©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC
“What should I do if an off-leash dog approaches?” is a question that I’m asked more frequently since Antoinette Brown was killed by several loose dogs in Dallas, Texas in May of 2016. It’s understandable that most people want a straightforward and uncomplicated one-size-fits-all answer. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Every situation is unique when it comes to off-leash dogs. The reason? No two dogs are alike behaviorally. In most cases, when dogs approach off-leash they are just curious; they are primarily interested in your dog. Ignoring them and calmly walking the other direction is all that is typically needed.
"The movement of a small dog up and into your arms can trigger prey instincts in an approaching dog."
However, there are instances, although uncommon, where you and your dog may be in danger.
Below I’ve provided some tips on how to assess the situation and respond. These guidelines certainly do not represent all of the possible scenarios or strategies, but they may provide some options that might fit a situation you find yourself in.
✓ First, never “reach in” the middle of a dogfight if one occurs. Dogs in the middle of an altercation will often bite the hand (known as a redirected bite) that is reaching in – and it’s frequently a serious bite. If a human is being seriously attacked and there is no other quick way to separate the dog from the human, then you may have to resort to something like this.
✓ In the majority of cases, simply calmly walking your dog away from the approaching off-leash dog does the trick. Don’t engage the approaching dog in any way. This usually works with dogs that are placidly walking toward you. If the dog continues to approach after you turn away, the dog probably is interested in greeting your dog. Simply continue to calmly walk the other direction and the approaching dog will frequently lose interest.
✓ Many people with small dogs pick up their dog when an off-leash dog approaches. This can be effective, but I have one caveat. The movement of a small dog up and into your arms can trigger prey instincts in an approaching dog. If you’re going to pick up your dog, you might want to momentarily turn your back to the approaching dog to hide that movement.
✓ Carry a treat bag with you on walks and throw a handful of treats on the ground to distract an approaching dog to buy yourself time. This is one of my favorite techniques as it can eliminate much of the drama and trauma. This is not a good long-term strategy with off-leash dogs as it can actually teach them to approach you.
✓ In many instances dogs may show aggressive behaviors (e.g., barking, growling, etc.) because they are simply nervous about your presence. Sometimes turning the front of your body directly toward the dog in a low-key manner (called “blocking”) will stop the approach. If the dog is anxious about you, he doesn’t want you coming toward him and may back away from you. This provides a chance to continue moving away from the off-leash dog.
✓ Dog deterrent/repellent sprays such as Sabre Red Protector Dog Spray or PetSafe SprayShield Animal Deterrent Spray can be used on an aggressive off-leash dog. Using these sprays has some problems including: wind blowing the spray into you or your dog; approaching dog has to be close to be effective; local laws regarding the use of these sprays may limit their use; possible unnecessary injury to an approaching dog.
✓ Sometimes the only strategy is to put a physical barrier between you and the approaching dog. There are many ways to do this. Some of your options include: getting behind a fence and closing the gate; jumping on top of a car’s hood, trunk or roof; ringing the doorbell of a neighbor to quickly enter their house.
✓ I’ve witnessed more than one instance when an off-leash dog is being “walked” by its owner. I’m always amazed how many of these dog owners will just passively watch as their dog rudely, or even aggressively, approaches an on-leash dog and its owner. Sometimes they may yell, “He’s friendly!” First, off-leash dogs are illegal in virtually every urban and suburban area in the US. Second, these dog owners generally don’t understand dog behavior well enough to know if their dog will be “friendly”, or not, in a given situation. My advice is to proceed with the off-leash dog in this situation as if the owner wasn’t there. You’re primarily trying to protect your dog and it’s highly unlikely that the off-leash dog’s owner will be of much help.
✓ Lastly, report the off-leash incident to your municipal animal control services. If there are no consequences to owners when their dogs are off-leash, they have little motivation to stop this practice.
There are no simple answers to this all-too-common dilemma. If you have a reactive or aggressive dog, these situations can cause additional behavior issues for your dog in the long run – further frustrating responsible dog owners who always walk their dog on-leash.