If that is the question, then the answer is always always.
Now I don't mean inside your home or in your back yard or at a dog park or anywhere else that you feel is safely enclosed. But I really do mean everywhere else. And here's why: It only takes one time for your dog to cross a street unexpectedly or wander off on a hiking trail to make you wish for the rest of your days that you'd never removed their leash.
I learned this lesson years ago…
Don't worry; this ends well. A few years back I had two great pups. Lita was quite simply the most well-behaved dog I have ever known. For this and so many other reasons, she was also one of the best. She only wanted to please and she always managed to. She never did anything wrong. And if the thought even crossed her mind to do so, she would let you know by looking very guilty and being very sorry. Winchell, on the other hand, could get into trouble just by being awake. He was also a pokey walker, so I used to keep him on a leash all the time and let my perfect child, Lita, walk leash-free by my side.
One day Lita and Winchell and I were on one of our walks and I leaned down to pick up after Winchell. When I stood back up to resume our walk, Lita wasn't there. I did a frantic 360-degree spin to find that she had crossed the street on her own during my momentary distraction with Winchell. I had no idea what could have possessed her to do such a crazy, dangerous thing; she knew better. Until that moment, she had always done better. There wasn't another dog, not a human, nothing I could see that would have tempted her to cross that street without permission. And yet there she was, on the other side of our busy street, sitting perfectly still, as if simply waiting for us to join her.
I was ridiculously lucky that day.
None of the horrible things that could have happened did. But the experience was more than enough to scare the Shih Tzu out of me; I NEVER walked Lita, or any one of the many pups who have followed without a leash again. What I learned from that horrifying teachable moment was that it's not OK to rely on your pet's previous behavior, no matter how reliably consistent it has always been. Even if your pet has never done anything like cross a street without you or without permission before, there could be a first time. And it could all too easily be the last; let that sink in. Now permanently etch into your memory that if it happened once, it will likely happen again. You can't change the fact that your pet will make mistakes, but you definitely can change the way you avoid them.
I've told that story about Lita to countless neighbors and strangers who I've seen walking their own dog off leash, hoping my cautionary tale would help prevent something terrible from ever happening to their loved pet. I tell them that just because I got lucky that day, there's certainly no guarantee that they'll be lucky, too. Sometimes I think the story has sunk in, but all too often I know it hasn't when I see the same person continuing to walk their dog off leash. It's at this point when I just want to say, "Can I talk to your dog?"
What are we trying to prove or say about ourselves when we walk our dogs leashless?
That we've done such an amazing job of training them? That our dog loves us too much to ever leave our side? Whatever it is, is it really worth taking a chance? Of course not. And what wouldn't we give to change things if things ever went terribly wrong?
Case in point is our neighbor, Andy, not his real name but his rhymes with it, and his dog, Milky Way. That's not her real name either, but the one on her ID tag is a rival candy bar. I absolutely adore this dog. She's a delicious, wiggly, pudge of a Pitbull. Truth be told, though I do genuinely like Andy, I like him more than I probably would if Milky wasn't in the picture. Andy constantly walks Milky off leash, this despite the fact that she ran across the street as a puppy and miraculously escaped with only a broken leg from which she made a full recovery. You'd think he would have learned his lesson, right?
OK, so before you say, "That guy is an idiot; I'd never do anything like that," I confess I've said ostensibly the very same thing more than once directly to Andy. But ask yourself this: Is your dog a squirrel chaser? Does your dog have a pack of fur friends who he sometimes greets with more glee than he even does you? Does he have a two-legged friend or two in the neighborhood who he knows he can always count on for treats? Or maybe your dog is just one of those indiscriminate types who loves everybody.
Use a leash.
If any one of these descriptions could apply to your dog, it could just be a matter of time before something tempts him to chase or to greet or to follow the call of the wild. So use a leash. It's the easiest way to keep your dog safe and with you, where he belongs.
I'll never know what made my Lita cross the street that day years ago, but I will always be thankful that my lesson was mercifully painless, minus the immediate feeling of nausea it gave me. I've come to think of that sickening feeling as a gift, actually; it still reminds me to this day never to make the mistake of walking our dogs without a leash. I'm hoping it will make you sick, too, in a good way of course, and remind you to always walk your love on a leash.
Full disclosure: Liz is a firm believer that it's a lot less painful, and less expensive, to learn from other people's mistakes. And that's particularly true when it comes to pets. She understands that being told how to raise your kids, no matter how many legs they have, can be annoying. But with more than two decades of experience helping lost pets, and thousands of cases across the U.S., under her belt, the advice she shares could save your pet's life.