People have asked me what I do when an off-leash dog charges my dog and I while we’re running. Runners have to be especially aware of dogs, since a lot of dogs chase anything that moves.
I run with my weimaraner every week, and I’ve ran with a large variety of dogs through my dog running business. These were dogs with various energy levels and very different reactions towards approaching dogs.
Still, my reaction to approaching off-leash dogs is always the same.
The following is my own “expert” advice as someone who runs with dogs every day and has to deal with approaching off-leash dogs fairly often.
Here is what I do when I see an off-leash dog approaching:
First of all, I do all I can to prevent confrontations. For example, I keep the dog I am running under control the best I can, typically in a formal heel position at my left side.
In addition, I am aware of my surroundings, always subconsciously scanning yards for approaching dogs or people. I am always listening for people or dogs coming up behind us, and I don’t run with headphones.
If I see a dog that might approach us, I slow to a walk or do a quick but relaxed “U-turn” or move to the other side of the street. If the other dog slowly follows us with a relaxed posture or barks but seems insecure, I just ignore the dog and slowly move away. I return to a run once we are about 10 yards away.
If the dog is already charging or if he charges even as we move away, that’s when I turn to face the dog, making sure to use my body to block my own dog. I look the approaching dog right in the eyes with a very confident, upright posture.
I point at him, take a step towards him and firmly say, “NO!” All of this has to happen within about two seconds, but it’s always enough to surprise the dog for a moment and instantly break the tension or excitement. It’s a mind game.
I don’t feel comfortable telling everyone to confront an approaching dog in this way. Most people wouldn’t know how to read the energy of an approaching dog. But I also know many of the people who read this blog are a lot like me and are totally capable.
What about tossing a handful of treats at the approaching dog?
You may be thinking it would be better to use a positive reinforcement technique. You may want to toss a handful of treats at the approaching dog to distract him. If that works for you, great. It doesn’t work for me.
First of all, I don’t bother to carry treats while I run. Second, if I were to fumble through my pocket to grab a handful of treats, I would lose control of the dog I am walking and the approaching dog would get to us before I had a chance to toss the treats. And finally, most approaching dogs are excited about seeing another dog. They don’t give a damn about pieces of jerky.
What about spraying the approaching dog with pepper spray?
I’m not opposed to running with pepper spray or using it on an approaching dog. I just choose not to bother. I’ve never been in any real danger. I have never been attacked by a dog while running.
If carrying pepper spray would make you feel more comfortable, do it. And don’t be afraid to use it, either. A nice spray to the face will teach the dog a thing or two about charging people! And if the owner gets upset, well, too bad. Maybe she shouldn’t have let her dog act like a maniac.
From my experience, though, simply moving away and avoiding confrontations is the best approach. Show that you are not a threat and that you are not interested. If the dog still doesn’t get the memo, then it usually works to turn and address him.
What about those truly annoying owners?
“Don’t worry! He’s friendly!”
Well, f— you. I’m trying to run here. Your lab might be “friendly,” but his tail is straight up and he’s staring right at my dog!
Of course, I don’t actually say that.
Sometimes both dogs truly are friendly and the easiest thing to do is just sigh, let them acknowledge each other, do the sniffing dance for a minute and move on.
What if my dog is aggressive?
Sometimes I am running a dog that is truly reactive to other dogs. Those of you who own leash-reactive dogs know very well how frustrating it is when other people allow their “friendly” dogs to charge your not-so friendly dog.
If the dog I am walking is even the slightest bit reactive to other dogs and some idiot allows his dog to charge us, I always make sure to yell out, “My dog is aggressive!”
Usually that takes the smile off the other owner’s face as he comes running over to collect his dog.
Sometimes your dog might go into a complete tizzy, spinning and snarling. It happens. The approaching dog may have caused the reaction, but your dog is now the one truly out of control. When this happens, the best thing to do is just get control of your own dog and completely ignore the other dog. Then move away as quickly and calmly as you can.
What if there is a dog fight?
What if the dog seriously begins to attack your dog? Fortunately I have never had this happen. If this did happen to me, I know I would make sure not to get my hands in the middle of it. But I would probably try to use my body to block the two dogs from each other. I would also most likely kick the attacking dog in the face, hard.
But one thing to remember is that most of the time dog confrontations sound a lot worse than they really are. It’s best not to freak out and add more fuel to the fire. It’s also best to keep the leash as loose as possible in order to decrease the tension. Often, it’s actually the owner who causes the dog fight by tightening the leash at the wrong time.
