Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs

There are many reasons why your dog may not like being rushed by an off-leash dog when he’s on leash. Off-leash dogs are, obviously, the bane of many of my reactive clients’ existence, but senior dogs; those recovering from surgery, illness, or injuries; shy pups and fearful dogs may also find the attention of off-leash dogs upsetting or overwhelming. Even friendly dogs may not appreciate interacting with another dog in such a socially unequal situation – leashes can cause a lot of issues.

Photo by Chriss

Photo by Chriss

So, what can you do if you get rushed by an off-leash dog? First of all, know that it is always okay to protect your dog. Most urban and suburban environments have leash laws, and if your dog is on a leash you are right in keeping your dog safe. You are also completely within your rights to report off-leash dogs to your local authorities. Not only can an off-leash dog pose a threat to you or your dog, but they are also at personal risk from vehicles and other dangers. Even those who live in the country should control their dogs, and if a neighbor’s dog or unknown stray shows up on your property and harasses you or your dog you can and should take measures to discourage him.

The first thing to do if you notice an off-leash dog coming towards you is to evaluate the situation to see if the owner is nearby. If they are, tell them to call their dog. Many people will respond by telling you that their dog is “friendly,” but regardless of their dog’s behavior, if their dog is not under their control and is upsetting you or your dog, it is a problem. Some people have found success in these situations by responding that their leashed dog is not friendly, is shy, is in training, or just doesn’t want to say “hi,” but the most effective phrase I’ve heard of if you want to inspire the owner to collect their dog immediately is to loudly yell “my dog is contagious!”. While I don’t generally condone lying, if it will keep the situation from escalating further you may find that this is a case where it’s worthwhile.

If the owner is unable or unwilling to collect their dog or if there’s no owner in sight, you can choose whether to let that dog meet your dog. Some people only intervene if the loose dog appears to be aggressive and allow friendly-appearing dogs to approach, while others of us do not let any unknown loose dog meet our on-leash pups. Dogs who may appear friendly at first can sometimes become aggressive during the greeting sniff, or may injure your dog by bowling into them or jumping on them. Even my very dog social, friendly pup is not exposed to loose dogs, because I don’t think it’s a fair situation to put her in. Instead, I always intervene and teach my dogs that I will deal with loose dogs so that they do not have to.

So, how can you stop a dog that’s charging you? There are several different strategies, and I choose the method I think will work best for each individual situation. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The gentlest way to discourage visiting is to give the loose dog something better to do. Dogs who seem happy and bubbly are often easily stopped by asking them to “sit.” If the dog complies, you can toss a handful of treats to him and make your escape while he’s vacuuming them up. Even if he doesn’t listen, a handful of treats can be tossed at his face (with the intent to startle, not hurt). When he stops to see what hit him, he’ll realize that there’s food on the ground and devote his attention to eating instead of rushing your dog. This method has worked really well for a few overly-exuberant Labs and Pit Bulls in my neighborhood. It doesn’t stop them from approaching in the future, but it’s the kindest way to give your dog space without the potential fallout that more forceful methods may cause.

If the above ideas don’t work or aren’t possible (perhaps you are out of treats, have a dog who guards food, or feel fairly confident that the oncoming dog won’t be dissuaded), try to startle the loose dog. Step in between your dog and the oncoming dog and use a body block. Square your shoulders and hips, and hold your hand out like a cop stopping traffic while saying “No,” “Stop,” or “Stay” in a firm, low voice. Alternatively, you could carry an umbrella with you and open it in the direction of the rushing dog, which will both startle him and provide a physical and visual barrier. One of my clients painted large eyes on her umbrella, which would pop open explosively at the push of a button. This so startled an aggressive Puggle in her neighborhood that he never again went after her dog.

One easy way to keep loose dogs away is to use a spray product if they come close. Spray Shield is a citronella product manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. It is aversive to most dogs without actually harming them, and can be sprayed directly at an oncoming dog. I carry this product with on walks and use it to keep especially determined dogs (including those who mean to attack my dog) back. Some people have also reported success using compressed air in this same way. Spray Shield has the added benefit of working to stop some dog fights, so if things do get out of hand you have a safer way to break up a fight than trying to forcibly remove one of the combatants.

In addition to having a plan dealing for loose dogs, it’s important to know what not to do. Whatever you do, don’t use pepper spray. Not only can pain make some dogs more aggressive, but if the wind gusts the wrong way the spray could end up getting into your or your dog’s face and eyes, leaving you incapacitated with an unknown dog rushing you. Not a good situation to be in! Running away is also generally not advised, as it will just encourage most dogs to chase you. Picking your dog up is usually not a good idea, although in some situations you may decide it’s a calculated risk you’re willing to take. Doing so may put you at greater risk and can intensify the off-leash dog’s interest in your pup.

While cases of truly aggressive dogs intent on bodily harm are rare, they do happen. If your small dog is rushed by an aggressive off-leash dog, you may be able to pick him up and toss him somewhere safer, such as in a nearby garbage can, inside a fenced yard, in the bed of a truck, or on the roof of a car. You can also take advantage of some of these safety options for yourself. If you have a bigger dog or if no other options are available, you may need to assess whether your dog would be safer if you dropped the leash so that he can try to get away from the other dog or defend himself. If the loose dog redirects on you (which is rare, but does happen), protect your head and neck. Spray Shield will stop all but the most aggressive dogs, and generally these dogs are only stopped by physically separating them from their victim. One of my clients carries a walking stick on outings after one of her small dogs was killed by a much larger dog who jumped his fence. While the stick may not have saved her dog, it makes her feel more comfortable to have something that she could use to keep an aggressive dog back.

