7 ways to keep dogs safe on city streets


Alex, on his last morning.

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

Dog walker Jessica Dolce attaches a harness to a collar using a carabiner.

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.

Lili Chin of DoggieDrawings.net illustrates the proper and improper ways to greet a 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.


27 Responses

  1. Ellen Watkins

    February 20, 2013 8:38 pm

    This is a great way to honor little Alex and his wonderful owners. I will share your article and help spread the word to help keep our puppies safe. Great work, Annie.

  2. Pepper Cee

    February 22, 2013 6:38 am

    I think people wit pets should be more responsible pet owners. They can be responsible by following your advice or doing more researching on how to care for their pets! I suggest staying away from open roads. Find a home where the park's just around the corner (that does not require you to cross the street) when you're living in a huge city. It's a good thing that my <a href="http://www.rentatkensingtongate.com/tacoma-wa/kensington-gate-apartments/amenities/">fort lewis housing</a> has a park nearby.

  3. Jessica

    February 22, 2013 9:56 am

    I’m so, so sorry Annie – for Alex’s family and for you. You must all be heartbroken.

    I’m not even sure if my trusty carabiner would have helped to prevent it, since it was the leash that totally unclipped (which has happened to me in the past due to faulty leash clips. Very scary thing to happen during a city walk). Thanks for sharing these other great tips, including the trigger snap clip idea.

    This is a lovely way to honor his memory and I’ll pass it on.

    • Annie Cargirl

      February 22, 2013 11:43 am

      Retractable leashes suck. They just dog. You have very little control over a dog with them, and all the reasons stated in this article make them unsafe for both your dog and other dogs around them.

      A sturdy 4-6′ nylon lead is all you need. You can keep your dog close while walking and in areas, like a park, where there is a bit more space and if no other strange dogs are around, you can easily allow them more freedom by giving them a bit more length on the leash while still being able to quickly draw them back in if something should come up.

      I don’t know a SINGLE pet care professional, not at vet offices (which I used to work at), not at kennels and groomers (also worked at), not dog walkers (currently am), not any single pet care professional, who doesn’t hate retractable leashes.

      • Jami Bright

        February 22, 2013 12:34 pm

        I bought my first retractable leash in 1990, and have used one ever since.
        I’ll never go back to trying to hold a thin leash that can pull right through your fingers, when I can have the secure grip that a retractable leash handle affords.
        I’ve also used the heavy handle to beat off an attacker and an aggressive dog.

        • Bexa

          February 23, 2013 6:11 am

          Agreed – retractable leashes are a danger an no trainer worth their salt would recommend one. You say “your first retractable leash”. Does that mean you have had more than one? Why? Had it broken? Invest in a decent leather 6ft leash (proper bridle leather) and it will never slip out of your hand, will last you for ever and give you much better control. Infinitely more secure than a bulky, plastic, slippery retractable leash handle. As for using the “heavy” (?) handle to beat off an aggressive dog – wow – if a dog is that aggressive, a handle like that won’t make any difference, sorry, and if you seriously believe it will, it appears you may need to learn a bit more about dog behaviour.

      • Amelia

        February 22, 2013 7:32 pm

        Agreed – retractable leashes are accidents waiting to happen. I know several people personally who have horror stories stemming from retractable leashes – several bad cuts from the zipping nylon cord, two dog deaths from ATTENTIVE owners when the dog suddenly dashed out into traffic, and one dog who hopped over a low bridge wall (with an 8 foot drop on the other side) with no warning other than a head turn, whose neck snapped when the leash stopped retracting. If you want a way to give your dog more space than a regular 6 foot leash allows, invest in a nice long line. Almost all of the problems above would have been prevented if the handlers had had hands on a line, rather than relying on the retractable leash. Also agreed that all professionals that I know hate them – trainers, vets, and techs.

        • Jami Bright

          February 22, 2013 11:04 pm

          Here’s one professional that disagrees.
          All the things you listed could have been prevented by using the “brake,” after all, that’s what it’s for, and by using a harness rather than a collar….I don’t ever recommend attaching a leash to a collar outside of training sessions.

