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!

140 responses to “Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs

  1. My leashed large dog and I were walking and a smaller off leash dog ran off her property and attacked my dog. I dropped the leash and got them apart. My dog was only defending herself. The smaller dog had damage and had to go to the vet. Who is at fault? The owner approached and verbally attacked me a week later and verbal abused me. What are my rights?

  2. It is the responsibility of the owner of the unleashed dog

  3. Just was walking my 4 dogs down our road all on leashes, and a pittbull ran out from his yard at us and scared the sh** out of me! I was so scared more so for my dogs!!! I yelled and cussed and no one came to help so u kept my dogs as close to me as possible, holding still and kicked at the dog to go!!! I should of went back home not thinking and so to get home I had to go through the same thing! This is not the first time! He wanted to attack but he seemed afraid as I was kicking at him!

  4. I got the sweetest mild-mannered lab from the shelter. Six months later, she was attacked by a new neighbor’s loose dog. The dog drew blood before he was called off; the wound was superficial; damage to the psyche is what we’re dealing with now. She is fearful of every dog she encounters and lunges and growls at them. Currently I have her in a training class just for exposure to “safe” dogs but, so far, these are no fun for either of us.

  5. My. Neighbors dog is all ways attacking my dog there dog never had a leash the dog is not raged nor has his shots animal control is not oppen today what can i do

  6. I’m glad I found this article and will certainly try some of these methods with my pup, Porter. Porter is a great dane and one of my main concerns is getting him to sit and stay behind me in situations like this, considering he weighs more than me this can be difficult as a good lunge from him can give me quite the yank. We’ve been rushed by unleashed dogs several times and I feel like neither of us know what to do. I wonder if dropping the leash and letting him defend himself is my best bet, but then I worry that he would chase the dog in his heightened aggression.

    The first time it happened he actually got bit and ran into me (he’s mostly a giant baby). Unfortunately, the more it happens, the more aggressive he is towards approaching dogs, even friendly neighbor ones that he’s interacted with in the past and now other leashed dogs that walk too close. He normally doesn’t lunge, but he certainly takes an aggressive stance. It’s anxiety producing for me and I imagine him as well. We’re working on sit and stay with treats when other dogs walk by.

    He seems to be a target for other dogs, I imagine because his size is intimidating, and even owners who have “friendly” dogs don’t realize that Porter’s size is scary for their pup. In most circumstances there are no pleasantries, we are simply charged by an unleashed dog. The most terrifying thing is that some of these dogs are much smaller and Porter has the advantage. I don’t want him hurting another dog, or worse biting a person (he is weird about men) in the process, but I also don’t want him to get hurt either.

  7. This was a very informative read. I haven’t walked my poor dog in 9 months due to having two negative “rushing” experiences…one with owner, one without, both equally as traumatizing for me. My dog, however, doesn’t seem phased. Thanks for your advice, going to give this a try once I work up the courage to go for that walk. Thanks!

  8. Wow. Let me add my horror story. I was walking my 2 rescue Greyhounds in my nice suburban neighborhood when a screen door burst open And a snarling German Shepherd launched at us. My pepper spray chased him off and we headed home, shaken. As I unlocked my homes door, a burly man ran up behind us. ” You sprayed my dog! I’ll f*** you up! ” I hustled my panicky pups inside but he stood out there yelling for my blood. Called 911. The police were familiar with this guy and his wild dog. They gave him a new fine to add to his pile of citations and told me to avoid that street….bottom line he was evicted by his landlord ( after strategic phone calls). So we also need protection from moronic owners!!

  9. Can you please advise me. My dog bit another dog? She was off the lead. The other dog came running towards my dog, my dog did not run towards the other dog. The owners of the other dog where a fair distance away. The other dog caught up to my dog and ran past her left shoulder. My dog bit the other on the bum. The other dog ended up going to the vet. I am prepared to pay half of the fees. I do feel that both us owners where at fault not just me. Because my dog didn’t go running up to the other dog bite it. The other dog came running up to her. I wouldn’t let my dog just go running up to another it doesn’t know! Her dog and mine should have been on leads. Should I be obliged to pay vet fees in full? Like I said I am prepared to pay half.

  10. Unfortunately this has been my life since we adopted our 2 month old dog 5 months ago. I always wanted a dog to walk with. However, other people who have their dogs off leash around our neighborhood are ruining the walks because they won’t pay attention. Our dog, Genji, is shy, and doesn’t care to meet other dogs, let alone have them run up to him full tilt when he’s still on the leash. If other folks can’t control their dogs off leash, they shouldn’t do it, period. The man today wouldn’t even call his dog, wouldn’t even hurry after him as the dog followed us away. It’s really a shame. I love the convenience of walking around our own neighborhood, but I may have to go to the lake park only which is much more monitored just to avoid the careless dog owners.

  11. I had a difficult time at the beginning walking my daughter’s dog, I felt very uncertain when off leash dogs approached my on leash dog, I always warn he owner of the dog about my dog not friendly with other dogs, I also mentioned about so many coyotes around, my dog doesn’t like others strange dogs sniffing her butt, so I always kept a distance from other dogs, once I had to use my air spray can to avoid two dogs running towards us, it worked really well. After meeting some people with dogs without the leash I made it very obvious I had a wooden stick and a spray can, now my dog and I feel more in control and less fearful. I never walk her without a safe device, especially after listening to some dogs experiences with a dog that attacked and bit 2 dogs in my neighborhood, they both ended at the vet’s office. I never leave home without some defense tool.

  12. can i leash my neighbors dog that is on my property and then bring it downtown to the dog officer?

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