Features May 2016 Issue

Tips on Stopping a Loose Dog from Approaching You

5 things to do if you encounter an off-leash or stray dog when walking your own dog on a leash.

[Updated October 12, 2017]

It’s the stuff of nightmares: You and your dog are enjoying a walk through the neighborhood when all of a sudden, you spot an unaccompanied canine rounding the corner and heading your way. It can turn into a bad scene even if you and your dog are both young, healthy, and your dog is confident and well socialized. But what if your or your dog is frail or fearful? What if you’ve spent months trying to rehabilitate a dog whose is extremely reactive to other dogs?

stop loose dogs from approaching your dog

Loose dog coming your way, and no owner in sight? Take the time – now! – to think about how you’d handle such a situation. It will help you remain calm if such a situation arises.

Being approached by loose dogs, especially when my dogs are on leash, is my least-favorite experience as a dog owner. When we’re walking in a public place, such as a beach or park, I can usually identify the owner and ask that he please wrangle his dog. Of course, this request may be met with varying responses, ranging from appropriately apologetic for their dog having invaded our space, to accusatory, suggesting I am the problem for not allowing my dogs to roam free and socialize. But as uncomfortable as it may be to deal with unpleasant dog owners, it can be even worse to deal with a loose dog whose owner is nowhere in sight!

While every situation is different, conducting an on-the-spot risk assessment and having a mental list of possible tactics can boost your confidence and help you make clear-headed decisions when every second counts.

Following are five non-assertive strategies that you can use to deal with loose dogs (or avoid them!) while on walks. As we all know, some situations call for more urgent actions. If a dog rushes at you or your dog, here are some alternative ways you can keep yourselves safe.

1. Avoid the Situation

As a dog trainer, I work to avoid avoidance in my canine students (since it’s a stress response), but I will happily work to avoid loose dog encounters. If I know there’s a certain house where the dogs are likely to be uncontained and free to rush toward, follow, or otherwise harass my dogs and myself, I pick another route for our walk.

Yes, it stinks that I have to change my behavior as a result of someone else’s inconsiderate habits, but my priority is the emotional and physical well-being of my dog and myself. At best, it’s unfair to ask my leashed dog to tolerate interaction with a loose dog – even a friendly one. At it’s worst, being ambushed by a loose dog can quickly spell disaster for dogs who are sensitive or reactive to dogs invading their personal space. And, of course, somewhere in the middle are the “we love everybody” dogs who would enthusiastically greet any dog, and whose enthusiasm quickly creates an excited frenzy that’s difficult for an owner to control. From a training perspective, the last thing we want to offer the overly social dog is the chance to go nose-to-nose with the loose dog – even when it’s a friendly dog – since that would be rewarding the over-excited behavior.

In general, leashes interfere with natural dog body language, especially when owners get nervous about the situation and without thinking or being aware of it, shorten (tighten) the leash. In this situation, the leashed dog is unable to use his natural language to effectively communicate with the approaching dog.

Dog body language is like a ballet of subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors that facilitate an exchange of valuable information. When held close to the owner on a shortened leash, a dog is unable to defuse an uncomfortable situation by changing positions relative to the intruding dog, or simply walking (or running) away.

Also, the sudden tightening of the leash easily becomes a red flag to your dog that you are uncomfortable, which can further stress both dogs. It is for this reason that trainers generally discourage on-leash greetings between dogs (even when both are willing participants in the interaction), or at least remind owners to maintain a loose leash during greetings where both parties have given consent.

If your immediate neighborhood offers limited options for re-routing a walk to avoid problematic areas, consider hopping in the car and driving to another neighborhood, or even to a local shopping center where it’s far less likely you’ll encounter other dogs. It may seem horribly inconvenient at first, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – especially with dogs for whom encounters with loose dogs are especially challenging. It’s much easier to prevent significant behavior problems than to modify them later.

Depending on the situation, you can always visit the house where the loose dog is often seen (without your dog), and kindly ask the owners to contain their dog. If the dog is frequently running loose and you know where he lives, consider timing your visit for when you will likely encounter the dog, leash him up if possible, and knock on the owner’s front door. With this approach, it’s wise to point out how the loose dog is at risk for getting hit by a car or lost when he’s not properly contained, and you’d hate to see anything happen to him.

Although you’re likely to be annoyed, and the dog owners are in the wrong, as the saying goes, “kill them with kindness.” Find something to compliment about the dog, even if you’ve generally only see his less-than-desirable side. Something as simple as, “His coat is such a nice color,” or “I love his eyes” can often go a long way toward defusing the potential for confrontation and help maintain peaceful relations with neighbors.

