Updated: Feb 15, 2022
It can be frightening if you are walking either alone or with your dog and an unleashed dog comes toward you, and these questions may run through your mind:
Is there something I could have done to prevent this?
Is he friend or foe?
How should I react?
How should my dog react?
Is there anything I can do?
What can I do if I get bitten?
What can I do if my dog gets bitten?
I generally am in favor of positive methods of training, and many unleashed dogs are more of a nuisance than a threat. The tone of this article may seem harsh, and it may seem like every offleash dog is a real threat. That is not my intent. What is my intent is to give you options on what to do if you encounter an unleashed dog.
My personal feeling is that I am responsible for my dogs and me, and our safety comes first. If it’s a choice between our safety and what someone else thinks of me, I opt for safety. I have a split second to make a decision, and I will do what is needed and then deal with whatever the consequences are.
That being said, I am responsible for my own dogs but not for other people’s dogs. A dog may have escaped his yard or slipped out of his collar. That is an unfortunate situation, but that dog is not under anyone’s control. If there is any possible way that I can make my dogs safe and rescue a dog who I think is not a threat to me, then I will do that. That may be accomplished by putting my dogs into my car or quickly taking them home so I can come back to help the unleashed dog. But there are situations where this is impossible and where the unleashed dog is intent on approaching us. That’s why I have written this article.
There are some instances where you can avoid a confrontation and others where the approaching dog is going to attack you no matter what you do. There are a lot of factors at play:
your reading the dog’s body language
It’s very complex. Every situation is unique, and it is important to assess every circumstance individually and determine whether to put yourself, your dog, or anyone else at risk. Please understand that there are absolutely no guarantees that any of these suggestions will work. I am not giving you advice or telling you what to do. These are simply ideas to make you aware of alternative actions. They range from telling the dog to go away to severely wounding or killing the dog.
You do have some choices to make when you encounter a unleashed dog. There is no way anyone can tell you which is the right choice. These are suggestions and ideas gleaned from experience and from research. They are NOT prescriptions for protection. You may not like some of them. These are options from which you can choose (sometimes in a split second) and can in no way be construed as advice of what you should do. The only way you know if it was the right choice was if no one gets hurt, and that, unfortunately, is after the fact. There are risks in any situation where you are dealing with a dog that is approaching you. With that in mind, please understand that
Some of these ideas contradict each other.
Some suggestions may work for small dogs but may not work with large dogs.
There are some things you could do if you have a dog with you and some you could do if you are by yourself.
Some ideas will stop certain dogs and will intensify the attack of other dogs.
Some of these suggestions may require more force than you are willing to use.
Some may not be enough force for the situation you find yourself in.
Some suggestions can be used alone; others can be used in combinations.
What are some preventive measures I can take?
If you have walked through that area before and know there are unleashed dogs there, just use common sense and simply don’t walk there.
Be aware of which dog belongs to which house so if he gets out, you can tell the owner that his dog has been running loose and ask him to keep his dog confined.
You can report the unleashed dog to Animal Control. Many times Animal Control officers are aware of a problem, and your report may be the one that finally gets some action.
You can be aware of your surroundings. If you see any unleashed dogs, avoid the area where they are. If possible, turn the corner, change your direction, or go behind a car. Do anything you can so the dog does not see you.
You can determine ahead of time how you will act in this situation and rehearse it several times, similar to what flight attendants do in case there is an emergency onboard an airplane.
You can train your dog in a simulated situation how to respond and act by deferring to you and letting you protect him. This will take a lot of preparation and training, but it can diffuse a situation and is well worth your time.
You can wear clothing that will not hinder you such as flip-flops, sandals, or shorts. Wear shoes that tie or fit securely.
You can put yourself between your dog and the oncoming dog.
You can carry a cell phone so that if something should happen, you can call Animal Control, the police, or anyone else IMMEDIATELY and give them any information you can: a description of the dog and/or owner if he is present and/or the make, model, and license number of his car, etc.
You can call 911 and tell the police that at that moment, you are being threatened by a vicious dog. A cautionary note: do not call the police to report something that happened to you five minutes ago. Only call them if the danger is present and immediate. You can, however, and should call Animal Control to inform them of the incident to protect yourself and others from its happening in the future.
You can carry a camera with you so you can show dogs running loose to Animal Control or document any other occurrence so it is not your word against someone else’s.
How can I tell if the unleashed dog is friendly?
Look at how the dog carries himself — his body language — to determine whether he is a goofball, is fear aggressive, or is dominant aggressive. (There are Web sites which give descriptions and pictures of various body postures, and you can do a search for dog body language to find them.) There are different ways to handle an approaching off-leash dog depending on your assessment of which category he falls into.
