I live and work in St. Catharines, ON., a busy city by Niagara Region standards, divided from neighbouring cities by a 43km canal, the Welland Canal. Aside from commuters running the risk of having to wait anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes to cross if the bridge is up, it is considered a beautiful place to go for a stroll, bike ride or take Fido for a nice walk along the water.
While there are only handful of places where you can get directly to the water, and the cleanliness of said water can be considered suspect at best, it is not unheard of that dogs end up in the canal and can’t get out. The last incident ended in tragedy, when a dog walked onto the frozen canal, fell through the ice and couldn’t help himself back on. In a desperate attempt to help her dog, his owner wound up in his same predicament. Firefighters were alerted just in the nick of time, and she is recovering well. Her dog, a young Retriever, didn’t fare so well, and he unfortunately drowned.
Stories such as this one are heard in these parts a few times a year, and those are just the ones that are reported. Usually the dog is able to be saved, but Mother Nature was not on our side this time, and the ice made rescue efforts apparently impossible.
After a moment spent imaging the heart-wrenching horror and helplessness a pet parent must feel watching their animal in trouble without being able to do anything, I started to think about what I would do in that situation, and how it could’ve been prevented.
This post is not intended to be accusatory in nature, just a discussion on practical considerations when out and about with Rover.
First and foremost, it’s not a good idea to allow your dog to walk out onto ice, bodies of water can get deep very quickly, and if he falls through, he may not be able to get back on. In all likelihood, your dog is lighter than you, and if he were to fall through, so would you if you tried to reach him. Current needs to be taken into consideration all year round, especially in rivers and canals.
Dogs, especially young ones, seem to make it their life’s mission to get into trouble, so it’s never a good idea to let your dog off-leash, especially where danger is just a few feet away. Dogs with a good recall (the “come” command) can still get themselves in trouble, but can be called away from something before it gets out of hand. This means that your dog should never be out-of-sight!
A reliable recall can take months to achieve, and in that time, the dog shouldn’t be let off leash unless you have a mathematical guarantee that you can call him away from anything: another dog or animal, something to eat, and any of the myriad distractions that can get him into trouble. Most of you will scoff at this idea, because it means that your dog shouldn’t be off-leash, and that is likely the case! Nobody leaves the house for a leisurely walk thinking that it could be the last time they see their dog, but these things happen, and not infrequently.
Having your dog on a leash is a small price to pay when you consider the alternatives. Training a 100% reliable recall without the use of aversives (punishment) is sometimes not possible, for various reason, so some dogs will have to be kept on leash if the owner isn’t open to the use of said aversives, such as an electric collar.
Let’s use the Welland Canal as a specific example: it seems safe enough, there is a well-maintained path, it’s fairly open, where you can see cyclists, joggers, other dogs, etc… arriving from a way’s away… if you’re paying attention! Other than that, it seems fairly innocuous. But… it is also home to numerous small animals, such as rabbits, raccoons and aquatic birds, the chasing of whom is a favourite pastime for most dogs. The water is certainly not safe to drink, and you never know what someone may have left on the ground, intentionally or not, for your dog to gobble up. If you can honestly say that you could call your dog away from anything I mentioned above, then he can likely be off-leash — which, I should mention, is still in violation of leash laws in effect in most cities, so you run the ulterior risk of incurring a fine.
As horrible a reputation as retractable leashes have for allegedly causing severed fingers and countless other injuries*, I actually find them to be a great compromise between a standard leash and none at all. They can be cumbersome where numerous vertical objects are present (trees, bushes…) so in those cases, I would rather use a standard 5-6ft. leash. It is much easier to teach “leash manners” than a reliable recall!
*I’m sure these things have happened, but anything used improperly has the potential to cause harm.
Last week’s incident was an unfortunate reminder of how quickly a situation can escalate, and the importance of obeying leash laws and working to train your dog. Our thoughts go out to the owner, who should thankfully make a full recovery.