Anyone who has ever walked their dog – or even gone for a walk without a dog – has had to deal with an off-leash dog. Perhaps the owner has unleashed his dog to run and play or the dog may have dashed out the gate or front door and is now running free. In any event, an off-leash dog is a potential hazard to you and your dog.
Unfortunately, there is no one solution to how to deal with a dog running free who approaches you. Every dog is different and has its own agenda when it approaches you and your dog. Some may be genuinely friendly, others hesitant, some protecting their perceived territory, and others downright dangerous.
What are the Dog’s Intentions?
The vast majority of dogs will show their intentions via their body language.
A dog who is being friendly will approach you and your dog with loose, wiggly body language. The key to these dogs is everything is soft, loose, and relaxed.
A dog who is protecting his territory – his house, yard, car, or even a park he frequents – will be barking, dashing back and forth, and usually moving quickly. He may have his hackles up.
A dog who is ready to instigate a fight is usually up and forward in his body language. He is up on his toes, leaning forward, and his tail is higher than normal. This dog is usually very still. He will also have a hard stare with infrequent blinks.
If you would like a good resource for learning more about canine body language, pick up a copy of Brenda Aloff’s book, “Canine Body Language.” It’s illustrated with photos of dogs and a description of what was going on when the photo was taken. It’s quite informative.
What to Do
I don’t allow any unleashed dogs to approach mine. Even friendly dogs can become angry and reactive. Plus, I have no idea if that dog is healthy. I keep all unknown dogs away from mine. Plain and simple.
If the dog approaching you has an owner trailing behind, ask the owner to come get his dog. Most will say, “Oh, he’s friendly,” but I never trust that. I assume an owner who is allowing his dog to approach a strange leashed dog is not a responsible owner, so I’m not going to trust him.
Never tell the owner of the loose dog that your dog is aggressive, doesn’t like other dogs, or is in any way a danger. That opens you up to liability should something happen. Instead, say your dog is in training, you don’t have time for socialization, or perhaps even say, “Call your dog. The veterinarian says my dog is contagious.”
If there is no owner at hand and the dog looks friendly, toss a big handful of your dog’s training treats on the ground and, while the dog is scarfing up the treats, just walk away. An overly excited dog can be startled if the handful of treats is tossed right at him. He may hesitate and then discover the treats while you make your escape.
A training client of mine who has had a knee replacement and walks her small Poodle mix every day uses an umbrella as a walking stick. When a dog approaches her small dog, she pops the umbrella open in the dog’s face and then keeps it there as the dog tries to get around it. She says this is quite effective, although she gets some strange looks on sunny days.
I’ve heard that some dog owners who use the umbrella trick paint large angry eyes on the umbrella so that when it pops open, big eyes are staring at the dog. Apparently this is effective too.
There are some spray products on the market that shoot a hard spray of compressed air (or compressed air with a strong smell) toward the dog. A trainer friend of mine recently used the compressed air to back off an aggressive off-leash Siberian Husky who wanted to interact with her Jack Russell Terrier, who was on leash. One shot of the air convinced the Husky he had business elsewhere.
Some dog owners use pepper spray to back off other dogs. While this can work, it can also backfire. With pepper spray, you MUST check what the wind is doing before you use it. The wind must be from behind you, otherwise it will come back into your face and your dog’s face. Also, I’ve not seen, but have heard that it can just make some aggressive dogs angrier.
No matter what you decide to use, being prepared is important. If you can have a couple of options available, that’s even better.
If the off-leash dog approaching you truly shows aggressive intent, try to get your dog out of trouble. Pick him up and place him on top of a nearby car. Toss him over a fence. Hold a small dog on your shoulders.
If you have a larger dog and can’t lift him, consider if it might be safer to drop your dog’s leash. Would he run home? Perhaps that would be the best choice. But don’t do that if he could potentially get hit by a car.
If a fight occurs, don’t scream. That tends to get an aggressive dog more worked up. Instead, maneuver yourself to get behind the instigator and then quickly lift his back legs as high as you can. Don’t drop his legs until all the fight is out of him. Then hook him up to a leash and muzzle him with the leash; wrapping it around his muzzle several times. Then call the police.
Walking your dog should be enjoyable for you and your dog. An off-leash dog can certainly ruin that for both of you and be potentially dangerous. Thinking about what to do and being prepared can alleviate some of the uncertainty.