Some dogs bark and whine or are all hyped up in anticipation or even have their tails wagging. They may start out looking like they want to play and actually begin playing, but then they go too far for your dog’s comfort, and your dog signals them to back off. They don’t back off, and then the fight begins. Some dogs may just give off an aggressive display hoping that no one will challenge them – their thinking is that the best defense is a good offense.
If you can determine whether the dog is a goofball, fear aggressive, or dominant aggressive, then the way to handle each of these behavior types is different.
A goofball or rude dog who just wants to greet your dog generally comes toward you with a loose body:
His tail is wagging easily from side to side.
He is casually running towards you and his body is loose.
His eyes are open and soft, his mouth is open and his tongue is flapping.
He almost looks like he’s smiling.
This dog may not have any knowledge of your dog’s personal boundaries and may run up to him wanting to play. He probably has not had much obedience training because his owners think he doesn’t need it because he is so friendly. He will invade your dog’s personal space and expect your dog to play with him. When your dog declines his invitation, a fight may occur.
You can put your body between him and your dog and tell him to stop and go away.
A fear aggressive dog will put on an aggressive display. He will run up to you but he makes himself look small by lowering his body. Then he will back away or run behind something.
He will growl and bark in a high-pitched bark.
His nose is wrinkled.
The corners of his mouth are back, his lips may be curled, and his teeth may or may not be showing. The wider his mouth is open, the more aggressive he is.
His eyes are squinting and the pupils are dilated.
His ears are back. His back may or may not be arched.
He has his hackles up (the hair at his shoulders and the base of his tail).
His tail may or may not be tucked between his legs, and it is not moving.
You can give him some room. You can also tell him to go home or give an obedience command such as Sit or Down. If you yell at him to go away, then he may retreat. When the dog retreats, you retreat also, but keep the dog in your view without looking directly at him. Do not turn around. If you do, he very likely will bite you or your dog from behind.
A dominant aggressive dog looks very confident. Everything about his body makes him look as big as possible.
He stands tall and his body comes forward.
He will bark with a deep bark that seems like it’s coming from his toes or he will be totally silent.
His nose is wrinkled with the teeth showing.
The corner of his mouth is forward, his lips are curled and the teeth and gums are showing. The wider his mouth is open, the more aggressive he is.
His eyes are squinting and he is very focused.
His ears are forward.
His neck is extended forward.
His hackles are up.
His back is straight.
His tail is held up or straight behind him and is still or is wagging very stiffly.
A dominant aggressive dog will run up to you and threaten and attack you while facing you or from any angle he can. He is not fooling around. He wants to attack you, period.
The majority of this article contains options for dealing with these types of dogs.
When might a dog aggress?
A dog can bite at any time for any reason. Remember that dogs are predators – all dogs, even the fluffy one that may be sitting beside you now. Given the right set of circumstances, any dog can bite.
That being said, when there are certain conditions present, the likelihood of a dog’s biting increases in these instances:
His owner or family
His yard or territory
His owner’s property
His owner’s vehicle
The area surrounding the owner’s property
The area surrounding the owner’s vehicle
The space around him
Any area that the dog *perceives* as his own because he is walked there regularly
When he is eating food or a bone
When he is excited
When he does not know you
When his prey response has been triggered
If he is uncomfortable with the way you look (if you are wearing a hat or sunglasses or a beard or if you walk with a limp or a cane, etc.)
If you smell differently than he is used to or if you wear a cologne that is the same as someone who has injured or teased him in the past
Himself if he is ill or injured
What can I do with my dog if an unleashed dog approaches?
Prevention is the key, and avoiding the area is best.
You can train your dog when you are in a less distracting environment to look to you for direction. If you use a crisis situation to train your dog, you are setting yourself (and your dog) up for failure and possible injury.
You can try to make it a pleasant experience and say happily to your dog, “There’s a dog coming. Let’s be friendly.”
You can circle rather than move in a straight line and let the unleashed dog see and/or sniff your dog’s rear end.
You can reward your dog for keeping his attention focused on you rather than on the other dog. Carry your dog’s absolutely most favorite treats to use as rewards.
You can teach your dog that whenever another dog approaches, he should look to you for a treat.
You can feed your dog before your walk so he will be more relaxed during the walk.
You can drop your dog’s leash.
You can pick your dog up. If you pick up your dog, it most likely will not stop the attack, and the dog can include you as a target as well.
You can teach your dog to walk on a loose leash. A tight leash telegraphs anxiety from you to your dog and will likely heighten your dog’s tension.
You can teach your dog that whenever another dog approaches, you can step between him and the other dog to protect him from the other dog.
You can teach your dog to sit behind you.
What can I do if the unleashed dog is intent on approaching me?