While no single method will work in every case, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better able you’ll be to protect your dog. Remember that it is always okay to stand up for your dog. After I sprayed an aggressive Shepherd who was charging Layla off-leash, Layla’s reactivity towards other dogs on walks actually decreased significantly. Instead of snarling and lunging at other dogs, she began to put herself behind me when she was charged by an off-leash dog, trusting me to deal with the situation.

If you have a dog who is usually trustworthy off-leash, make sure that your dog’s freedom does not negatively impact others. If your dog is likely to rush other dogs, please keep him on a leash or behind a secure fence. Not only could your dog be bitten if he rushes the wrong dog, but he could also be hurt by traffic or by a frightened owner defending their dog. It’s just not worth the risk.

Have you or your dog ever been rushed by an off-leash dog? How do you handle this situation? Please share your stories, tips, and questions in the comments below!

60 responses to “Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs

  1. Just having recently adopted a small GSD mix just now turned six-months, possibly an Australian Kelpie mix according to my vet as Roxie is too small for a GSD, I had a similar experience earlier this week. I’m just shocked to read that off-leash attacks are so common. Having outgrown walking just in our neighborhood, I walk Roxie through all our cul-de-sacs, then out the construction entrance, down a short country road, and through another neighborhood for a good hour walk. Roxie is harnassed, leashed, carries her own poop bag holder on her harnass just for accidents as she is trained to go in her corner of our backyard before and after her walks–responsible pet parent. After passing a couple arriving back home, with a “Beware of Dog” sign on their back fence, upon our return trip we were rushed by three dogs, a Sheltie (the aggressive leader and according to a neighbor apparently the reason for the warning sign) and two blonde labs. We were three to four houses away from theirs, so shouldn’t have been an issue of territorial protection. The Sheltie was barking and snarling with one of the blonde labs right behind with his hackles up, and the third one lagging further behind. I’ve trained Roxie to sit when startled to hopefully give time to assess a situation before just fleeing. And I certainly didn’t want her to run like prey. So I made her sit behind me, raised myself up as tall as possible, leaned in a forward stance, and yelled at the three dogs to “stop now”. That slowed their progression with them moving more side to side. I then lunged forward, raised my hand, pointed my finger and told them to “go home now!” All three slunked back to their front yard and laid out front. I was so angry realizing this couple had seen me walking past their house and had intentionally let out all of their dogs, including the one requiring the warning sign. The problem was this was my only way out of the neighborhood to get home, so I had to walk Roxie past their house. I calmly waited about five minutes hoping to desensitize them to us and also to see if this couple would come back out to get their dogs. Their garage door was open, so surely they heard this commotion. With the three dogs still settled on their yard and watching us, I started walking Roxie slowly, staying on the other side of the street. We hadn’t gone maybe five strides before all three dogs rushed again, and this time would not be stopped by my firm yelling. At this point, I scream “Who the f*** owns these dogs” which I know could be heard inside of these houses. I was bracing myself to kicking these dogs if necessary, but already resigned myself I’d then have to let Roxie go run to give her a fighting chance, as physically I wouldn’t be able to protect her and myself from three dogs attacking. I was trying to look around for anything to pick up to attack them with. I love dogs, but I would have had no problem shooting them if I’d had a gun. Fortunately, right when they got about a house away, a car came and had to swerve between them (personally I was hoping they’d hit one or all of them) and us beforing driving slowly into their driveway back of me about two houses. So I walked Roxie back to their house, keeping their car between us and the dogs, and they were nice enough to offer to drive Roxie and me past these dogs to the entrance of their neighborhood. However, I told them I felt comfortable enough to be left off once out of sight of the dogs. They said these dogs are always let loose “strategically” to intimidate the neighbors. Since they’ve been there only a few months, they just tried to keep their dog and children down their end of the street away from these dogs. So I walked Roxie home, got my cellphone and drove back over there while calling Animal Control. As I drove out of my neighborhood’s construction entrance onto the adjoining country road, guess who was there–two of the three dogs (the aggressive Sheltie and her bouncer, the blonde lab with the hackles)!! Unbeknownst to me, these two dogs must have been tracking Roxie and I–now that’s scary. I scoped out the house, parked in front, and called Animal Control. It didn’t take long for these two dogs to track back to their house. I was able to get a closer look at the dogs from the safety of my car and it appears the Sheltie’s lower jaw was askew, as if she had been kicked in the jaw and it never healed properly. Wonder what she must have or is still enduring to be so aggressive? After coming out of the house and seeing me parked there, some lady opened the door and called the dogs in. The only unfortunate thing is it was Saturday and apparently Animal Control was off. I’m still waiting to hear if they followed-up on my malice complaint. According to a Sheriff’s Deputy that lives in our neighborhood, these dogs have menaced him and his dog during their walks but he never determined where they lived. Since I got the address, he said these people could be fined $1,000 for each dog. I think the dogs should be removed from the home, assessed and if behaviorable salvageable, placed with loving, responsible pet parents.

  2. I live in Peru where most dogs are off leash whereas my dog is always on leash. Here you get used to pretending to pick up a rock for any aggressive dogs because there’s hardly ever an owner around. Usually, I don’t have problems with other dogs but my dog doesn’t like bigger dogs and some times her reaction causes more attention than she should get. I will definitely try putting objects between her and the bigger dogs! Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Threats Unleashed | Darwin Dogs

  4. I am scared to walk past a neighbors house when taking my small dog out for a daily walk which is meant to be therapeutic for me. Twice, the BullMastiff has busted through a cast iron screen door and rushes me and my small dog! The owner only says she is sorry but does not make attempts to control this animal. I have anxiety already and it only makes this worse.

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