Consider explaining that your dog is afraid of other dogs and it’s scary for her to have dogs run into her space, or that he’s “old and cranky” and you don’t want their (loose) dog to get snarked at by your dog. Yes, this approach can be a test of your emotional self-control since, if you’re like me, you’re likely to be supremely annoyed by the loose dog owners’ mind-blowing sense of entitlement. But remember the end goal is to encourage owners to contain their dogs, not to prove you are “right.”

If this fails, or past experience tells you it’s not a safe approach, there’s always the option of reporting a loose dog to animal control, or, if the dog can be safely handled, collecting the dog when he’s loose and unsupervised, and taking him to the local shelter. Some owners must experience some positive punishment before they are willing to change their behavior. (Note: In this case, “positive” is an operant conditioning term denoting the addition of something. In the case of “positive punishment,” what is added is unpleasant – having to visit the shelter to retrieve the dog, possibly pay a fine, etc.)

2. Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

The earlier you spot a loose dog, the easier it is to adjust your walk on the fly or prepare to manage a potentially sticky situation. I’m always shocked to see neighborhood dog owners walking dogs with leashes draped over their wrists and a coffee cup in hand, as they stare intently at their cell phones. All I can imagine is a loose dog rounding the corner, causing all heck to break loose in a very avoidable situation.

When you’re out with your dog, pay attention – especially if you know your dog doesn’t take kindly to interactions with unknown dogs, or if you worry about known loose dogs in the area.

nervous dog

This pup’s handler needs to notice that she’s spooked by an oncoming dog and put some slack in the leash, ideally within a second or two. The next best move for the handler would be to turn toward the loose dog and use his body to block the dog’s access to his puppy. When the encounter is over, giving the pup a treat will take the edge off of the frightening experience.

If you do spot a loose dog, quickly changing direction is often an effective strategy, as many loose dogs are patrolling their perceived territory and aren’t likely to follow you all the way home. Stay calm as you instruct your dog to turn around with you, and remember to not choke up on the leash, as a tight leash is a glaring red flag to your own dog.

I typically walk with a favorite toy and/or treats and readily use one of these tools to capture my dog’s attention as I escort us out of the area. In that situation, I’d rather my dog not even notice the other dog, or if he does notice, I’d rather he not pay prolonged attention to the dog, since the more attention my dog pays to the loose dog, the more attractive we are likely to become.

The success of this U-turn approach depends largely on how readily your dog complies with your instructions. That’s a training issue. Never underestimate the importance of training.

In general, it might not seem like a big deal if your dog’s focus defaults to the environment and you find it hard to get his attention while on a walk, or if his loose leash walking is mostly acceptable, except when he sees other dogs, he gets super excited and starts pulling toward the dog. But when you find yourself in a sticky situation, not being able to get – and keep – your dog’s attention in the face of distractions can create unnecessary challenges.

3. Remain Calm and Try “Calming Signals.”

If you aren’t able to avoid an unwanted interaction with a loose dog, do your best to remain calm and use calm body language as a way to tell both dogs – yours and the intruder – that everything is fine, there’s no need for conflict.

Calming signals is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas to describe a collection of behaviors dogs often exhibit when faced with stressful stimuli, including looking away to avoid eye contact, yawning, lip-licking, and sniffing the ground. Rugaas has postulated that these behaviors are used by dogs to communicate peaceful intentions and avoid potential conflict. Other behaviorists speculate that those behaviors are meant, in varying shades, to signal deference or avoidance – but the overall intent is to keep the dog who offers these behaviors safe and whole, not to “calm” the other.

We don’t know for certain what these signals mean, but most dogs understand them, so even humans can use them to help defuse a tense situation. The other dog won’t suddenly think you’re a dog just because you’re “speaking his language,” but the ability to communicate in a way he’s likely to understand can de-escalate an encounter that might otherwise turn into a confrontation, and can also help your own dog feel more relaxed during a challenging situation.

4. Body Block

My main goal when we encounter a loose dog on a walk, aside from ensuring our safety, is to prevent the loose dog from making contact with my dog. To help accomplish this, I will purposefully position myself between my dog and the incoming dog, asking my dog to sit and jockeying position as necessary to keep the approaching dog at bay.

Depending on my interpretation of the incoming dog’s intent, I might posture a bit, weight forward as I sternly tell the dog to “Go home!” or “Get back!” Sometimes asking a loose dog to “sit” in a firm voice helps stop the dog’s forward motion. From there, you can toss a handful of treats behind the dog and as he turns to eat them, you now have valuable time to move away.