Even if there is a lot of snarling or lunging or yelping, chances are there won’t be actual bites. Even if there is a bite, don’t panic. If your dog is up to date on vaccinations, there is not much to worry about.
You may want to make note of where the off-leash dog lives or at least where you are and contact animal control. I keep the local police departments in my phone for that reason. If the dog appears to be lost or ownerless, you may also want to report it for the safety of others.
Details about how to keep your dog under control in “heel position”
No matter what dog I am running with, I generally keep the dog under control, at my left side in a formal heel position most of the time. I do this even if the dog’s owner normally allows him to run ahead, and even if he has basically no leash manners. (Note: It’s OK if you want your dog to be in front of you, but make sure you’re the one making that choice and that your dog is still under control.)
To keep any dog at my left side on a loose leash, I hold the leash close to his collar in my left hand, and I hold the slack in my right hand. The “loop” part of the leash is held with my right hand. I maintain just enough slack on my left side so the leash is not tight.
Some dogs have very good leash manners. Some wear head collars that prevent them from pulling. For the dogs that pull, all I do is keep their collars high on their necks, right under their chins and behind their ears. It doesn’t really matter if they are wearing a flat collar, a martingale, a choke or a prong.
It doesn’t matter if the dog has had no basic obedience training. If you keep the collar high on the neck you should be able to keep the dog under control. You will probably have to stop every few minutes to adjust the collar, though.
Whenever the dog sneaks ahead, I give a slight correction by pulling up. I pull up or to the side, not back. If you pull back, not only does it move the collar to the stronger, thicker part of the dog’s neck, but it causes the dog to resist the tension and pull harder.
Always stay relaxed and prevent tension in the leash. The leash should be so free of tension that you could literally hold the leash with two fingers in each hand and the dog wouldn’t break away. Ideally, you could drop the leash and the dog wouldn’t notice or go anywhere.
What to do if you’re charged when you don’t have a dog with you
This is a scary situation because the loose dog is going after YOU and not your dog!
You can use many of the ideas mentioned so far, but the most important tip is to stay calm and don’t show fear. Say NO firmly in a calm, yet assertive way while the dog is still approaching.
Also don’t scream, yell or make sudden, hectic movements. Stand still and tall, much like a tree. You can put your arms on your hips too, that’ll make you appear taller. If you carry a walking stick or golf club, you can use those as extensions of your arms as well to make yourself appear taller to the dog.
If you behave in this way, the charging dog will be more likely to calm down and loose interest than if you were to run away. That’s because dogs read body language and mirror our behavior. So if you were to run from the dog, you can be fairly certain that the dog would run after you.
Of course there is aways the exception to the rule. Like the dog who’s in a truly aggressive, red zone and ready to bite. In that case, you’ll have to use tools for self defense, such as:
- A loud whistle when you see the dog coming your way. It could still distract him enough to stop him in his tracks. You can carry one on a lanyard around your neck. That way you won’t have to fumble for it.
- Pepper spray. Much like the whistle on the lanyard, you need to have the pepper spray readily available, or it will be of no use to you. You could carry it in a fanny pack or clip it to your belt or clothing. Don’t hesitate to empty all of it into the dog’s eyes, especially if it’s a larger dog who can do real damage given his size.
- Gun. You will use your best judgement, but if you carry a gun and the dog is truly in a red zone, large, and out to take you down, shoot the dog.
When to report an aggressive or off-leash dog
It’s one thing to deal with an aggressive or off-leash dog. But once you have the situation under control, you may wonder whether or not to report the dog.
If the dog didn’t bite and was “just” annoying, there’s probably no need to report him to animal control. Try to take a picture of the dog if his owners are nowhere to be seen, but only once it’s safe to do so! You could always post it on social media or share it with the local police or vets.
However, if the dog bit you or your dog(s), it’s a good idea to report the incident to animal control. Once you do, they’ll come and get the dog if he’s still around, and they’ll also try to locate his owners. They’ll also check with them/the dog’s vet to see if he’s up to date on his shots, most importantly his rabies shot.
What happens next depends on your local rules and regulations. Some counties require the dog to be quarantined for 10-14 days if he bit someone, and some don’t. Depending on the severity of your injuries, you may even consider suing the owner.
Whatever you decide to do, take a moment to try and analyze what caused the dog to come charging your way in the first place. Dogs don’t just behave aggressively because they feel like it. They’re always triggered by something. It could be a behavior towards them, pain, or an object/person they’re scared of.
What tips do you have for dealing with an approaching off-leash dog?
Working with your own dog to achieve a reliable sit-stay no matter what can also go a long way!
Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training and behavior, healthy raw food for pets and running with dogs.