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?
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….
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.