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Video taken 28 May 2010 (May want to turn your speakers down — it’s windy and noisy at this park.)

Today, for the first time in our four years of frequenting one of our favorite off-lead dog parks, PREY appeared! As we crested one of the hilly trails, a large rabbit came bounding in our direction, with two hounds and a tag-along squirt of a mutt in hot pursuit. Instantly, Bowdu and Bowpi joined in the chase. It was amazing to watch all those dogs kick up so much hay and dust.

One general rule common to both Shiba and Basenji is that they are not to be trusted off-lead. As the recommendation goes, even if you practice your recall hundreds of times, to the point where you’re lulled into a false sense of security, they’re always only going to be 99% reliable, at best. That 1% margin of error is going to come back to haunt you in the guise of that one chipmunk that darts out into traffic with your precious pet in instinctive pursuit. In one second, your off-leash Shiba or Basenji will be gone forever.

Here is one case where I’ll defy breed standards for just a moment, and state that I don’t believe the situation is always quite so dire. One also has to consider geography, local culture, and the individual dog’s personality. We’ve spotted a bunch of Basenji at off-leash parks around here, and while these are fairly controlled environments, they’re not exactly places where the textbook sighthound owner would let their dogs run loose. Likewise, I’ve lost count of the number of off-leash Shiba I’ve seen in Taipei, which ranks up there as one of the world’s most congested cities and certainly not a safe environment for most off-leash dogs, regardless of breed.

We have a pretty horrific anecdote from when Bowdu was about 4 or 5 months old. We were with his first vet, who had just administered his last round of puppy shots. We were all standing around the steel examination table chatting when suddenly a middle-aged man burst through the door and laid down a bloody Maltese right next to Bowdu. For about two full seconds, Bowdu stared death in its mangled face before I was finally able to react and pull him off the table for another patient that obviously deserved priority. But this Maltese, who had been run over by a back alley scooter, was dead on arrival.

Taipei is no place for off-leash dogs. Yet, dogs of all breeds had learned to weave through traffic and city crowds without a handler in tow. This has always stumped me, since Bowdu never gave the impression that he was relaxed enough outdoors for us to even think about letting him loose in the city. It wasn’t until we had crossed an ocean and traveled across the United States, a process which inevitably tethered him with a sense of separation anxiety (for better or worse), that we permitted him to go off-leash with regularity. In the right places, it just works.

Even when there is prey.

So I let both Bowdu and Bowpi join the rabbit hunt for a bit, vaguely wondering what would happen if they managed to corner and catch the frantic little guy. But when the rabbit took a sharp turn back over the hill and started to take all the dogs with him away from my line of vision, that’s when I called both dogs back. Impressively, they came… They gave up in the middle of the chase, and came back to me so we could continue our regular route around the park. I was so proud of them, I lavished them both with praise and affection when they returned to my side. It seemed like a real test, certainly the first real one that Bowpi had since we started letting her explore off-leash about a month after we adopted her. They both passed with flying colors.

In the end, I still have to defer to breed generalizations. It’s probably true that most Shiba and Basenji aren’t reliable off leash, and we repeat this rule to keep the breed, as a whole, safe. I don’t think that every Shiba or Basenji can or should be trained to be free off-leash. And though I love and am very proud of the fact that Bowdu and Bowpi are as good as they are at these off-leash dog parks, there are certainly places I’d never let them roam free. Ximending in Taipei city, for example… my street, for another. Not all dogs need to be off lead, and not every dog that can be trained to be off lead needs to be off all the time. So I wrote this not to share how I “trained” Bowdu and Bowpi to be off leash or to recommend that others do it too, but just to document it as a matter of fact here at the House of Two Bows.