What to Do Around an Off-Leash Dog

When your dog is on a leash and another dog is loose, you never know what could happen if they meet. Arman Zhenikeyev/Shutterstock

The other day I was taking my puppy for a quick lunchtime stroll around the neighborhood when I noticed a loose dog. Fortunately, I saw him before they saw each other. I turned around and darted into a cul de sac where we would be out of sight.

But then I was stuck. I kept peeking and the dog was just meandering from bush to pole to garbage can. We were in the back of the subdivision and the only way home was to walk past him.

I didn't know this particular loose dog, and I had no idea how he or Brodie would react to a chance encounter. My husband was home so I whipped out my cellphone and whispered, "Come get us! There's a loose dog! Hurry!" (I guess I whispered because I was afraid the dog would understand and race over?)

My husband arrived minutes later, broom in hand, to run interference. Brodie saw the dog and went bonkers, barking and spinning as well as he could when attached to a harness and leash. The dog strolled toward us but stayed a safe distance away.

In retrospect, it didn't seem like a big deal. But after talking to friends and listening to some dog trainers, I know this situation can be not only scary, but also incredibly dangerous.

"When a dog is restrained and another dog is loose, they often develop leash aggression," says Susie Aga, certified canine trainer and behaviorist and owner of Atlanta Dog Trainer. "They have to look bigger and badder to the other dog. They feel the need to protect themselves, even when humans are there."

Dogs interact
Let dogs interact the way they want to. Bill Anastasiou/Shutterstock

Your best bet is to get out of the situation. Here's how to do that, according to the experts:

Use an environmental block

Duck behind cars, houses, gates, trees or whatever will keep the dogs focused and interested on each other. This works best, obviously, if the loose dog hasn't seen your leashed pet. But some dogs can be easily distracted and you might suddenly be out of sight, out of mind.

Bring a distraction arsenal

It's not enough to leave the house with pooper-scooper bags. If you want to dissuade stray dogs, it may help to also pack your pockets with these:

  • Lot of tasty treats: You may be able to distract a loose dog by scattering a ton of treats in his direction and taking off. You may also be able to use the treats to get your dog to focus back on you instead of the other dog.
  • Something that makes noise: Carry a whistle or a high-pitched alarm (you can find some at the dollar store). If a dog approaches, try to startle him with sound.
  • Squirt bottle: If you have room to carry it, a water pistol or a high-powered squirt bottle from a beauty supply store can surprise a dog and get him to back off.
  • Cellphone: Police will respond to a call for help for a dog fight, or maybe you have a nearby friend or spouse who can come help out. Trainers recommend taking a photo or video of the loose dog if you can. That can help you identify him later in case there's a problem.
  • Spray deterrent: You can buy safe, citronella sprays like Spray Shield that may prevent a fight from starting.
  • Tennis ball: Aga carries a tennis ball with her, too. Some dogs who might not go after food can't resist the allure of tossed ball.

Get away, but don't run

The goal is to get your dog home safely. Although your natural reaction might be to run, that may only encourage the loose dog to chase you.

A friend of mine was walking her golden retriever in a nearby neighborhood when two loose dogs saw them and gave chase. The growling pair managed to get in a few bites before their owner was successful in dragging them off her dog. My friend has not walked her dog since.

I don't want to give up walking Brodie because of a couple of escape-artist Weimaraners and the occasional roaming pup. But now I have some tools to help me handle the situation in case my husband's not around with his broom. I just need more pockets.