October 25, 2020

Canine Corner: Close Encounters of the Off-Leash Kind


For some dog owners, being rushed by unknown dogs – especially if the unknown dog is off leash – is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Not all dogs like all other dogs, and even if your dog is generally friendly with everything on four legs, for a leashed dog, the unexpected approach of an off-leash dog can be anything from acceptable to frustrating to downright grounds for attack!

Despite popular opinion, dogs do not need to say “Hi!” to every dog they pass any more than I need to introduce myself with a firm handshake to every human I encounter while on a walk.

Dog Ettiquette

Most dog trainers agree that it’s poor dog-owner etiquette to let your off-leash dog rush up to leashed dogs for a variety of reasons. For starters, if you don’t know the other dog, you have no way of knowing how he will react to the interaction. Just because he’s not snarling and lunging at a distance doesn’t mean he won’t be once your dog gets within biting range!

Some dogs are perfectly friendly with other dogs, but just don’t appreciate having their personal space violated. When a dog is on leash, his options for maintaining his idea of a safe personal distance are extremely limited. Many a leashed dog (one of my own included!) has had to snark-off an off-leash dog for violating personal space when, had he been off leash as well, he’d have likely moved away in order to maintain the desired distance. Sadly, when this happens, it’s often the on-leash dog that is looked at as being inappropriate.

Leash Laws are There for a Reason

Many people always keep their dogs on leash for a reason. Besides the fact that in most places leashes are required by law, dogs who are anti-social with other dogs are generally kept leashed by owners who want to responsibly exercise them without putting others at risk. Those same owners also may be working a behavior modification program to address their dog’s reactivity. For those dogs, a sudden ambush by a loose dog can trigger a monumental training setback.

Even if the sudden encounter doesn’t spark an all-out defensive attack, it can cause a variety of other problems. If the leashed dog is a social butterfly and wants to visit with the approaching dog, he quickly finds his options limited thanks to the leash. The result is often a wriggling, leaping dog that can quickly become a challenge for his owner when the overly-excited dog works himself into a frustrated frenzy, at which point the now equally frustrated owner often reprimands or punishes him for his display of “excessive greeting disorder.” This cycle, if repeated too many times, can actually change the way the leashed dog feels about other dogs.

Look at it from his perspective: “I like other dogs! When I see one, I get all happy and goofy and barky because I want to say hello. Then my owner gets mad and yells at me and/or jerks on my leash.” In many cases, the association in the dog’s mind is Cliff-Noted: “Another dog equals a leash pop; therefore, another dog is now a bad thing.”

So, what can you do to help prevent complicated canine encounters?

• For starters, make a point to thoroughly check backyard gates and enclosures to make sure your dog can’t escape and roam the neighborhood. Allowing your dog to roam unattended puts him in danger and is unfair to your neighbors.

• When out with your dogs, if you choose to let them off leash, keep an eye out for fellow dog lovers. If their dogs are leashed, avoid letting your dogs approach without a direct invitation from the owner.

• If your dogs are overly friendly and you suspect they’ll want to visit other dogs, put them back on a leash until you determine the willingness of the other person.

• Always remember: If you’re choosing to violate a leash law, you’d better be darn sure your actions don’t negatively impact anyone around you! The same goes for approaching uninterested humans. Many people are afraid of dogs and shouldn’t have to tolerate unwanted interaction with your dog — no matter how friendly he is.

Protecting Your Dog and Yourself

• If you’re the owner of the leashed dog being approached, the most important thing is to remain calm. When we panic, we send all sorts of negative messages to our dogs.

• If the approaching dog has owners, ask — insisting if you have to — that they call their dog.

• Remember that your dog, if leashed, is at a disadvantage, so even if you determine it’s appropriate for the dogs to briefly interact, be sure the other dog’s owners are close enough to quickly contain and control their dog if necessary.

• Avoid shortening and tightening your leash, as that further restricts your dog’s ability to communicate with the other dog.

• Keep a loose leash and don’t hesitate to end the interaction if you feel your dog isn’t enjoying it or it’s causing him to become overly excited.

• In cases where you want to prevent contact between your leashed dog and off-leash dogs, it’s helpful to ask your dog to sit and position yourself between him and the approaching dog. This can help communicate to your own dog that he need not try and protect the family —you’re in charge and perfectly capable of protecting the “pack.”

• Body-blocking the approaching dog’s access to your own is often all that’s needed for him to lose interest and continue on his way. If not, moving toward the dog while saying something like, “Go on… go home!” can create just enough social pressure to cause a retreat.

• If approached by an aggressive dog, avoid direct eye contact and threatening movements. Instead, lower your gaze and turn sideways to the approaching dog.

• If you walk with training treats (always a good idea!), toss a handful away from you; this often distracts the aggressive dog long enough for you to calmly get away.

• It’s also a good idea to carry a can of Direct Stop or Spray Shield, a citronella spray product used to help deter approaching dogs and break up altercations.

As with most things in life, a little courtesy and common sense goes a long way toward ensuring positive encounters with fellow dogs and dog-lovers.