Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
It's one of those scenarios many dog owners dread: you are taking your dog on a peaceful walk when a dog escapes a yard and comes rushing towards you and your dog. Will your adrenaline rush help you make a good decision, or will you freeze and panic? What should you do in such a case?
To stop an off-leash dog from approaching your dog, you will need to utilize some astute strategies to deflect a possible threat. Not always all strategies work, so you may need to think fast and have a plan B in mind. Often, stopping an off-leash dog from approaching requires carrying with you some aids to help discourage a direct approach.
Of course, the best option is to walk your dog in areas where you know the chances of an off-leash dog encounter are significantly low, but we can never guess what life may throw our way. Being prepared is paramount.
If you have a neighbor who keeps his/her dogs loose, consider that this is against the law in several cities and can result in fines. Let the dog owner know that his/her dog escaped the yard and inform him/her about the dangers of keeping dogs off-leash and how they can impact you, your dog, their dog and themselves.
So, how do you stop an off-leash from approaching your dog? There are several strategies you can try whether your dog is friendly towards other dogs (but you are afraid the off-leash dog is not) or your dog is reactive, and therefore, intolerant of other dogs getting in his space.
5 Tools to Stop an Off-Leash Dog From Approaching Your Dog
Many owners of reactive dogs dread when off-leash dogs approach and their owners just calmly remark, "Oh, he's very friendly, he just wants to say hello!"
This is a very frustrating ordeal, and it's often too late when you respond: "Well, my dog is not! Keep your dog under control!"
What to do in such a circumstance, and best of all, how to avoid future encounters? The most important steps in such cases are awareness and preparedness.
Always Be Aware and Prepared
Awareness means that you will need to be scanning your environment so that you will take quick notice of any approaching dogs. I call it being "hyper-vigilant," basically you'll need to be engaging in the dog-walking form of defensive driving.
Preparedness entails instead carrying with you several items and knowing how to use them to your advantage. Practicing beforehand making sure you know how to use these items is important so that you are not caught unprepared.
The more aware and prepared you are, the calmer you will likely be as you go into thinking mode rather than that: "OMG, what do I do? What do I do?" panic mode.
Below are the following tools to stop an off-leash dog from approaching your dog.
1) Use an Umbrella
For a good reason, the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS), an organization that tests a dog's temperament for shyness, stability, aggressiveness, friendliness and protectiveness towards his handler, often includes an opened umbrella as part of the test.
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An umbrella being opened suddenly can startle the most confident dogs, and ATTS evaluates how a dog reacts to a sudden visual stimulus and assesses the dog’s ability to recover.
So opening a spring-loaded, self-opening umbrella when you notice another dog approaching can work to discourage further interaction, while also granting some space. Dropping the opened umbrella to the floor may also have a further impact if needed.
Of course, make sure to practice opening an umbrella around your dog before going on walks so that he doesn't get startled too!
2) Swing a Leash
It's always good to bring along a spare leash in case your dog's leash would break, but it can come in handy too to discourage other dogs from approaching.
As soon as you notice an off-leash dog coming your way, try to swing the leash in front of you like a cowboy with a lazo to discourage the dog from approaching.
This method can also keep some distance so that you can protect your dog's "space bubble."
3) Throw a Handful of Treats
Many times, the fastest way to a dog's heart is through his stomach. Patricia McConnell in her popular blog The Other End of the Leash suggests trying to toss a handful of treats in the approaching dog's face in case of an emergency.
For full effectiveness, make sure to toss the treats the opposite way of your planned escape route.
Make sure you also toss them far away so that you have enough time to walk away while the dog is distracted in collecting all the goodies. Avoid this method if your dog is prone to resource guarding food.
Patricia McConnell also warns that albeit effective, this method may fail to stop a highly motivated dog who is determined on attacking you or your dog.
4) Use Citronella Spray
Pepper spray containing oleoresin capsicum, commonly used by law enforcement as a deterrent, may sound like an optimal solution, but it has many disadvantages.
First off, if the wind is blowing the wrong way, you and your dog may end up getting most of it. On top of this, it can cause harm with eyes burning, redness, tearing and squinting and even risks for corneal abrasions if there is excessive rubbing.
Citronella spray is a safer option. Spray Shield is a citronella-based spray that deters without harming the approaching dog and is specifically formulated to minimize eye irritation.
I always carry a bottle when walking dogs. Last time I used it when a group of Chihuahuas was trying to nip the heels of a dog I was walking and it worked well in getting them to run the opposite way.
5) Carry an Air Horn
A portable marine air horn can come in handy that day you find your dog almost face-to-face with an off-leash dog and a fight is about to erupt. Make sure to buy a small one, such as those sold in maritime stores so that it is easy to carry.
