I like Rocky.  The middle-aged Gordon Setter has been a fixture in our neighborhood since his people moved into the house around the corner a few years ago.  I don’t know his people well, just the obligatory hello and the occasional chat about the weather. But I know Rocky.

I look for him whenever I walk by his house with whoever happens to be boarding with me at the time. He’s not always outside, but when he is he is usually tethered in the front yard, lounging under a tree and observing his world.  Sometimes he walks over to greet me and the new neighborhood visitor, but mostly he stays put, lifting his head slightly to acknowledge our presence and have sniff.  I love to see "The Rock," he just has a quiet confidence about him and he always seems so content with life. When I’m carrying treats, which is often, I’ll usually fling one in his direction.  

I didn’t expect to see Rocky this morning.  It was cold and dark, and early… too early.  5:30 on Thursday morning. I know there are people who get up that early on purpose, but I only do it because I have to and this morning I had to, for Cocoa 

Cocoa is a big chocolate-colored Chesapeake Bay retriever cross who visits me often. This time her stay was necessitated by medical procedure: her human mom was donating a kidney to her dad.  

Cocoa and I made our way down the block, into the park, past the pond, and then turned back toward the house. We were almost home.  I was hunched up in my coat wishing I had brought warmer mittens and had zipped the shell on my parka to guard against the cold November morning in Minnesota. Cocoa was meandering along side me. I saw Rocky’s dad moving about in the garage, but my head was too frozen to give it much more thought than that. Suddenly, out of the darkness Rocky roared toward us, barking! Woof! Woof! Woof! Rocky’s deep voice penetrated the morning stillness and caught both Cocoa and me by surprise.  Rocky stopped at least 5 feet from us, but not before Cocoa ran scared in the other directions, hitting the end of the leash and clothes-lining herself.  She yelped a little when she hit the end, and I felt badly that she was left feeling so vulnerable.   

I can’t say that I’ve ever heard Rocky bark before and I would never accuse him of rushing pedestrians, two-legged or four-legged.  I suspect insomuch as he surprised Cocoa and me, Rocky was also surprised by us materializing out of the darkness.   

It’s my responsibility (and the responsibility of every dog-walking pet owner) to be aware of the possible distractions and dangers that can pop up on an outing. When we put a leash on a dog we take away their ability to choose the flight option when they feel threatened or stressed.  In addition, leashing a dog limits their ability to effectively communicate with other dogs.  (Imagine trying to convey a point while someone holds your hands at your side. It limits your ability to fully express yourself; a dog on a leash will feel similarly inhibited.) I’m not suggesting that dogs should be unleashed.  I’m suggesting it’s our responsibility to be aware enough of our environment that our dogs can enjoy their outing feeling confident in our leadership and safe at the end of the leash.

I should have been paying more attention to the surroundings and worrying less about the cold.