There are a lot of factors at play here: your experience and observational skills; your preparation and emotional state; the amount of force you are willing to use; the size, breed, gender, and temperament of the approaching dog; your dog’s training, size, breed, gender, and temperament.
Generally speaking, do not look the dog directly in the eyes. This is a threat to the approaching dog.
You can talk to the unleashed dog in an upbeat voice. It may be that that is all that is needed for the dog to turn around and leave.
Move very slowly and speak confidently – lower your voice and tell the dog to go away.
You can step forward, stamp your foot, put up your hand to signal him to stop and yell, “No. Go home,” or, “Get out of here,” or something similar.
You can yell to the dog to come to you – some dogs interpret the word “come” as a signal to run away because they have disobeyed their owners so many times, that’s what the word means to them!
You can tell him to sit or lie down.
If you are alone, you can stand still and let him sniff you. You can extend your hand *slowly* in a fist in a nonthreatening gesture, keeping it low with the palm down, making sure that you do not put your hand over the top of the dog’s head.
You can slowly crouch down, avoid eye contact, and speak to the dog in a gentle but firm manner.
If the owner is present, you can tell him to call his dog. If the owner says that his dog is friendly, tell him yours is not, even if he is. Tell him your dog has a communicable disease. Tell him your dog has just had surgery and can’t play. Tell him whatever you have to in order to get his dog away from yours.
You can carry food with you and throw it at the dog. It may buy you some time as you are leaving.
You can carry a tennis ball with you and throw it so the dog might chase it.
You can go into a store, a car, or a gated yard and close the door or gate.
You can go into a yard with the unleashed dog following you, throw some food on the ground away from you, and then exit the yard closing the gate with the dog inside the yard.
You can leave the area. If you leave, do not turn your back to the dog. Slowly back away. Do not run. If you run, that will engage the dog’s prey drive. He can run faster than you.
You can climb a tree or get on top of something such as a car.
You can stand still like a statue, turn your body sideways to the dog, not look at him, but be aware of where he is. Sometimes movement triggers a herding instinct or predatory behavior.
You can kick the dog to try to stop the dog from attacking your dog. If this dog jumps at you, then you can quickly move to the side so he will miss his target (you). As he goes by, you can kick him in the ribs. Chances are this will not disable the dog but he will come back at you again. It may buy you some time to get away.
It is very dangerous to grab an unleashed dog by his collar or to put your hands anywhere near his head whether he is fighting or not.
You can carry something as a deterrent. If you choose to carry something, it must be IN YOUR HAND as you are walking, and you must be ready to use it IMMEDIATELY. You will not have the time to fumble in a purse or pocket to fish it out. Again, a word of caution: any deterrent may increase rather than decrease the unleashed dog’s aggression, and some of these are illegal in some jurisdictions and some require training prior to use. Check with your local authorities so your actions don’t come back to haunt you later.
Here are some things that you can carry as a deterrent. I’ve also included links where you may order them from Amazon.
An air horn
A container of lemon juice (shaped like a lemon from the supermarket)
A water bottle filled with a lemon juice/water mixture
Any spray that will disable but not permanently harm the eyes of the aggressor
Pepper spray (Check with local authorities as to legality.)
A throw net
A piece of rubber hose
A walking stick
A firm wooden stick
A self-opening umbrella (You can open it as he is approaching as a startle device or use it to hide behind to try to confuse the attacker make your dog disappear. You can also use it to discourage the attack.)
Any object that is in the environment (such as a chair) that you can put between you and the dog
A fireplace poker
A cattle prod (Check with local authorities as to legality.)
A large barbeque or cooking fork
What can I do if the unleashed dog attacks me and/or my dog?
If you are alone and the dog bites you, you can *freeze* and not move or scream. This may stop the dog or limit him to one bite.
If you are alone and the dog is going for your leg, you can let him bite your leg and then choke him. (If he is attacking your dog, you can stand behind him and choke him as well.) But you have to choke him to unconsciousness or even death. If he blacks out and then wakes up, he can then go after you again.
If you are attacked, you can protect your face and neck. If you are knocked to the ground, you can curl up into a ball and cover your neck and face with your arms. As difficult as it is, lie still and be quiet.
This cannot be emphasized enough: if you choose to separate dogs that are fighting, the probability is quite high for each dog (even your own dog) to redirect his aggression on you since both dogs are in a state of hyper arousal. They are acting totally on instinct, and the target of their attack at this point is meaningless. In fact, if you get between the attacking dog and your dog or pick your dog up, you are likely to get bitten. Adrenalin is flowing through their bodies, and some dogs stay in an aroused state for days while their adrenalin level gets back to normal.
You can drop your dog’s leash.
