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Pet Column: What to do when an off-leash dog charges at you

Elle Williams demonstrates what not to do when a dog gets out of control. Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

You’re out for your morning walk with your dog when all of a sudden a dog comes running at you. Sometimes the dog just wanders up and the sniffing begins, ending with a strange dog hanging out with you until you find its owner or its owner comes up to bring their dog back inside. Then there’s the other case. What happens most often is an unfamiliar dog comes charging with excitement and before you know it there’s utter chaos as you try to get your dog out of harm’s way. A lot of us have been there, and it can be scary.

In some occurrences, a dogfight ensues. This is often because the dog that is leashed gets completely overwhelmed by this invasion of personal space has no means of flight due to the leash and has one option left — fight. Or maybe the oncoming dog is simply protecting its territory, which is common if the off-leash dog attacks happen right outside of its home.

What a horrible experience for all parties involved. Plenty of dogs have died because of an off-leash dog, something that could have been avoided.

Our first natural response is to point fingers at the owners of the off-leash dog, especially if the owner is present. And yes, it is their responsibility. Sure, a gate could have been left open by accident or a front door wasn’t closed all the way. Those accidents certainly weren’t planned. But the times that really upset me are when people knowingly have their dog off-leash, completely unaware people may be walking by with their own leashed dogs.

I have spoken with neighbors who say their dog would stay in the yard, but even then it’s not fair to people walking by to assume all dogs off leash have the training and impulse control to stay in their yard.

Now, here’s the part that’s just unforgivable. When the off-leash dog owner yells, “It’s okay, he’s friendly.” Ah! What a one-sided way of thinking. Even if my dogs are friendly to other dogs doesn’t mean they are okay with a dog charging into their personal space. What if an unfamiliar human came running up to you and just started touching you? Who cares if the person may be friendly, it’s completely uninvited.

The other problem with this way of thinking is it places dogs into two categories: always friendly or never friendly. This black-and-white thinking ruins it for all dogs. Dogs, just like people, share a range of emotional responses to different situations and other living beings. There’s so much more to a dog than “my dog is friendly”.

So what if your dog does get out and you’re there? Train a reliable recall before you have to use it. I train a lot of Canyon Lake dog owners to have a reliable recall. This means a lot of practice in the home and of the home (while on a training leash). Finally, we proof the recall using distraction in a controlled way. Never underestimate the power of a good stay at the doorway, this can help prevent the bolting to begin with.

So what can you do to protect yourself in the worse case? I always have citronella dog spray with me while walking my dogs. It looks like pepper spray but doesn’t cause pain. 

As I pointed out in my previous article, “Your dog has superpowers,” a dog’s nose is extremely sensitive, and citronella (think lemons and oranges) is a very potent and overwhelming scent for a dog’s sensitive nose. I have had to use it twice when my own dogs were about to be attacked by an off-leash dog and it worked wonders. A simple spray perimeter and spray to the oncoming dog’s nose causes the dog to run back home with no injuries, just an overwhelming need to get out of that smell bomb explosion.

Another thing that can help stop an oncoming dog is a pop-out umbrella. The loud pop can scare a dog away or at least cause them to think twice. The umbrella itself is a barrier to place in front of your dog and the off-leash dog.

Lastly, the worst thing you can do is run away. Dogs have predatory instincts and running away makes you more of a target. Step in front of your dog, stand you’re grown, make yourself big, and shout “No!” toward an oncoming dog if you have no other means of protecting yourself. 

Be safe out there. Remember to keep your doors and gates closed to avoid your own dog from running out. If you do insist on having your dog out front, please have them on a secure tether. If you’re involved in an off-leash dog attack, try to be as calm and civil as possible. 

No one plans for a dog attack, and for the most part, we all want what’s best for our dogs. So whether you have been a victim or the person whose dog got out, be aware of what you can do to avoid the worst case in the future.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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