I think about leashes a lot.

My collection has whittled itself down over time. Two biothane tracking lines — one with a loop at the handler end, one without — that have been in my life for almost as long as Lilo has. One 10′ biothane line from Palomine that was ordered as Lilo’s nosework line but turned out to be the perfect length for relaxed sniff walks. One remaining Zumi of my initial two; Titus’s teeth took care of the other but I did stick the with-snap segment in my gear closet, so I guess technically I have one Zumi leash and one custom Zumi tab. That leash is my favorite for on-leash training — I like just a little weight in my hand when working a dog — and introduced me to the wondrous ease of a combo slip-clip leash, which in turn led me to a Leashes By Liz six-footer that I really like for hiking purposes: very lightweight when clipped across my torso as a just-in-case for Lilo and the paracord doesn’t hold the wet when I let Titus drag it on groomed trail. (That website doesn’t seem to carry the slip-clip model; I got mine through Clean Run, but per the tag, that’s what it is.)

I own a few other leashes that hang out in the gear closet in case I need one in a pinch. And I have one old leash that lives in the Jeep for the inevitable stray-dog pickup. Those five, though, are the leashes that I actually use. And I use them a lot.

But not always.

Because I’m in kind of a funny position as dog-hikers go. I have one dog who is so solid off-leash that I sometimes forget to even bring one along for her, just in case. And then I have one dog who has the best raw material for off-leash hiking of any dog I’ve owned but whose recall is not yet up to my standards; he doesn’t want to leave me and his recall is damn near 100% off of people, but will not reliably recall off of dogs at this point in his life and so end of story — game over — he’s attached to me or else dragging a line except in very specific circumstances while we continue to Work On That. I also had a previous dog who simply did not get to be loose in the woods. Ever. He was too prey-driven and too fast and I didn’t at the time have the skills to train enough safety into him, so once all of the above became clear, he did many happy miles always on-leash.

That is: I don’t make my decisions about whether and when to use a leash based on ideas of one choice being objectively better than the other. I make them based on the dog(s) in front of me, on the situation, on my feelings about and goals for the day.

Which means that I think about leashes every time I leave the house: which one(s) and how many to bring? I think about them on trail, sometimes dozens of time: when to add, when to remove, when to drop or pick up, collect or pay out? I think about them every time that I take a picture for our Instagram feed, because it’s true a leash can be an attractive visual asset, but it can also be awkwardly placed or garishly colored or just kind of ruin an otherwise lovely photo.

I don’t, for the record, edit leashes out of photos. And I only very rarely remove a leash specifically for a photo. Maybe once every third or fourth hike. I’m pretty lazy, for one. But more than that, I think it’s important to show my hand and my leash. I think it’s important to show that lots of different kinds of dogs hike, in lots of different stages of their training and lots of different environments and with lots of different handler comfort levels. I think that off-leash hiking has tremendous value for dogs — see Cog-Dog Radio on decompression walks for tons more info about that — and I also think there’s tremendous value in demonstrating that it’s not the only way.

(I am,  though, realizing as I scroll through our feed that I do often take the leash off so that Titus can do a thing — chase a chipmunk up a tree, roll in an especially appealing patch of snow, navigate a short tricksy climb, and so on — and then take a picture of that thing. Same outcome, different causal relationship. Huh.)

Because here’s the thing: people have lots of feelings about leashes. People make lots of assumptions about what a leash or its absence might mean and attach a whole lot of judgment, sometimes, to same. (And maybe this is the place to mention that when I talk about choosing whether to use a leash, I’m talking specifically about places where leashes are optional. I live in a state with lots of those places. I get that this is not the case everywhere, but please don’t at me about breaking leash laws; that’s not what we’re talking about here.) People attach lots of magical thinking to what a leash can or can’t do.

But a leash is just a leash. It’s a way of attaching your dog to your body. It can do some stuff: increase safety, limit self-reinforcement, allow communication, increase handler comfort. It can’t do everything: dogs on leashes can still get into trouble, get hurt, blow off cues, muck up the alpine zone, make other handlers and dogs uncomfortable, and frankly I’ve had my and my dogs’ space invaded by more leashed dogs followed by oblivious handlers than by anything else. I wish, often, that we could all talk less about the leash — this 1,000 words and counting aside! — and more about what we’re hoping to achieve by using one or by not, more about how we communicate with our dogs and ourselves and each other, more about the joy of having one dog so in-tune and well-reinforced that they can often be trusted with absolute freedom of movement, more about the reassuring light touch at the other end of the line that means the other — equally joyous — can be kept back from the cliff-edge or stranger’s sandwich if need be.

Here’s the secret: that leash in the photo only bothers me. The dog doesn’t care. The dog is just happy to be out in the world, sniffing for squirrels and rolling in snow and checking back in for a cookie again. That leash in the photo isn’t a leash. It’s a gateway. It’s freedom, every bit as much as its absence can be.

It’s only a leash. There’s only the right choice for this dog, this handler, this context, this point in time. See the whole system clearly. Decide.