In the face of a loose dog coming at you and your dog, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD, suggests taking the tossing of a handful of treats one step further; she actually suggests throwing a handful of treats into the charging dog’s face. She admits it would not stop a “highly motivated, hard-charging dog who is laser focused on attacking you or your dog,” but she made a video and posted it on her blog to show that it can work. See tinyurl.com/grrftsf.

5. Other Alternatives

When it comes to managing encounters with loose dogs, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Following are some additional tactics to consider:

pepper spray for dogs

Deterrent Spray

We don’t recommend traditional mace or pepper spray, including those sold as animal deterrents, such as Halt! Dog Repellent (hot pepper-based), due to the potential risk of blow-back into your eyes or your dog’s eyes. (Even the faintest waft of mace or pepper spray can be extraordinarily painful.)

However, a citronella-based deterrent spray such as Spray Shield (formerly sold under the name “Direct Stop”) can help stop the unwanted advance of a dog, or, in extreme cases, can be used to help break up a dog fight, and is far less caustic in nature.

Air Horn

The sudden, loud blast of an air horn can often frighten a loose dog and cause him to turn-tail and head home. Pocket-sized air horns can be found in sporting good and marine stores. The downside to an air horn is that the noise can scare your own dog, too. If this is a tactic you’d consider using, it’s wise to desensitize your dog to the noise first.

Walking Stick

Many people carry a walking stick, golf club or other similar object that can be brandished as a weapon when faced with an unwanted approaching dog. The goal here, is to intimidate the dog in an effort to stop his approach, not to cause bodily harm. The crisp “crack!” of a stick slapping the ground, or the audible “whirl!” of a club slicing through the air will often deter an approaching dog without ever needing to make physical contact. Some people also report success using the sudden burst of an opened, push-button umbrella. With any of these tactics, be mindful of the potential for scaring your own dogs.

Head up a Walkway/Driveway

Heading toward a neighbor’s front door or up the driveway as though you live there often gives loose dogs second thoughts, as they can be leery of more confined spaces and of being captured.

Unconventional Exit Strategies

Depending on the size of your dog, objects in the environment can provide unique protection against approaching dogs. A client once told me her husband quickly jumped into the back of a parked pickup truck with their small terrier to avoid an aggressively approaching dog. The quick-thinking client of a fellow trainer once put her little dog in a trashcan to keep him safe as she dealt with the problematic loose dog. Lucky for them, it was trash day and the cans were out on the curb!

Whatever approach you choose, do your best to remain calm so as not to escalate the situation with your own panicked behavior. After any altercation with a loose dog, carefully assess your dog for injuries and consider taking him to the veterinarian, as bite wounds can be difficult to spot under thick fur. Write down as much as you can remember about the incident, such as location and a description of the dog, and contact your local animal control agency.

Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Los Angeles.

Comments (10)

I sooo agree with Chinatouche. I had been taking care of an elderly, diabetic bischon that had belonged to a deceased family member. I loved her like my own child. But I lived in mortal terror of two pit bulls next door that could dig under their fence like escape artists breaking out of jail. They wanted to tear this poor little old dog to shreds...she was mostly blind and kinda deaf too. Horrible monsters. Their owner was an idiot who never trained them and they bit her dozens of times. Animal Control was called bc they bit other people too...but nothing was ever done. I was scared all the time that something would happen.
She passed away and I've wanted to get another dog but the neighbor behind me has a pitbul too and this I one is now learning how to escape and come stand by my fence and bark/growl. The neighbor kid with the 2 pitties tries to shoo this one back to its yard but it's scary even to him. The idiot owner is a teen girl, irresponsible and with idiot parents who do nothing to train or contain this beast. I'm getting an air horn and I'm gonna blast it in the face if it gets loose again...it tall enough it could easily jump my chain link fence and come after me if I'm in the yard, so I'm going to be prepared. I'm prepared to kill it too if I have to bc there's zero 'dog' qualities about it. It's aggressive and nasty and is going to bite someone or do worse...there's children and elderly walking here too. If I see this dog loose and being aggressive I've got no problem taking it out. I also love animals, especially dogs...I donate time and money to charities for animals and I'm not a bad person. I am, however, tired of living in fear and not being able to get another dog bc other people are so stupid they can't properly train and contain their pets--which of course have to be the snarling beast kind...and being bitten by a pitbull is a lot worse than by a Maltese. I just wanted to say kudos to Chinatouche for not letting irresponsible people and dog monsters keep her from protecting her own fur babies. I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Marissawalkslots | June 14, 2018 10:55 PM    Report this comment