If the dogs start posturing (one dog approaches the other head on and then puts his head and neck across the other’s withers or shoulders), you can drop your dog’s leash and be quiet. Screaming may trigger a fight response in one of the dogs. If they are just posturing (to determine without fighting who is dominant), then one will back off.
You can take off your jacket or shirt and throw it around the dog’s head.
You can give the dog something else to attack such as a sweater, a book, your purse.
If there is a hose nearby, you can turn it on both dogs. If that doesn’t work, you can stick it down the throat of the aggressing dog. You can make a ton of noise so someone will hear you and come out to help.
If there is another person to help, you can each pick up one dog’s hind legs and hold its rear ends over its head and *wait* for the grip to be released. If you jerk or pull them apart before their mouths have opened, there is a huge possibility that the dogs will tighten their grip with each dog, tearing away the other dog’s body part or flesh that he is attached to.
You have a couple of options if separating the dogs in this manner is your method of choice. You can fling the dogs away from you, but the likelihood is that the dogs will begin to fight again. You can swing each dog in a circle (so it won’t redirect his bite towards you) as you back away from the other dog. Then tie one of the dogs to something immobile or lock him in a secure area so he cannot start to fight again.
You can carry an extra leash and put the leash underneath the stomach and towards the thinnest part of the dog that is on top (the tuck-up) and loop the clip end through the handle so the leash acts like a choke chain to the body of the dog. *Slowly* move him toward an immobile object such as a fence that you can tie the leash to. So now one dog is unable to move. Then go to the second dog and grab his legs, wait for the grip to be released, swing him in a circle to protect yourself, and get him away from the dog that is tied.
If you have an extra leash, attach it to the dog that is on top and tie it to something solid. Be especially careful if you pull the dog because if he has a good grip on your dog, your pulling him can pull your dog’s flesh out.
You can kick the dog in the rib cage or under his jaw. Remember that if you kick, you can become unbalanced and fall. You will then need to roll into a ball and concentrate on protecting your own body.
You can punch the dog in the nose as hard as you can.
You can poke your fingers into his eyes.
You can pour water down the aggressor’s throat.
You can put some object in the aggressor’s mouth and jam it down his throat.
If your getting bitten is inevitable, then shove your hand or forearm down the dog’s throat in order to gag him.
You can hit both dogs with a physical deterrent and aim for the snout or the testicles of a male.
If you have a spray or chemical deterrent, you can spray that in the dog’s face. Be prepared that the spray may mist towards you, and you and/or your dog may be sprayed as well. Use short puffs at the nose and eyes of the attacker. Be prepared to spray your dog, too, if he tries to retaliate once he’s released from the bite.
What do I do after the dog attacks me and/or my dog?
If you or your dog is attacked, wash the wound with soap and water and get immediate medical attention. If you have a camera, take a picture of the dog. Report ALL attacks to the Animal Control agency in your area. As soon as you can, WRITE DOWN the following information and any other information
Description of the dog
If the dog was wearing a collar and the type of collar
If the dog was wearing identification tags
If you have seen the dog before and where you saw it
Anything else to help identify the dog
Location of the attack
Time of the attack
People present or who witnessed the attack
Owner’s name if you know it
If the dog was a stray or you know where it lives
What direction or where the dog went after it bit you
If you have the dog in your custody or control
This information will help the Animal Control agency to determine what course of action to take. If you are in Los AngelesCounty, you can contact the Greater Los Angeles County Victim Assistance Center at (818) 380-8176 or (213) 380-9776 who can give you information regarding legal and other assistance.
What can I tell my children if an unleashed dog approaches them?
Half of dog bite victims are children and about half involve family pets. Talk with your children about how to act around dogs they don’t know or that are running loose even if you have a dog in your house and your children have grown up around dogs.
Here are some suggestions on what to tell your children if a dog comes near them. You can tell them:
Not all dogs are friendly and to avoid unknown dogs
To stand very still like a tree and be very quiet if the dog comes near them
To SLOWLY put their hands around their own neck and face
To curl up into a ball and act like a rock by covering their face and head with their arms if the dog jumps on them
To move quietly and slowly and go tell an adult immediately
Not to look into the dog’s eyes
Not to run, scream, or wave their arms if the dog comes near them
To get off a bicycle or a skateboard around an unleashed dog
Not to throw anything at the dog
To give the dog a purse, backpack, jacket or anything else that they can put between themselves and the dog
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Disclaimer: This article is for information only. It does not replace a consultation with a dog trainer, dog behavior consultant, or veterinarian and may not be used to diagnose or treat any conditions in your dog.
If you need help with puppy or dog training, we do both private in-person and virtual lessons via Zoom. Please contact us by calling or texting (310) 804-2392 or sending an email to caryl@DoggieManners.com . We look forward to working with you.