue – if you don’t want to face off-lead dogs don’t go to the dog park. They’re just looking for someone to whinge at, they’re a bit bored with nothing better to do.”

A West Auckland man agrees that responsible dog owners should be allowed to keep their dogs off-lead.

“I have walked my dog off-leash on a remote west coast beach outside of Auckland close to my home every day of my life, not just in lockdown, and I am not putting her on a lead. Leashes have their place, yes, on aggressive, untrained city dogs but out here with the beach to myself most days and putting a lead on my dog is like putting braces on straight teeth. Dog restrictions are generally made by cat lovers or self-righteous conservationists who never had the generosity of spirit to share their life with a dog.”

Who let the dogs out? “Rules are for fools to follow and wise men to use as guidelines.” Photo: B O'Rourke 

He says if a dog can’t be controlled then using a lead is necessary but “if your dog doesn’t require a lead why give narky, nosy neighbours any more rope to whip you with”. 

“We are a nation of pioneers and individuals – take the decision-making away from the individual and you are left with a nation holding out its hand waiting for instructions. ‘Rules are for fools to follow and wise men to use as guidelines.’ There cannot be one rule for all. If you have a designer dog going to a Ponsonby park, well maybe leash them all, but not me.”

Several councils have reported an increase in dog attacks since the lockdown began, including Hauraki and Masterton, which are keeping veterinarian staff busier than usual during lockdown

Helen Beattie from the NZ Veterinary Association says she understands it’s difficult for people with dogs who are used to going for long runs off-lead, but we all have to figure out new ways of doing things during the lockdown.

“We’ve already seen cases where people have had to separate dogs forcibly, putting their faces together in each other’s bubbles. We can avoid all of that if animals are under control. The lockdown is a public health response – the primary thing is keeping people safe. We all have to make compromises.”

The NZVA and SPCA have helpful tools and links on their website with ideas for boisterous dogs, how to ensure cats are looked after safely during lockdown and puppy socialisation tips.

For government information on animal welfare during lockdown, visit the Ministry of Health page here

Click here for the latest scientific information on Covid-19 and animals.

*Made with the support of NZ On Air* 

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