  4. Amy Samida

    February 22, 2013 10:28 am

    Excellent post. I am so sorry for everybody involved. What a gut wrenching loss.

    I would add “Teach a solid “Wait” command. It’s the command I use the most, and it’s so easy to practice. I make my dogs wait as we walk down the sidewalk, allowing me to continue ahead of them a few steps before releasing, so I can check to make sure a car isn’t pulling out of a driveway where vision is blocked by a building, wait at curbs (so that if it’s yucky out they don’t have to sit in snow/mud/whatever), wait at doors. Wait becomes an ingrained “stop whatever your doing and stand still” behavior, and it’s saved the life of several of my dogs over the years.

  5. Jenny Edgerton

    February 22, 2013 3:59 pm

    After having two snap failures on regular leashes, I now use a carabiner fastened leash from Ruffwear. However, heartbreaking accidents can happen, and my sympathies go out to Alex's people…

  6. Francesca Villa

    February 22, 2013 11:02 am

    Sad post, made me want to cry. I agree 100% with only using fixed length leashes. I hate retractable leashes.
    When it comes to the carabiner I wouldn’t use it. Once a neighbor came knocking at my door crying because their dog was leashed with a carabiner, and it happened to have open and in some way punch through the dog’s skin. I never seen a dog in so much pain in my life.

  7. Sheri Cardo

    February 22, 2013 11:52 am

    I’d add another couple, that seem like common sense. When crossing a street, look around the corner first to make sure a car isn’t coming up quickly to make a turn without seeing you. And keep your dog at your side when walking across a street because your dog is much shorter than you, and a car waiting to turn right may not see him or her and move forward with devastating consequences. Thanks for the leash snap info. That’s been a problem for me but I didn’t have a solution.

  8. Hazel

    February 22, 2013 2:11 pm

    Good advice except I don’t agree on the flex leash. I used one all the time until at the pet store a small elderly lady was walking with her dog when the inside part broke. Thankfully she was inside and could buy another one as there was no way she could handle that leash line and keep the dog safe. I have never used one since that day and wont ever use one again.

  9. Elizabeth

    February 22, 2013 3:07 pm

    Being that NYC leash law specifies that leashes are to be 6ft or less, I don’t even understand the point of a retractable leash here! Either you are off leash in an off-leash area or your dog is supposed to be limited to being 6ft away from you. Being right next to Prospect Park I’ve seen numerous almost- disasters with the retractable leash. Leash around pole, leash around other dogs, leash around legs, releasing leash instead of retracting….it’s just a BAD idea in city streets.

  10. Joy Brunton

    February 22, 2013 10:22 pm

    Thank you for this article. Unlike Jami below I can't agree more with your section on retractable leashes. I work in a vets office and people actually bring their dogs in on these things and don't keep them locked. We have had three dogs in the waiting room at the same time all on retractable leashes and tangling themselves and their owners up. Use some common sense people!

  11. Jessica Fox

    February 23, 2013 3:57 am

    Can't tell you how much it pains Jay Fox and me to hear this news. Tears came to my eyes when reading your post and watching the video of Olive and Alex playing. She'll miss him almost as much as we will, even though we all only met him once. What a sweet pup.

  12. Jennifer

    February 27, 2013 10:54 pm

    I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of Alex. I think this is a beautiful way to honor him.

    Thank you for sharing these helpful suggestions. Great information for all dog walkers.

  13. Johnice Reid

    June 14, 2013 3:36 pm

    Retractable leads are enablers of problem dogs living with problem owners. The retractable lead is misused so much that the dog attached to it may just as well be a stray. However I strongly disagree with attaching a harness to a collar unless the manufacturer advises. I use the Easy walk Harness, which controls the dog's forward motion, used with the same jerk and release method as one would with a collar sends the same corrective message. Attaching this particular harness to a neck collar inhibits the function of both tools. I have seen several people using it like that and they have zero control of the dog yet, they insist that the trainer TOLD.


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