If you’ve never owned a dog or walked one, the approach of an off-leash dog may alarm and even frighten you. Many new dog owners fear dog fights, and imagine that when two dogs that don’t know each other meet, they are more likely to fight than not fight. Actually, most of these encounters end peacefully with no drama.
That said, a bit of preparation and practice can help both you and the dog walk with calm and confidence. Here are some basic tips:
Take a Basic Dog Training Class
Leashing up your dog and heading out for a stroll with no experience is one way to go, but first teaching your dog to sit, stay, wait, and walk beside you on a leash is a much better way. A dog needs to know you are in control and that you are calm and capable. The best way to make sure this happens is for you and your dog to learn and get comfortable with basic commands.
If your dog is large or from a breed known for aggression towards other dogs, a training class is not optional, it’s a must.
Your own safety, as well as that of your dog and other dogs depends on you learning basic dog commands and knowing you can respond appropriately. A walk with your dog should keep require your full attention on what is happening around you, including with your dog. Your dog’s attention should be on you, not on what’s going on around you.
In many communities, the American Kennel Club gives out “canine good citizen” certificates when you and your dog complete basic dog training. Taking classes together and working with your dog on good behavior can make all the difference when confronting an off-leash animal on a walk. Training will help you and your dog stay calm and respond well instead of just reacting.
“Wait and greet” is a basic dog command. If an off-leash dog approaches and its owner is with it, step off the path, give your dog the “wait” command, and ask the owner if your dog can say hello. Then let your dog approach and greet the off-leash dog.
Most often the dogs will sniff each other and move on. Watch for signs of fear: raised hackles (the fur on the back of the dog’s neck and between its shoulder blades) or crouching or growling. If everything looks good, relax and once the greeting is over keep on walking.
Although walking a dog off-leash is illegal in most places, if you like to mix up your dog walks you learn quickly that every nature trail and paved walkway has its own dog-walking culture and its own “regulars”. In some wild areas, people routinely walk their dogs off-leash regardless of the law. In other places you almost never see it.
Is walking a dog off-leash best thing to do? No, it isn’t. But overreacting to this situation won’t help you or your dog, and it won’t likely change the other person’s behavior. You can step off the trail, give your dog the sit and wait command, and tell the person with the dog that your dog is nervous and please don’t approach.
You can also choose to walk your dog in places where other dog owners are most likely to follow the rules and know basic commands. Many areas have dog parks with posted rules where you can walk without having to worry too much about off-leash dogs. Some charge annual fees and are especially designed for people and dogs who don’t want to have to deal with alarming situations like unwelcome off-leash approaches.
Even if you are approached by an off-leash dog that seems to be alone or lost, staying calm and knowing basic commands is vital to responding effectively. Your dog will pick up on your mood instantly, and if it picks up that you are panicked or afraid it will be more likely to lash out. This is also true of the off-leash dog.
Blocking Maneuvers, Evasive Actions, and Picking Up Your Small Dog
Many people who own small dogs simply pick up their animal whenever another dog, off-leash or on-leash, approaches. While it feels natural to do this, if your small dog is yipping and making high-pitched squeals, picking it up may trigger a prey-response in the other dog. An easy way to avoid triggering such a response is to step off the trail and partially turn your back until the other dog passes.
Another way to avoid contact is to step off the trail and walk briskly behind a stand of trees or a wall. Walk with confidence and ignore the other animal (while keep a good sense of where it is, of course), and then return to the trail when the likelihood of confrontation has passed. If the off-leash dog seems to be alone, call animal control and report the incident so they can remove the dog and maybe find its owner.
If it looks like you can’t evade the encounter and if your dog is too big to pick up, you can give your dog the command to sit and wait, then calmly step in front of it, facing the other dog. This tells the other dog to back off. If the other dog is alone, say to it in a loud, authoritative voice, “No,” or “Go Away.”
If that doesn’t work, you can throw a handful of treats at the dog, and move on quickly. Some people swear by a loud horn or noisemaker. You can also open an umbrella in front of you and your dog, which will often scare the other dog off and has the additional advantage of putting a barrier between you.
If all else fails, you can carry citronella spray to use on the off-leash dog. Keep this as a last resort however. It may only aggravate the dog, and isn’t likely to work at all once a dog fight starts. If the off-leash dog is with its owner, spraying citronella at it will almost certainly provoke a people fight.
Most dogs will back off and move on well before a fight starts and well before it has to be sprayed with anything, but trust your instincts. Sometimes all you can do is get out of there and get some kind of physical barrier between you, your dog, and the approaching animal.
If A Fight Starts
If you train your dog, walk in public spaces used by other responsible dog owners, and teach your dog to wait and greet on command, you may walk dogs for years and never see a dog fight. If you have seen a dog fight however, it’s reasonable to feel afraid. It doesn’t help to feel afraid, but it’s totally reasonable.
Dog fights are noisy and ugly.
On the positive side, dog fights are usually fairly short. Sometimes you can’t avoid the confrontation: a dog charges out of a house, hops a fence, or busts open and gate and there it is in front of you.
If an off-leash dog picks a fight with your dog, stay calm and don’t reach into the fight.
Again, never reach into a dog fight.
You can try the following few often-recommended maneuvers if appropriate or possible:
3 Maneuvers to Break Up a Dog Fight
- Make a lot of noise. Anything you can do to distract the dogs will help.
- Turn the hose on both of them if you can. (This is totally impractical if you are on a walk, obviously.)
- Throw a blanket or coat over the dogs.
You can also call 911 or animal control, depending on how bad it looks.
Will any of those maneuvers stop the fight? Probably not, but doing any or all of them will give you something constructive to do until the dogs knock it off. The problem is that once the dogs are in a fight mode, they are in another zone altogether and they no longer even know you are there.
If another person is present, you can usually stop a dog fight in the following way, and it usually does actually work:
Grab the hind legs of your dog and have the other person grab the hind legs of the other dog, then lift them off the ground and pull. The dogs will usually let go of one another. Get your dog out of there and to the vet if necessary.
The most likely scenario however is that the dogs will tussle briefly and noisily, with maximum drama and minimum injury.
Confidence Is Safety
You may think confidence isn’t much of a protection for you and your dog but actually it is. Dogs tune in to who is in charge and who isn’t almost instantly. You want to be the one in charge.
Confidence doesn’t mean bullying your dog or making a big show of how smart you are, it just means getting to know your own dog and dogs in general, and knowing that you can control most situations in a calm and assertive way. Then, if things go haywire, you will have the skills to respond quickly and effectively. Most of all, you will know that the chances of a negative experience happening are small, and you can relax and enjoy your best friend.