You, therefore, want one that you can store in a convenient manner, so that you can reach for it at a moment's notice. Look for one that can clip to your belt or can fit in your pocket.
Due to the fact that an air horn produces a very loud noise that will potentially scare your dog and every dog or person in a block radius, it should be used as a last-ditch kind of tool.
3 Helpful Behaviors to Train
While tools are good options for stopping upcoming dogs, training your dog is also important. It goes without saying that you should train these behaviors fluently starting first in areas with little distractions (like at home and in the yard) and then gradually increasing the level of distractions (on walks or parks).
Lots of repetition is required so that your dog responds quickly, almost at a reflexive level. Following are several helpful behaviors to train so to redirect your dog at a moment's notice.
1) Train an Emergency U-Turn
This is a skill you want to train your dog if you notice an off-leash dog coming your way from a distance.
Here's the thing: If an off-leash dog is escaping from his yard, most likely, he'll be acting very reactive towards you and your dog near his turf. The farther you can get from his turf, the less likely he'll be motivated to attack.
So if you see the dog is rushing towards you because his home is straight ahead, make an about-turn at your earliest convenience and stay clear of that road. As you leave, make sure to glance every now and then behind you, making sure the dog is not getting too close.
2) Train Attention Heeling at a Fast Pace
You never want to run away from an off-leash dog, but walking away at a fast pace can once again get you out from a sticky situation if the dog is at a distance and you know that by walking fast you and your dog will be farther away from this dog's perceived turf.
The goal here is to get away from the dog's property if the dog happened to escape the yard. Many dogs won't go too far from their homes.
If the dog escaped the owner, consider that leaving the area quickly may also lead to a reduction in the intensity of the dog's reaction once he realizes he is getting too far from his owner.
3) Train Your Dog to Stay Behind You
It takes two to tangle. If the off-leash dog approaches and your dog is also moving towards him, an encounter is more likely to happen. Same with if the off-leash dog is minding is business overall and your dog is trying to approach him.
Training your dog to stay behind you is a good skill to teach so that you can keep your dog at a safe distance, while you are facing the off-leash dog and either tossing him treats or opening an umbrella in his space.
How to train it: All you really need to do is train your dog a reliable sit/stay and generalize the behavior to having your dog behind you.
Own a small dog? Condition your small dog to enjoy being picked up and train a cue that alerts him of your intent. Careful here: if the off-leash dog is nearby, often picking up a small dog may further trigger the dog to attack and you can also get injured!
What About Standing Your Ground?
Many times, it may feel tempting to just stand in front of your dog and try to stand your ground to discourage the dog from approaching, however, this approach might not always work.
This approach may work with the most mellow dogs, but if you end up meeting a dog who is really motivated to attack you or your dog, you risk him moving right behind you, or worse, just biting you out of defense or to reach your dog.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 03, 2021:
Heidi, so sorry to hear about the fall! I fell once too with a pack of Chihuahuas (like 6 of them!) trying to attack a dog I was walking. Fortunately, I was OK. I hope you are feeling better. I used the citronella spray with them once and it worked like a charm, not sure if it would work with a very large angry dog, but worthy of having just in case.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 17, 2021:
I should have known you'd have the answer to this! Kicking myself for not asking you sooner. Almost all the dogs in our neighborhood are friendly which is a plus, though I do walk where I know there won't be an encounter.
However, even if they're friendly, it doesn't mean that it won't result in a negative encounter. For example, a neighbor's little children let their dog out the front door while I was walking my dog. The dog was sweet and friendly. However, she was overexcited which, of course, wound up my dog. Seconds later, I'm on the ground, I can't move and resulted in an ambulance ride to the ER, a broken arm, spine fracture, and torn rotator cuff. Took about 6 months to get back to my normal life.
The citronella spray is a great idea! I didn't really want to have pepper spray. So I immediately ordered it the one you suggested.
Thank you for all the great information and advice you share!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 17, 2021:
Your hubs about dogs are most helpful. It is for every dog owner and informative as always.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 16, 2021:
Thank you for sharing these tips, Adrienne. They sound like great ideas. This is a very useful article.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 16, 2021:
Your articles about the behavior of dogs are always excellent, Adrienne. Thank you for this information, as always.
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 16, 2021:
This was excellent. I have a problem neighbor who allows their aggressive pitbull to wander the neighborhood. It previously killed my beloved cat and has nipped at kids and a runner but animal control says there's not a lot they can do at this point. The owners had a prior dog (also a pit) who attacked an elderly neighbor and it was ordered destroyed by the court but not without a hullabaloo. It's the irresponsible owners' fault rather than the dogs' which I just hate. I am fearful of walking in my neighborhood for exercise because I don't know when this dog might be running loose. Pepper spray is a good idea. I don't walk a dog, but do need to protect myself.