Well, …it happened.

I was walking my dog on the trails behind my house yesterday…

You know, the trails where leash laws are in full effect…

Where there are periodic signs that say all dogs must be kept on leashes?

Yeah…those trails.

And I encountered not one…but three off-leash dogs on my 6-mile hike.

I had my dog Shank with me…

And let’s just say he didn’t get his name for nothin’…he’s not the kindest dog in the universe.

But Shank has some solid training under his belt.

And he operates under the basic rule that he can’t throw the first punch…

Which means he won’t react unless someone is mean to him first…

Then, he’ll stand up for himself.

And that’s exactly how I like it.

But all that is beside the point.

Here’s the real story here…

If you walk or hike with your dog like I do, I’ve got a little tough love for you…

At some point, you are going to run into an off-leash dog.

I know, I know….

Leash laws…

And respect….

And the whole nine…

All of the reasons dogs SHOULD be leashed.

But the hard truth is, at some point, they won’t be.

Listen, I used to be the dog owner that walked my reactive dog daily…

I was totally unprepared for the inevitable off-leash dog sighting…

And that lack of preparation and knowledge left me insecure, and constantly scouring the trails for any evidence that a dog was near…

I became more reactive than my reactive dog…

And that didn’t do us any favors in the training department.

These days, I train for the worst case scenario…

Even if it never pops up.

So yesterday, when we encountered not one, but three off-leash dogs on our walk…

I stayed calm and handled the situation.

Here are the things I teach dog owners so that they can be prepared to deal with off-leash dogs (before you read this, know that any encounter with an off-leash dog is risky business. So take caution and enter at your own risk).

No. 1: 99.9% of dogs when loose do not want to kill you or your dog  

I know we all have that image in our heads from the news, where some dog attack story was sensationalized, and we see a dog running down a street after an innocent dog owner, and completely mauling their dog.

Thing is, a vast majority of dogs aren’t aggressive in that sense…

And even if they act tough, most dogs are all talk.

(No, this is not an invitation for you to challenge any dog that threatens you. It simply means that while dogs might bite if provoked, they don’t really wake up wanting to hurt someone).

In my years rehabilitating dogs with severe aggression and reactivity, I can honestly tell you that, outside of the working dog world, I’ve only encountered 3 what I would call truly aggressive dogs. The other over 900, while they would bite if provoked, were either insecure, overstimulated or misunderstood. 

What does that mean for you?

It means you are probably pretty safe in a dog encounter if you just get smart.

No 2: Dogs don’t like spatial pressure

Body language is a big deal in dog communication. In fact, dogs will cue to our body language and presence above everything else.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you spot an off-leash dog, moving IN towards them will help to drive them out of your space. Don’t be sweet. Be strong. Be offended, and be big. Tell them to go home, and use a firm voice when you do it.

Communicate with your presence that you are in control and unafraid. You’ll be surprised at the results.

No 3: Never turn your back on them

One of the first things I learned, when I began studying dog aggression, is that you never turn your back on a dog that is approaching. Remember what I said about spatial pressure? Dogs don’t like it.

So if there is any concern that the off-leash dog is aggressive, turning your back is a welcome mat for them to approach.

The basic rule of thumb in body language and communication is that putting your back to a dog tells them to come to you while facing forward tells them to respect your space. This means that if an off-leash dog is close, putting your back to them invites them in. If they are fearful or aggressive, putting your back to them gives them a non-confrontational way to communicate their displeasure with your presence (aka nip or bite).

So if they circle you, circle with them.

Always face them (and move into them), and never retreat, run or shriek as this is a clear invitation for them to pursue.

No. 4: Use your environment

When I saw those off-leash dogs, I grabbed a stick that was laying on the ground close by.

I used the stick to make myself look bigger as I stepped in towards the dog and told them firmly to go home.

I didn’t hit the dog with the stick, but I would have if push came to shove (I don’t want to do things like this EVER but if it’s a matter of safety, my job is to protect myself and my dog above all else – and that’s a responsibility I take seriously).

If you don’t have sticks or other objects available to you, you can use your leash instead. Take the end of your leash and swing it like a helicopter in front of you to create a wall as you step in towards the dog. This is typically a surefire way to drive an approaching dog out of your space.

