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What to Do When an Off-Leash Dog Approaches Your Leashed Dog

Unfortunately, many dog owners ignore leash laws. Trainer Annie Phenix shares the best ways to protect your leashed pup from an off-leash dog.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Aug 6th 2015


The most “liked” column I have written for Dogster was about why it is critical to observe leash laws. Nearly 20,000 of you clicked that button. The article struck a nerve because owners who flout these laws exist from coast to coast. Some of them angrily responded to my article, insisting they had every right to have an off-leash dog who runs amuck and molests (“he just wants to say hi!”) other dogs and humans. Many more of you wrote to tell me about the severe physical and psychological damage your dog has suffered because of a run-in with an off-leash dog.

The truth is: If it is the law and you allow your dog off leash, you are breaking a law. In a civilized society, members do not simply pick and choose which laws apply to them. I repeat this mantra: It does not matter that you perceive your dog to “be friendly” or that “he loves other dogs.” It does not matter because the dog you have no voice control over is hurling himself into the faces of dogs who very well may NOT be friendly to other dogs. Your dog galloping right up to a leashed dog is rude canine behavior, even if you are running behind your dog screaming: “Don’t worry! He’s friendly!!” You endanger your own dog and all those you allow him to terrorize or bother.

Even my well-trained dogs, Radar and Echo, must abide by dog leash laws.

Even my well-trained dogs, Radar and Echo, must abide by leash laws. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Since that article ran in June, three dogs who have graduated from my Growly Dog class have been attacked by off-leash dogs. My clients work hard to calm their dog’s anxiety when they see other dogs (which often stems from being attacked the very first time by a rude, off-leash dog!). We help these over-anxious dogs learn to trust their handler, and we rebuild their faith that they can walk safely in their own neighborhood. We make significant progress in keeping these dogs calm and focused on their owners instead of hyper-vigilantly scanning for dangers . . . such as an off-leash dog. In some of these cases, the unleashed dog owner was held responsible and now must pay fines in addition to medical bills; one of my clients ended up having an $8,000 hand surgery after breaking up a dog fight. I have enough stories like that to fill up a very long, pathetic book.

Since there remains a segment of the dog-owning population who is either selfish or totally clueless about canine behavior, I want to give the leash-law-abiding dog owners five tips on how to handle off-leash dogs coming into their dog’s space.

1. Work with a qualified dog behavior expert

A professional (find one through The Pet Professional Guild) can help you train your dog to trust his environment and handler when he is on leash. Dogs can feel trapped by that lifeline. It’s vital that we teach them how we want them to behave when they see other dogs. These behaviors first must be taught in a safe, controlled setting such as a dog-training center.

I work with clients to make them better on-leash walkers. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

I work with clients to make them better on-leash walkers. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

2. Stay focused on your dog

Keep moving on a walk instead of stopping and chatting with others. While you and the other person are smiling and looking at each other, your dogs may be sending signals to one another that they are uncomfortable. Keep moving and stay focused on your dog’s body language. If your dog stiffens, growls, starts randomly sniffing or scratching, or you can see his hackles (among other warning signs that your dog is getting uncomfortable), do a U-turn and put something visual between you and the trigger upsetting your dog.

3. Always carry meat training treats on outdoor adventures

You want to reinforce behavior you like, such as when your dog looks at but does not react to another dog a good distance away. If you have to stop an incoming assault from an off-leash dog, you can yell “SIT!” at the oncoming dog (sometimes it works) and then throw your meat treat on the ground near that dog and do a quick, calm U-turn and move away. Could the dog have some sort of meat allergy? Possibly. That’s just one more reason the dog’s owner should obey the leash laws.

4. Don’t waste time being polite if you see an off-leash dog

In a critical situation, don’t try to reason with the unreasonable human who allowed their dog to come into your dog’s space. By allowing their dog to be unleashed where leashes are required, that owner has by default demonstrated a lack of concern for his own dog and yours. You may feel like screaming obscenities for their lack of care, but that wastes both emotion and time. It can also ramp the dogs up even more.

I teach my clients to stay focused on their dogs during an interaction and to always have treats ready. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

I teach owners to stay focused on their dogs during an interaction and to always have treats ready. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Throw a meat treat in the direction of the oncoming dog, turn on your heels, and walk away. I cannot even count the number of dog owners who are shocked that as their dog is being harassed by the off-leash dog, the owner of stands there, saying nothing, and doesn’t help to put an end to the situation. If another person is walking with you, ask them to attempt to catch the oncoming dog as you leave the scene (you have to decide in an instant if that would be a safe maneuver or not because breaking up a dog fight is an excellent way to get bitten).

Or, ask them to film what’s happening in case you need it later to identify the owner and to hand them any veterinarian bills that might ensue from such an unwanted encounter. It’s far better to have a plan of action in place before you ever step outside your door with your dog than to create a plan during an emergency.

5. Carry a large umbrella

As the unleashed dog comes at you, push the button and unleash the umbrella. We aren’t trying to hurt the dog – we are trying to but a barrier between your leashed dog and the outlaw dog. Be aware that if you use an umbrella, throw meat at the oncoming off-leash dog, or use a citronella spray, you are in a way escalating a bad situation. Or, it’s more accurate to say that you are being put in a position that may escalate because of the other owner’s irresponsibility. I’ve had two clients get into fistfights with other owners after spraying an oncoming dog with citronella. On the other hand, we have to protect our dogs. If you use a defensive move, do so carefully cautiously and as a last resort and understand that it might cause more human strife.

Annie Phenix demonstrates how to use an umbrella to keep a rushing dog back. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Annie Phenix demonstrates how to use an umbrella to keep a rushing dog back. Yes, that’s a stuffed dog. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

It is a sad reality that dog owners must be prepared for an off-leash dog every time they take their leashed dog for a walk. It’s far better to have a plan and to be able to implement it than to be shocked into a state of inaction when this event happens.

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.