How to Be a Responsible Dog Owner

How to Be a Responsible Dog Owner

Yesterday, we decided to take the girls to a nearby park that recently reopened after significant renovations. It’s a wonderful space alongside the river. Trails cross through the wooded sections with boardwalks spanning the swampier bits. A covered area includes picnic tables and benches, a couple grills, and a little free library. There are bathrooms, swing sets, tons of accessible play structures, a zip line, slides, the works.

As we got ready to leave, I asked John, “Should we bring Cooper?”

We thought it over and agreed, nah. Probably not. Too risky.


Because we’ve, sadly, become accustomed to irresponsible dog owners at every park, trail, and pavilion in town. And, turns out, we were right. Walking down one of the paths, we spotted an off-leash doodle dog running amok in this decidedly on-leash space.

“Glad we didn’t bring Coop,” we said.

But how unfair is that? Irresponsible dog owners run the fun for responsible owners time and time again, and our poor pups are the ones who suffer.

A white woman with brown hair cut to shoulder length and bangs stands on a sidewalk in front of an outdoor cafe holding a blue leash connected to a panting beagle dog. In the background, people sit under sun umbrellas chatting. The woman has a pink backpack slung on her shoulder and a bit smile on her face. The text overlay reads: Responsible dog ownership.

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What does it mean to be a responsible dog owner?

Before I get into my ideas about responsible dog ownership, a quick note about the phrase “dog ownership.”

It’s contentious, I know. Some people consider themselves a dog mom or dad, a dog guardian, a pet parent, a dog’s partner, or any other number of phrases that try to take away from the sense of a dog being property. But, for the sake of discussion, I’m using dog owner because, well, legally that’s what we are.

According to Law Insider, “Dog Owner means any person 18 years of age or older who owns, controls, keeps, harbors, has custody of a dog or any person who allows a dog to remain on or about his/her premises; or the parent or guardian of any child under the age of 18 years, who owns, keeps, controls, harbors, has custody of a dog or any person who allows a dog to remain on or about his/her premises.”

Since all of those pieces of the definition impact whether or not someone is responsible, we’re going with dog owner for this post. Let’s be real: Being an irresponsible dog owner can land you in a pit of legal trouble.

So, what makes you a responsible dog owner?

Caring for your pet’s basic needs

I bet you thought I’d jump right into tips like pick up your dog’s poop and keep him on leash. Those are important, and we’ll get there before the end of the post, but it’s not the place to start. Your pet’s basic needs, that’s where we need to begin.

These are the basics that most of us take for granted so completely that we barely even think about them. This is providing your dog with food, water, and shelter. While there are arguments made about the kind of food that is best for a dog, the baseline here is that you have a dog who is fed, watered, and protected from the elements.

Some pet owners struggle to meet even those basics, and while that certainly means that person is an irresponsible pet owner, it often stems from mental health and related issues… a topic for another day. Suffice it to say, you are, at the most fundamental level, a responsible dog owner if your pup is fed, hydrated, and sheltered.

Take it a step further, though. Caring for your pet’s basic physical needs also includes his or her health. While some quibble over vaccines, preventatives, and more, a responsible dog owner takes their pet to the vet for regular checkups. For most healthy pets, a once-a-year vet visit suffices. As your dog ages, or if your dog suffers from a health condition, more visits might be necessary. The key is simply to go.

Caring for your pet’s mental health & wellbeing

A responsible dog owner enriches their dog’s life by providing safety and stimulation.

Safety first: This isn’t just physical safety, though that’s a big piece of the puzzle. This hearkens back to the 5 freedoms, the basic standards of animal care and welfare (read the full post here):

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

A responsible dog owner takes care of the first three, as we already discussed, as a baseline. But, in order to take responsible care of your pup, you need to address freedoms four and five, too. As we all know by now, mental health is health.

Fear and distress: A responsible dog owner does not scare, hurt, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise frighten their dog. For dogs who are naturally fearful, a responsible person works to mitigate or manage those fears in a kind, positive way.

Normal behavior: Your dog gets exercise like walks or runs, and your dog gets to express typical behaviors like sniffing or barking. Sure, a loose leash walk is important to train for safety, but allowing for sniffing time is vital for your dog’s mental wellbeing. Of course, barking can be annoying or disruptive, but it’s also a normal dog behavior. When possible, let your dog bark a bit. Train a quiet cue, as needed, but strive to let your dog be a dog sometimes. Nothing makes Cooper prouder, for instance, than feeling like he kept his family safe by barking away that UPS driver. If the baby isn’t asleep or I’m not on a conference call, I let him have at it!