No. 5: Don’t **** up your training

The tough love police are back…

If you haven’t put in the time to work with your dog (no judgment, I promise) and the only time you’ve practiced commands or behaviors is in your backyard…

And getting your dog to do things out and about is still a work in progress…

Do not…I repeat do NOT cross your fingers and give your dog a command, hoping they will comply.

Your dog isn’t going to listen.

And you run the risk of tying some seriously negative feelings to your cues. Instead, if your obedience is anything other than bombproof, manage your dog through the encounter. Hold your leash close to your dog’s collar and position your dog behind you as you face and ward off the oncoming dog.

No 6: Remain calm

I know, I know. Easier said than done. But the more in control you feel, the easier this entire process will be on your dog.

Listen, for all intents and purposes, your dog is trapped. They are tethered to you and you’re in control. Your dog needs to know you can handle that responsibility.

Imagine walking down the street and encountering a mugger, and being tethered to someone who cries, cowers and wets themselves. How would that make you feel?

Even if you are feeling afraid, your dog needs to feel confident that you’re in control, and the off-leash dogs need to know you mean business. The saying “fake it till ya make it” didn’t come around for nothin’…

Yesterday, as Shank and I approached the off-leash dogs, I wasn’t nervous.

The first was a puppy hiking with her owners…

I stopped, sat my dog behind me, and waited for them to corral her. No harm, no foul.

But the second two were loose with no owners in sight. One was a Jack Russell and one was a pit bull or mix.

Rather than letting fear take the wheel, I instead grabbed a stick that was laying next to me and began moving towards them…

I shouted “Go Home!” as I swung the stick and stepped closer…

The pit bull instantly ran away…

The Jack Russell circled and tried to get closer to my dog to investigate….

I kept my dog behind me and circled with him, making sure I was always facing the off-leash dog…always stepping into him…always swinging the stick…always telling him to go home…

One or two circles max before he got the hint and ran off…

And we went about our hike as if nothing happened….

Truth is, this happens to us weekly…so we are well practiced.

But more importantly, we have NEVER (knock on wood) encountered a dog that didn’t instantly retreat when push came to shove.

So if you are going to walk your dog, don’t stick your head in the sand.

Instead, get yourself prepared.

And practice your handling at home if you feel like it will help.

Because when it comes to off-leash dogs, a little preparedness goes a long way.

Note: I do not recommend the use of any sort of spray citronella, air horns, or pet correctors as they not only affect the oncoming dog but can give your own dog a negative experience as well creating fear, insecurity or even reactivity around other dogs. It’s okay to travel with such tools but try hard not to rely on them, and to reserve them for dire emergency situations only.

If you’ve got a dog that suffers from dog to dog reactivity, and you need help managing them on walks or hikes, check out our upcoming 30-day boot camp beginning January 15th and get the help and support you need to turn your reactive dog around.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    12 replies to "Getting Prepared: Simple tips to handling off leash dog encounters"

    • Mary Kindt

      Thank you for this article!! I live in a small town and loose dogs are common, unfortunate occurrence. I always keep my dogs online and under control and what to do when encountering these loose animals is an ongoing concern for us.

    • Tina

      My problem is that my dog goes off barking and lunging at on leash or off leash dogs.. I can’t get her behind me or do much of anything about the incoming dog as I am trying to handle her.

    • Grateful DogMa

      Thank you for this! I just had this happen a couple of days ago and although I implemented the strategy of being assertive and moving between my dog and the other dog, I could have used all your other advice!

      I also realized that I have to develop a word to use with these loose dogs that isn’t part of my communication with my dog. i.e. I used “no” and “go home” with the loose dog. And my dog is trained to “go home” when he is loose around our property. So it must have been confusing for him. So I think I’m going to try to train myself to say “Scram” – which I would not use with my own dog.

