I marvel at the many dog walkers I see wearing headphones or talking on the phone, dogs attached to belt loops, while crossing even the busiest intersections. I’m safety obsessed, probably due to my vast, and sometimes unfortunate, experience in all facets of animal care. I’ve rushed badly injured dogs into vet clinics, sobbing owners in tow, and assisted the vets as they fruitlessly attempted to save fading lives. Seeing the results of auto injuries and dog fights day after day as a veterinary technician was more than I could bear, because an animal in pain is sheer torture for me. You can explain injuries to at least adult humans, but animals have only to fear the worst.
(This walker is sort-of famous all over Chelsea/The Flatiron/The Village because he always has 10 to 15 dogs with him, and they miraculously stay exactly where he places them in the pack. He clearly uses some kind of Jedi mind control).
As a dog walker, I’ve heard horror stories of dogs escaping from collars and taking off across 7th Avenue at rush-hour, and I’ve helped other walkers retrieve escapees more than once. In absorbing my environment for the last five years, I’ve concluded that my level of attentiveness is abnormal, but it’s the reason I’ve never even had a close call, safety-wise. I’ve been told by more than a few graduate psych professors that I was both a high self-monitor and a highly sensitive person (the latter of which is actually an acronymized trait, apparently), meaning, I process sensory data, especially that which relates to and affects me and my dogs directly, much more deeply and thoroughly than most people. It’s as exhausting as it sounds, but it adds up to my hearing, seeing and even feeling every possible danger before it becomes dangerous. For example, I cross every intersection with my dogs’ noses pulled well behind my knees, just in case a bicycle delivery person decides to zoom past stopped cars and run his red light. That exact scenario took place a few weeks ago, and had I not instructed Summer to heel as we crossed 7th Avenue and 26th Street, the bicyclist’s tire would have met Summer’s head instead of my right Timberland (which, consequently, was sturdy enough to knock him over and keep my foot unscathed). If I’d had headphones on, or had been chatting on the phone while holding her leash loosey-goosey, it could have been a very, VERY bad day.
Another aspect of walking safety that many people take for granted is equipment reliability. Most accidents occur because collars are too loose or harnesses are ill-fitted. Putting an Easy-Walk harness on backwards can allow dogs to compress their shoulder blades and slip out easily, while Puppia harnesses have been completely outlawed by many dog walking companies due to their high escapability (I know a Schipperke who was startled by a child and simply backed out of hers, running right into a cab’s front tire and…phew!…living to bark about it). Before trusting your dog’s collar or harness and leash on the mean streets, make a safety checklist.
Collar or Harness Fit – Does your dog’s collar stay as tight as it should (you should be able to get only two fingers between it and your dog’s neck, especially if you have a breed with a small head-to-neck circumference ratio), or does the fabric allow it to slide loose? Decorative collars often focus less on security than aesthetic appeal, so I steer clear of shiny, un-ribbed fabrics, spiffy though they may be. If you choose a harness, read the instructions thoroughly, and ask a trainer (NOT a vet, they are not experts in equipment safety and routinely give wrong advice, in my experience) or consult a video how-to if you’re not absolutely certain you’re using it correctly. I always supplement harnesses with a noose-style safety leash, because construction that prevents pulling most effectively does not always prevent escape. Remember, panicked dogs often back up rather than running forward, and many harnesses can turn your dog into a little Houdini by not accounting for this.
Leash Compatibility – Yet another consideration is how your dog’s leash attaches to his collar or harness. If the metal rings on a harness are too large to fit inside the leash’s hook without creating resistance as it moves, the hook can be popped open, freeing your dog. Likewise, even the sturdiest leash hooks can be made moot by other details, like release tabs that are too large. I discovered recently that Jackson’s new leash, which I immediately applauded his parents for buying since it looks impenetrable, was faulty when combined with his tiny harness. When he lunged for a squirrel in Madison Square Park, the leash clasp suddenly released from one of the harness rings, scaring me half to death and prompting me to buy an additional safety leash. I took the video below to demonstrate how it happens, just in case we should ever need to seek legal recourse with the leash’s maker. You can see here why twisting, turning and generally manhandling your leash and collar/harness combo is essential to knowing it will stick…because even the most well-trained dog is going to throw you a curve occasionally in this unpredictable metropolis.
The way I see it, with my Spidey senses, New York City is an accident waiting to happen. It’s a doomsday mentality, I’ll admit, but it doesn’t mean my dogs and I don’t have fun…in fact, I would say we have even MORE fun knowing we’ll always make it home safely.