I have two German shepherds, the male is extremely dominant with other dogs. In my country, meeting loose dogs is unfortunately quite common (dog-culture is rather underdeveloped here). To avoid problems, the moment I spot a loose dog, I give the down command. Quite often, it is enough for the other dog to miss us altogether, as it cannot spot my dogs lying on the ground, not moving a limb. When I notice the other dog too late, the down command comes quite handy again, as two large dogs lying down instead of doing basically anything else in such a situation is a canine communication outrage (: It cannot be interpreted by the loose dog, who often stops mid-run and then walks away bewildered, or even when it comes up to us, it takes a quick sniff and leaves. With aggressive dogs, the trick works because my male dog cannot display his dominance symbols and appears smaller than the opponent. True, he will growl and give glances that could kill a smaller army (: but he won't stand up, won't show the proud tail, won't place his muzzle on the shoulder of the other etc. The aggressive dog may circle around for a while, growl, bark, etc. but without any reactions, it eventually gets bored and leaves. (I lose 15 kilos in the process and grow grey but who cares). Or the loose dog's owner appears and I send him/her to seven bloody hells for being such a prick (:

Posted by: tre | March 1, 2018 6:08 AM    Report this comment

After having my wonderful gentle German Shepherd attacked and seriously injured ( while walking- my dog was leashed ) I don't give a _ _ _ _ about carrying " dog approved" deterrent sprays etc! I am a 64 year old woman and I am going to assume that if a dog is rushing towards my dogs and I exhibiting aggressive behavior ( and one doesnt have to be a " dog behaviorist " to know an animal is. bent on attack) I'm going to pepper spray them ( there is PEPPER SPRAY GEL THAT DOESN'T BLOW BACK) and if it doesn't run, take out my k- bar military knife and stab it ' til it's not moving ! I give 1200.00 a year to dog charities, adopt from " the pound" and rescue organizations SO...I'd hate to do this. BUT...I WILL NOT allow my dogs ( 2 rescued 1 yr. old female Belgian Malinoise puppies) or myself to be hurt !

Posted by: Chinatouche | December 12, 2017 4:22 AM    Report this comment

I have a small Maltese who was rescued, I fostered and adopted him. A dog had bitten the right side of his little face and he almost lost his eye. Needless to say he is frightened of other dogs but gradually with a loose lease technique and living in a 55 over park with other small dogs he has actually made friends with a few of them. However, down the street leading to our park is a woman who got a puppy and was so mean to him that one day I stopped her on the street and suggested instead of yelling at the dog and hitting him she should check the local Humane Society and go to their free training classes. She told me to "fxxx" off. That dog knocked a woman off a bicycle and attacked her and this crazy owner stood back and laughed. It attacks even when on a leash and she just lets it. I no longer go where she goes, avoid her and do everything I can to avoid an altercation but she has taken to watching me and my little dog and speeding up or holding back and I know she wants to put us in a situation where she can use her dog to get some crazy kind of kicks. So...no more pepper spray - no pet spray. I carry a can of Raid and SHE is going to get it - not her dog who is as much a victim as other people and dogs are. If I had been that lady she let her dog attack, she would have been sitting in jail and looking at a law suit. Some people are mean like that girl with a pit bull and they shouldn't have dogs.

Posted by: Casper'sMom | December 11, 2017 8:00 PM    Report this comment

I live in a neighbourhood with a lot of small dogs. Occasionally, one will be out and as I'm walking my 83 pound Lab, rush at him. Fortunately, he's incredibly into small dogs. He simply stands there and lets them jump all over them, all the while wondering why the heck they yap so much. Occasionally, we'll encounter a loose dog. Fortunely, they're all friendly and just want to say hello to us both. He doesn't afore the attention they want to give me, but he's totally OK with them. He doesn't get overly excited for anything (except food), so I'm very lucky there (usually, it's the OTHER dog who's overly excited. Mine just stands there with a look on his face that says very clearly, ' Settle down!')

We have some Pit Bull owners in our neighbourhood. They're ALL incredibly responsible owners.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | December 9, 2017 1:49 PM    Report this comment

I walk 3 male pit bulls at the same time. I hate the loose dog encounter. It happens often because so many dog owners are irresponsible. My dogs are well behaved and walk well on leash, but once in awhile a little yappy dog approaches and my dogs are not amused. I usually just change directions which works well. Many times owners of small dogs use retractable leashes and refuse to pull their dog in close. I am especially careful because if there is contact between dogs and my dogs do nothing I will be blamed because I have the pit bulls. The first comment said she now hates pit bulls. You should really take issue with the awful owner not the dog. I had a situation a few years ago when I had only one pit bull and a small dog came after us an tried to bite my dog so I got between the two dogs. My pit bull was terrified of this little growling terrier. The owner stood there and watched everything and refused to pick up her dog. I adopted my first dog five years ago and it was a rude awakening when we went out on walks. I had not idea that there were so many irresponsible dog owners.