    • Jennifer

      Awesome 👏

    • Marcelo

      Great article.couple years ago walking my dog I have an encounter with off leash pit bull and didn’t work for me,I hear some one yelling and when I turn around the dog was flying straight at us , hi didn’t hesitate for a second went straight for my dog ,was pretty ugly I still feel bad that I couldn’t do anything to stop it,lucky nothing major happen and I managed to break the fight my dog hold his ground they say airedales don’t usually start a fight but they can finished; well lucky too that the situation didn’t create any issues on my dog confidence I have seen dog turn reactive after situations like that

    • Jackie

      Thanks for the information. I was running some years ago and had two dogs circling me. One bit me in the calf. Wish I had known then what I know now. I live in a very rural community and walk my dog twice a day. We often encounter many species of animals on out routes. This information will come in handy for those encounters,too.

    • Nicky Hale

      Thankyou so very much for this…. very informative. Nicky.

    • Tyler

      I ALWAYS carry a weapon for this purpose. It’s a very solid hitting weapon. In my experience the 99% statistic is woefully underestimated. I’ve had two VERY serious dog attacks by loose dogs on my on-leash dog (which my weapon of choice ended immediately) in the space of one year alone. These attacks were not just on trails. One was on the busiest street in town; a dog ran at us out of nowhere.

      I would not have circled my dog with the JRT. I would have waited until it got within swatting distance and then given it a solid warning smack. Most times that ends things immediately and the dog gets the clue and runs off. If the dog actually attacks or runs in like it’s going to, then I hit like I mean it and it’s only taken one hit most times. Once, on a St. Bernard, it took two. But it works. I do not take risks that random dogs mean me or my dog no harm. You just don’t know. I have just had too many bad experiences and it seems the situation is just getting worse with “positive training” and “rescue martyr” attitudes taking over.

    • Karen

      Great information particularly about not turning your back on the dog. My reactive seems to feel the need to chase a threat away so this makes sense to me, as when it’s happened the threat was already walking away.
      She is muzzled when offlead and I don’t want her to practice this behaviour but occasionally we have been caught by surprise.

    • Pamela Ellingwood

      Thank you for this information. My dog is quite small, 20 lbs. She was attacked a few years ago by a dog who broke his owners leash to attack my dog. I never saw him coming and it was shocking. I admit I panicked. I scooped up Ladybug and at that point the dog jumped on me, knocking me down and proceeded to seriously go after Ladybug. Fortunately the owner was a marine type young guy who handled things perfectly. I was hysterical at this point since my dog was bleeding and had a couple bad looking puncture wounds. She survived and the owner of the attacking dog paid all the vet bills. I’m not sure I have the courage to follow your good advice about facing the loose dog, though. I now carry a product called Halt on the advice of our town’s dog officer.

    • Jeri K.

      I disagree with #1…….. I’ve had 3 incidences, over the years, with loose dogs and twice my Afghan got hurt. Both times, with him, it was 2 different Westies that ran at us and started biting his legs/ankles. There were no sticks or anything to use to keep them away and I did face them and yell for them to go home. Terriers are tenacious and fast!!!! All I could do was kick at them until my vocalizations attracted their owners. Both time my dog got puncture wounds. The 3rd time, with my blind Cockerpoo, I watched a Pit Bull jump out of its owners car and run up a flight of stairs to get into its home. It then saw us walking on the sidewalk and it bee-lined towards us. All I could do was lay down on top of my little dog and cover her with my heavy coat. It was soooo scary and my coat was damaged but that Pit was going to kill my dog. Its owner told me that his dog only wanted mine and wouldn’t have hurt me. That was the scariest day of my life. After it was over and it ended with the owner finally being able to grab his Pit, my dog and I couldn’t stop shaking for a few hours. There is nothing like being face down on a sidewalk, trying to shelter your small dog, while a Pitbull is trying to grab it. In all of these cases, they happened to fast to be able to react but all 3 dogs did want to injure/kill mine. Unfortunately, neither of my dogs would ever defend themselves…..not in their temperament nor personality.

    • Jude Ortego

      My 2 year old female Mal is very submissive. She will not challenge another dog by putting her tail between her legs and rolling on her back exposing her belly. I wish she would challenge for what belongs to her. For example if I throw her favorite ball and another dog makes chase also she will just stop in her tracks and give up on the chase.

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