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Not Everybody Knows Your F***ing Rules

“You owe me an apology,” she said flatly, spinning around to face me, bringing her run to a halt, her dog at her side. “What’s that?” I replied, equally flatly, assuming I had misheard. “You owe me an apology!” she demanded. “What?” I innocently replied, slowly realizing she had not stopped so our two off-leash dogs could have a quick romp which is generally par for the course on this remote off-leash trail in Boulder County. “Your dog almost knocked me over. You owe me an apology.” From my confusion, the word weirdo started to materialize. I had quickly assessed her to be a fit, well-balanced (physically) runner. “But, but it was your dog that bumped into you.” With barely a brush, I thought. She stared, unflinching, her medium-sized Black Lab at her side. “Your dog scared him and I almost got knocked over. You owe me an apology.” She wasn’t budging. I take a certain pride in not being too proud to lose the “upper hand” on issues that are really of no consequence. “Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry about that.” She seemed to accept that as an apology and spun around to continue down the trail. “But,” I said, probably out of ear-reach, “it was your dog.”

Boulder County, Colorado, does not show up on any lists with the greatest concentration of dog ownership. Nor does it show up as the friendliest place for dogs. A bit to my surprise. But it does appear on a list of 7 Best Off-leash hikes compiled by REI. Taking your dog on any off-leash trail can be tricky for various reasons. There are wild and domesticated animals that can cause trouble: horses, cows, coyotes, bears, snakes, birds, etc. But one of the trickiest negotiations can be with the humans paired up with dogs. Some humans are confident and relaxed with their pups and that is most often reflected in the behavior of that dog. The extreme of that is the human with an off-leash dog who would prefer their dog not engage with another dog. And, voila, those pups are most often the most anxious ones. And, as most city-dwellers know, we need at least some rules of engagement, of etiquette. But what are those rules? As Larry, from the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm is often being told by his wife when he is incessantly “maligned” by friends and strangers: “Not everybody knows your fucking rules.”

As anyone who drives a car (or has even driven in a car) knows, there is a plethora of unstated rules in the world of car traffic: You cut me off, you took my parking space which I clearly saw first, you’re riding my bumper, etc. There are a lot of written rules too, like how to proceed at a 4-way stop, though some people seem to disagree on that subject (dangit just read that one paragraph in you state’s driver’s manual. It’s really quite simple). But it’s those unwritten rules that can truly be problematic. Etiquette? Good manners?

As an owner-operator of Front Range Pet Care, LLC, in Colorado, U.S.A., we are involved in a lot of dog walking, a lot of interaction with dogs we know and dogs we don’t know. If an unknown but obviously friendly dog approaches me and jams his muzzle into my crotch to say “Hello,” I’m fine with that. But it’s clear to me that many people would not be. As a rule I’d say that a dog jamming its sniffer into the crotch of a stranger is not OK. There are no written rules on this that I know of; just a general sense of good manners among strangers.

And now there are these small yard signs popping up everywhere in increasing numbers. They typically sit in a residential lawn right at the edge of the sidewalk. There are variations on them, but typically there is a picture of a squatting (pooping) dog with a circle drawn around it and a line slashed at an angle through the circle. “Be Polite,” the sign may read. When I first started seeing them I found them to be quite rude. Certainly not in line with my rules.

I’ve grown confused as these signs pop up more and more often. My rules say without hesitation that you must pick up any poop your dog drops. Anywhere! But dogs do poop. And for the most part they are very good at understanding this happens on grass, or at least, not on the sidewalk. And in neighborhoods when out for a walk, that would be just off the sidewalk in someone’s yard. Not at the front door, but just off the edge of the sidewalk. Do we need a written rule (a law!) stating that, in an ever-crowding world of humans and dogs, dog pooping at the edge of someone’s lawn is forbidden, even if it is immediately picked up? (We do have ordinances/ laws stating you must clean up after your dog in public spaces.) Or, in an ever-crowding world of humans and dogs, do we need a written rule (a law!) stating that it is permissible for your dog to poop on any lawn as long as it is within 1 foot of the sidewalk and is immediately picked up?

What are the rules?

Another sign I’ve seen recently, though rarely, states: “Please pick up after your Dog.” That one I understand and appreciate. For me that is just a basic common courtesy. But apparently not for everyone based on lonely dog poop I often see collecting flies on the ground. Hopefully, that written clarification is helpful in establishing broader etiquette when walking a dog.