Posted by: mommypuss | December 9, 2017 1:06 PM    Report this comment

I was walking my gentle mini labradoodle (this little girl helped me recover from the “widow maker” heart attack. We were walking by a neighborhood park and on the other side I saw two pitbulls on a leash. One of them plainly had never been trained and was dragging the young lady across the park. I immediately turned and started walking out of the Park. All of a sudden I heard her yell “pick up your dog”. The dog came at us so fast I couldn’t get to her. Besides, I am 76 with RA and knew if I picked her up (20 lbs. of dog) and he hit me we would both be down. I kept the leash loose and tried to keep myslef between the dogs. My dog immediately went into submissive mode and was backing away with her head to the ground. The other dog was growling and snapping at her and she was crying like she was being murdered, she was really frightened (as was I). The girl go over to us When it was almost over. I said to her “you really need to learn to control your dog.” She said “you just have a whimpy dog”. At that point I lost my temper and said, you stupid girl, you need to learn how to control your dog. A young man in the house by the park came out because he heard the noise from both dogs. I started to leave and cross the street and she threatened to turn her pit bull on me and have him bite me. At that point the young man said that he heard her threaten me and was going to call the police. At that point she turned and left. I regret now that I didn’t let him call because who knows who will really be hurt by this dog. It was a young male Pitt and I think if my dog hadn’t been a female, we both would have been hurt. It has been hard for me to get out and walk her, even though I purchased a stun wand. I really hate Pitbulls after this.

Posted by: Spmm | December 9, 2017 12:42 PM    Report this comment

I carry an umbrella with me when I walk my dogs. Its a compact umbrella that fits in my jacket pocket. The motion and sound of the umbrella usually deters a dog from getting close. It also can be used as a shield between you and the approaching dog. I had to test the theory once with a neighbors dog. He is a lab mix who is not friendly. He backed off from charging my lab. I kept it opened in front of me and my dog while I yelled sternly No go home at the lab mix. I faked advancing in his direction a couple times and he finally ran off.

Posted by: K9crazee | December 9, 2017 11:50 AM    Report this comment

This is just the article I needed to read. Prior to a month ago I was completely unaware how vicious domestic dogs can be. In the span of two weeks my dog friend and I encountered two potentially dangerous situations. One a dog was on a leash, but the owner had let the leash drag on the ground. When I saw the dog I immediately leashed my dog and he did the same. The dog growled and showed it's teeth, biting into the air very close to my dog when we walked by - my dog is small to medium sized, a terrier mix. Then a dog in the neighborhood got loose and went straight towards my dog, charging, barking, biting at him. And I think my dog did what the author of this article detailed - he gently kissed the dog and the dog immediately turned and ran away. I thought for a moment this dog was just checking him out to see if he was friendly or not, and he was friendly, job done and away he went. I tried to push him away, yelling and kicking, (now I know better), and the owner tried to call the dog off, but I think that is what did it.
I bought canine approved spray and carry it with me. I like the idea of an air-horn and stick, in the moment you just pray for anything, so the more prepared the better. Thanks for the information.

Posted by: DianaW | July 14, 2016 8:35 PM    Report this comment

These are all good suggestions that may work well when walking one dog; however, for those of us who have multiple dogs, this issue of loose dogs truly becomes problematic. I walk 3 Pomeranians and yes, when feasible, I will walk them separately, but time-wise, that is not always possible (in addition to dealing with the separation anxiety of the others when I leave with only one). In Jan of this year, I was walking all 3 on leash and was picking up poo from my senior when out of the blue, 2 huge unleashed pit bulls came charging at and viciously attacked 2 of my poms. I still have nightmares about it. Ever since then, I go no where with my dogs unless I am carrying mace and a pocket knife. When aggressive dogs are off leash and they are acting on their "predator" instinct to attack a smaller dog which they see as "prey", there is no amount of avoidance behavior that will prevent an attack. The one dog was so strong, he knocked me over as well. At that point, it becomes a matter of doing whatever is necessary to protect yourself and your dogs.

Posted by: Prachil | April 27, 2016 12:23 PM    Report this comment

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