New research indicates birds can tell whether a dog is on or off-lead, even if unleashed dogs are well-behaved.

The researchers observed the ‘escape responses’ of magpie larks when confronted by leashed and unleashed dogs in Melbourne parks. Both sets of dogs were walking quietly, close to their owners.

Interestingly, they found the birds had different reactions to the dogs if they were on or off-lead: they walked away from leashed dogs but flew away from the unleashed dogs.

The research suggests that leashing dogs could be a good way to reduce the intense fear behaviours of birds, which ultimately threatens their survival during breeding, nesting or migrating.

Victoria University researchers Skye Barnett, Dr Roan Plotz, and Dr Wouter van Dongen said the study – while simple in its findings – could help motivate dog owners to follow leash laws.

Australia has some of the strictest dog leashing regulations in the world and a high rate of dog ownership, with about six million pet dogs in the country, according to the RSPCA.

However, Dr Plotz said dog leashing in public parks is controversial, with low compliance rates for leash regulations and a lack of understanding by owners about the dangers their pets pose.

“More people should know there are good reasons to obey leash rules so we can ultimately enhance the way people and birds co-exist,” he said.

The leash status of approaching dogs mediates escape modality but not flight-initiation distance in a common urban bird.

Researchers from Deakin University also participated in the study.