If you were to ponder this idea too long, what are the rules, you soon bore down to the shear nitty gritty workings of society, of civilization. That’s a big fat book I just can’t tangle with here. Societal norms can vary greatly, from different places in the world and from different eras. So, I’ll have to be content to stick with the year 2021 and speak broadly for the western U.S. Most of us don’t like a lot of rules in our lives, preferring to live by unwritten rules of etiquette and kindness. “Rules” that are unwritten are typically under the etiquette of “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” But that doesn’t always apply (think dog muzzle in crotch). So we need to apply some empathy to that. That gets tricky too. That’s why we need some rules to be written, as in many locations: “Dogs must be on leash at all time,” even though your dog may be extremely well behaved off-leash.

If I could boil down our interactions to a single rule (which I can’t!), it would be to strive to be more empathetic. But even that can fall short sometimes. Sometimes you just bump into someone who operates outside what we call the norm.

When you watch dogs play, or cats play, once they’ve moved past the puppy and kitten stages, they seem to understand many of the rules. And none of them are written down. A new cat or dog or human enters the fray, and the rules will inevitably shift at least a little. It may appear that they do whatever they can get away with to suit their own needs. But the rules are seemingly fluid, eventually landing on some agreement, what we humans might call a compromise.

So, what about that runner on the trail demanding an apology from me? Did I learn anything, did I change my behavior? I don’t believe so. I walked away thinking she, at best, doesn’t understand the unwritten rules of interaction with dogs on an off-leash trail. And when dealing with dogs there is always that wildcard element of uncertainty about what’s going to go down. That moment still sits in the back of my brain as an unsettled event because I have spent much time out on this trail and have observed interactions in a particular way. Does that make me “right”? Sometimes you can’t find an answer, a rule of right and wrong for every interaction. Things happen. Sometimes you need let it go. If I could truly get into everybody’s head, I’d surely be a god! And I wouldn’t want that.

Here are some of the courtesies/ behaviors I have come to expect, or rather hope for, when my accompanied off- leash dog(s) meets up with another off-leash dog(s). And, here is how it most often goes, in a good way:

  • If I see someone leashing their dog when they catch sight of me with one dog leashed, I often call out that we are fine, I just have a very exuberant pup. If I catch sight of a dog bounding down the trail, it usually makes me happy since I’m usually with big energy dogs myself. Free the leashes! Let the romp run its course.

  • Sometimes when 2 off-leash dogs meet, they can’t come to agreement on any quick game. Call your dog (leash if necessary) and just continue down the trail. I’m sure it must happen (rarely), but I’ve never seen a dog engage in any actual fight (biting) on an off-leash trail.

  • If I am in possession of a shy or anxious dog I probably wouldn’t be on an off-leash trail. And when I am, I’m most likely putting the leash off and on as I encounter differing situations. These things take a little time and practice for both the human and the dog. But the nature of the off-leash trail is that dogs WILL go face to face for a sniff and often a big hello. And often, ideally, a big 2-minute romp.

Andrew’s Guide for Off-Leash-Dog Trails:

  1. Turn OFF your cell phone! Or, at least, stash it in a pocket that is hard to access. Only use in emergency or pull out for a quick pic of some amazing happening.

  2. This is NOT a Dog Park. Do not zone out. Pay attention to your dog and other dogs, and all wildlife, at all times.

  3. Relax and let your dog be approached by other dogs

  4. Take off those leashes! If you think your dog may be a hazard to others, then maybe y’all aren’t ready yet for the off-leash trail.

  5. If your curious pup looks like he might get himself into trouble by investigating a cow or horse or tractor, then please leash up until the trouble has passed.

  6. If your dog, or another dog, seems overly “friendly,” Try to Relax. Let the encounter play out. The dogs can most often work it out. A “relaxed” human most often has a “relaxed” dog. An anxious human often inspires anxiety in the dog.

  7. If you see a leashed dog approaching, try to assess the situation. This takes a little practice. If you feel your overly friendly pup might upset the approaching human/dog, then you should leash your dog. But don’t hesitate to ask permission for the dogs to have a Hello sniff while on leash.

  8. Use your common sense. We all have it!

  9. Off-leash trails are an amazing privilege. Be thankful for the amazing encounters (even the awkward ones) that may await you and your pups.

  10. No matter what happens, and inevitably some weird stuff will happen, please be kind.

  11. Have fun!

And finally, regarding those “no potty” signs showing up in abundance at the edge of homeowners’ yards… I realize that the dilemma may not pop on the radar of a non-dog owner; perhaps not even on the radar of a dog owner. But as someone who operates a business walking dogs, most often through neighborhoods, the increasing number of these yard signs seems offensive. Without going down the rabbit hole of “private property” rights, there needs to be an acceptance and understanding of community living. We are all in this together (as the pandemic signs say!). And the “we” includes a lot of dogs. Definitely demand that ALL dog poop be picked up immediately upon landing. But I think there needs to be a big chill-out about that 18 inches where yard meets sidewalk.


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