A casual stroll with your dog can quickly de-rail if you are approached by an unleashed, or unsupervised dog. It's impossible to know that dogs intentions, or how your dog is going to react, so it's important to learn what to do if an off-leash dog approaches you while you are walking your dog.
Walking your dog on a leash is meant to keep them safe and comfortable, so it's up to your learn how to take control of your surroundings and how to handle unexpected situations.
Being approached by an off-leash dog isn’t always a negative interaction, but you know your dog and their training well enough to decide if you want your dog interacting with the approaching dog.
Choose the Right Environment to Walk Your Dog
The first thing to note is that leash laws are in place for a reason and should be followed to keep yours and other dogs safe.
If you want to take your dog out off-leash, please use the designated off-leash areas in your city. Off-leash parks are a great way to socialize with other dogs and the people that also choose to come to that park. Just because a dog is generally well-behaved off leash, doesn’t mean that every on-leash dog they meet will be receptive to this interaction.
Always choose the environment that is right for your dog’s personality and training. If your dog is leash reactive, easily spooked, or shows aggressive tendencies towards other dogs, then you should avoid areas with off-leash dogs and high traffic.
If you take your dog to an off-leash park, be open to your dog meeting other animals. If your dog is not dog-friendly, then this is not the place for them.
It’s your responsibility to leave an area that your dog isn’t comfortable or safe in, even if other pet owners are breaking the law. Preventing an attack is always better than trying to break one up.
Reading Body Language
Before we get into tips for handling unwanted interactions, it’s important to recognize the body of the approaching dog. How they approach your dog will help you decide the most appropriate way to react in the moment.
Teaching Good Walking Behaviours
Regardless of the behaviours of the approaching dog, teaching your dog good walking behaviours will be invaluable if you need to provide quick direction to your dog. You may need to make snap decisions and a well-trained dog will be able to follow your lead.
If a situation looks like it might turns negative, the first action should be to try and place your dog behind you and guide your dog away from a dangerous situation. Never get in the middle of your dog and the other if either is attacking. You might get bit!
Tips for Handling an Approaching Dog
As soon as you notice an approaching dog, you should try to identify some of the new dog's body language. This will help you decide the best course of action.
1. Watch Your Dog
Pay close attention to your dog's cues and body language. Your dog will likely notice a strange dog before you do. If your dog shows any changes in body language, you should immediately take action.
Signs of fear or aggression from your dog will indicate that you should redirect your dog's attention and walk away. Cues of excitement and aggression can sometimes look similar, so if your dog has a history of being leash reactive, then play it safe and avoid the confrontation.
2. Keep Calm and Walk On
Your dog will react to your anxiety and body language. Keeping yourself calm in this situation will help your dog stay calm as well. Any movements or vocal commands should be done slowly, calmly, and in a gentle tone, at least to start.
Don't run. Running can provoke the approaching dog to charge and will increase the anxiety of the situation for all parties involved. Walk away casually, as to not startle your dog or the approaching animal. This is typically effective for territorial behaviours.
It's not always ideal to turn your back on the approaching dog, especially if they are showing aggressive body language. Try to walk away at a 90 degree angle, keeping the other dog in your peripheral vision, but still guiding your dog away.
3. Try to Vocally Direct the Dog
As the dog gets closer, try to use some general vocal commands to get the other dog’s attention to redirect them. Sit, stay, or go said in a low stern tone could get the dog to stop long enough for you and your dog to get away or for their owner to catch up and intervene.
Avoid yelling or showing signs of aggression, as this could provoke a fear reaction from both dogs. Ask the commands authoritatively. This is likely to work for a friendly or unsure dog, but an aggressive or territorial dog may or may not respond to your commands, depending on their training.
4. Distract with Treats
It’s always a good idea to carry high-value treats, like Grandma Lucy's Freeze-Dried Liver Treats. You can direct your own dog with them, but you can also throw some towards an approaching dog. This could give you enough time to leave the area and avoid a confrontation. Make sure that you throw them far enough away that your dog won’t be tempted to go for the treats too.
This is very likely to work with a friendly dog, as they will be easily distracted. Even an aggressive dog may fall for this ruse. You may need to throw multiple treats to keep them occupied, and can even try throwing some behind them to get them to back up or turn around.
Check out this video to see this technique in action: How to Stop a Dog in an Emergency.
5. Find a Physical Barrier
If the previous tricks are ineffective, then you may need to put a physical barrier between the approaching dog, and you and your dog. A fence, a car, or anything that you may be carrying could protect both of you.
A simple trick is to carry an umbrella. Opening the umbrella and using it as a blockade could deter the other dog from continuing their approach. It might even scare them off.
For small dog owners, it’s instinctual to pick up your dog to protect them but don’t. Picking your dog up could trigger the approaching dog to jump up and possibly attack. While in your arms, your dog will not be able to defend themselves or run away. Only pick up your dog if you are able to place them somewhere that it out of reach for the other dog, like on top of a car, over a fence, or if you are able to get indoors.
6. Communicate with the Owner
Hopefully, the owner of the dog is nearby. If you don’t want their dog to approach yours, regardless of the other dog's intentions, call out to the owner. Typically they will identify themselves, often letting you know their dog is friendly.
Ask them to call their dog away, let them know you are training, or that you don’t want your dog to interact with theirs. If they don’t react or take your request seriously, then you can try telling them that your dog is contagious, even though they’re not. Most pet owners will respond pretty quickly for this.
It may sound silly to fib about this, but if you know that your dog will be frightened or aggressive towards the approaching dog, then it may be necessary to do whatever you have to do to get the owner of the approaching dog’s attention.
If the dog’s owner isn’t near enough, ask anyone around you to help. Anyone could step in to try to distract the dog, or even take your dog and leave the area while you distract the approaching dog.
7. Protect Yourself and Your Dog
As a last resort, if the approaching dog is aggressive and decides to attack, you might have to get physical to defend your dog and yourself. A quick push kick to the approaching dog's chest could disorient them long enough to allow you to get away with your dog, or for the dog’s owner to step-in.
Should the other dog engage yours, don’t try to pull them apart by getting in the middle. You will likely get bit, and it could be severe. Instead, get behind the attacking dog, grab their back legs, and pull up and away.
If they are latched on to your dog, you may have to kick them in the softest parts of their underbelly until they let go. In a serious situation, you may need to inflict injury to save your pet and you shouldn’t feel bad for doing whatever you have to do to protect yourself and your dog.
Stay in Control
You have every right to walk your dog without the fear of a strange dog attacking or scaring your pet. It’s unfortunate that not every pet owner follows the rules that are in place to keep everyone safe, but it’s up to you to make the right judgement call.
In any situation, know your surroundings and learn how to control your dog regardless of the distractions around them. Always be prepared to deal with other pets and people, and bring the right tools to keep your dog safe.