Going a step further, consider how to make your dog’s life even richer with brain games, food puzzles, and new experiences. These all help your dog live a happier, healthier life–and, bonus, it’ll enrich your life, too.

In the foreground, a black dog with a white chest wears a blue Y-shaped harness. He's licking his lips as if he just ate a treat. Holding his blue leash is a person cut off at the waist. We see a blue thick coat, blue jeans, and black lace-up boots. In the background are three out-of-focus people walking other dogs that are also out of focus. It appears to be a dog-walking group walking down a wide asphalt path with the black and white dog leading the group.

Caring for the safety of those around you from your pet

A responsible dog owner does this even if it includes sacrifice or unhappiness on occasion. What does this look like?

If your dog isn’t comfortable at a bustling cafe (or sidewalk sale, Lowe’s, festival, etc.), leave him at home. His discomfort isn’t worth your guilt for leaving him at home. He’s happier and safer.

If your dog doesn’t love company coming over, find a safe space to place her while guests are over. Or meet your friends at a restaurant or their house.

If your dog goes to an on-leash park or trail, keep your dog on leash even if you think your dog has the most reliable recall in the universe.

Your dog might be the most friendly, outgoing, gregarious girl the world has ever seen, but if you’re going to have small children over or take your dog to an event filled with small children, consider your plan carefully. Do not expect your dog to be perfect around small children even if she’s perfect everywhere else. Even if you feel, as I do, that parents should teach their kids how to behave around dogs, you can’t count on that and put your dog in jeopardy. No matter what you expect of other people, the only person you can control is you. Make good decisions for your dog around children even if it means leaving her at home or skipping the event altogether.

Read more about this important topic: Dog Bite Prevention and 3 Pet Safety Tips for Kids.

Also, this should go without saying but we constantly find piles at parks, playgrounds, and trails: Pick up after your pet!

Responsible dog ownership doesn’t have to be fancy

Did you know the pet industry is predicted to see $143.6 billion in sales in the U.S. according to the APPA?

That’s a ton of dog stuff.

And all the fancy bowls, toys, treats, bandanas, and costumes might make you feel like you need to shower your pup with goodies to be a good dog owner, but that’s simply not the case.

Yes, there are lots of products that can help you take great care of your dog. Food puzzles like this and this can enrich meal times. But, also, you can just roll up kibble in towels or hide it around your house for an equally enriching activity that’s free.

Your pup can sip her water from a filtered fountain or a stainless steel bowl for under $5, and she’s hydrated either way.

You can get fancy leashes that adjust and morph into all kinds of iterations like this, which is pretty cool, but a simple nylon leash does the trick just as well.

You can feed your dog well, meet his or her physical needs, attend regular vet visits, and enrich your pup’s life without spending a ton of money on stuff.

Let’s be real: It’s better to spend less on bowls and costumes and instead save that money for vet bills!

TL; DR 5 Tips to Be a Responsible Dog Owner

A responsible dog owner is just that: responsible for their dog, not the people or animals around them.

  1. Feed your dog the highest quality food that fits your family’s budget. Keep his water bowl fresh. Wash the dishes regularly.
  2. Take your dog to the vet for an annual checkup, and work with your vet on preventative health, vaccines, medication, and whatever else it takes to keep your pup happy and healthy. This includes oral health and nail trims!
  3. Keep your dog safe from others, and keep others safe from your dog. Follow the rules. Don’t let your dog off leash unless you’re in a specific off-leash area. Don’t take your dog places where he won’t be comfortable, or consider crating or removing to another space if you can’t be sure your dog will be safe and comfy. And pick up your dog’s poop!
  4. Don’t use force or fear to get your dog to do what you want.
  5. You don’t need to spend a lot to take excellent care of your dog. Keep him at a healthy weight. Get enough exercise and mental enrichment.

Bottom line: Love each other well.

Having a dog is the best. They’re fun and funny. They’re loving and playful. They’re joy wrapped in fur.

Take good care of your pup. They’re worth it and so much more.

Tell me: How do YOU ensure you’re a responsible dog owner? Or, on the other side of that coin, what irresponsible behavior do you and your dog encounter out in the world? How do you handle it? Please share in the comments! I’d love to hear from you!

Images: Dog with blue harness by Dominik Kempf on Unsplash, beagle at the cafe by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

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