It’s Okay, He’s Friendly!” 7 Steps To Handling Off-Leash Dogs
“It’s okay he’s friendly!”or “Don’t worry he just wants to say hi!”….If I had a dollar for every time I heard this I could probably buy leashes for every dog I run into who has been given too much freedom before they were ready. No matter how many times I encounter an off-leash dog while out with my dogs, it still manages to induce immediate anxiety. Before I shout to the owner to call their dog I already know what will likely happen next, and am mentally preparing myself for plan b, c, and d. The owner will attempt to call their dog off and their dog will, without fail, blow them off and continue their approach. Some are indeed quite friendly, while others are, despite what their owner thinks, not looking for a casual encounter with my crew. Now their dog has become my responsibility, and at all costs I must ensure their dog is not successful as it will surely result in a scuffle. You see, not all dogs like meeting dogs (especially the dogs I typically have with me), but even the most tolerant of dogs won’t appreciate being charged at by Hank the 75lb lab who is coming at us in full wrecking ball mode with no brakes.
Now if you’re reading this and beginning to blush on the other end of the screen because you are totally “Hank”s” owner, then please, listen up…
Your dog needs to be under your control at ALL times. It’s not just courtesy or common sense, it’s the law. In our area dogs do not necessarily need to be kept on leash (unless the park specifically requires it in which case it will be posted), but they do need to be under the control of their owner. This means before you even consider letting your dog off-leash you must have voice control over them 100% of the time, no matter the distractions present.
If your dog is really reliable out on the trail when you’re alone, but when they catch sight of someone they have to “go say hi” first before coming back to you, leash them up.
If your dog is usually pretty good, but really just wants to play with other dogs, leash them up.
If your dog really enjoys the freedom of being off-leash and needs the exercise, and eventually they always come back, leash them up.
If your dog comes when called most of the time, but just gets too excited sometimes, leash them up.
You owe it to your dog, other dogs, and the general public, to have control over your dog at all times. Not all dogs want to meet other dogs, so the friendliness of your dog is irrelevant when it comes to deciding leash them up or not. If you have any doubt you can recall your dog when needed, leash them up. I assure you, there are plenty of ways for you to sufficiently and safely exercise your dog without having to let them off-leash. Do not let your dog become a nuisance to others and a victim of their own bad behavior.
Before my dog’s earn off-leash privileges there are countless hours, days, weeks, and months spent training and proofing their recall. Eventually they graduate to dragging a long line, and only when I am absolutely certain that my dog will come the first time I call them, every time, do I even entertain the idea of letting them off-leash. There is a harsh disconnect between the number of dogs who receive this kind of training, and the number of off-leash dogs I encounter.
Now if you find yourself on the receiving end of this situation, there are a few things you can do to keep you and your dog safe.
- I always start by asking the other owner (if they are in sight) to call their dog immediately. The tone of voice you use will also have an impact, so conveying a sense of urgency will help here. This may or may not be successful, so be prepared for the latter, and have a back up plan.
- If after requesting the owner leash their dog, they owner responds with “It’s ok, he’s friendly” or some other variation of that, I will reply with “My dog is contagious!” I find this is exceptional at motivating people to collect their dog, and much easier than explaining my dog does not want to meet their dog/is not friendly. Many owners who have never had a reactive dog do not understand that some dogs need space and will not tolerate a strange rude dog rushing up to them, time is of the essence!
- Teach your dog a “Go Behind”. This is a position where the dog walks behind you and sits facing the same direction as you are, while you become a physical body block/barrier for them. To start, practice this at home to start using a food lure to show your dog the position. While in position you can continue to feed your dog treats so they learn this is an awesome place to be! You can work towards proofing this with the help of a trusted friend/dog. Be sure to practice in a variety of places so your dog understands this is something they can do anywhere, not just at home.
- With your dog safely behind you, put a hand out in front of you like a traffic cop and loudly shout in a low voice “Ah-Ah” or “No”.
- I always recommend having treats on you when you go for a walk to reward your own dog, throwing a handful of these super yummy high value treats in the face of the approaching dog may buy you enough time to safely get out of there. “But Seren, won’t that be rewarding the off-leash dog?” That dog and his training is not my responsibility, my obligation in that moment is to my own dogs and ensuring their safety. Even if my dog is typically friendly with other dogs, a greeting with a dog in that manner is a recipe for disaster. I also know nothing of this dogs behavioral or medical history. Throwing food to distract the approaching unfamiliar dog is, by far, the lesser of evils in this situation.
- I also recommend carrying a spare slip-lead leash with you when you go out hiking, you never know when you might need it! In the event the approaching dog is friendly, you may have time to tether your dog and leash up the approaching dog so you can return them to their owner. Alternatively, you can also use the spare leash as a secondary barrier by swinging it like a helicopter in front of you (practice this at home with lots of treats for your dog so they are used to it beforehand). If you have an umbrella with you, this can also work as a secondary barrier.
- As a last resort, there are deterrent sprays specifically designed for this situation. I carry this with me on all walks and hikes, even around the neighborhood. I recommend using PetSafe Spray-Shield which is citronella based. This means if any of it blows back at you or your dog, while unpleasant, it will not be painful. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just in case, this is an absolute LAST resort. I will only utilize something like this in the event that the approaching dog is aggressive and I feel the safety of myself or my dogs is in danger. Make sure to practice using this before you ever NEED to deploy it so you are familiar with the spray pattern and distance.
I hope you found these tips helpful, and if you have any questions or concerns please don’t hesitate to reach out! Reinforcement works for people too, so if you feel like reinforcing my behavior of blog writing be sure to leave a comment, like, or share this article!
Until next time, happy trails!