A few days ago, I had Janice and Leroy out for a walk. We usually do a couple of blocks and then head home, but for some reason, I felt like venturing out of our comfort zone, so instead of turning left, I turned right. We wandered down “the road not taken,” and as the poet Robert Frost once said, “That has made all the difference.”
It started out fine. We were in a different part of our neighborhood, looking at different things, and generally having a good time. Then this strange German Shepherd appeared out of nowhere, and started dragging his lips back off his teeth, snarling, and generally looking like he wanted to eat us alive.
Janice and Leroy are full-size boxers, and I don’t imagine one German Shepherd could have taken them down, but I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. So I drew myself up to my full height (which, honestly, isn’t much) and yelled a lung up at the Shepherd. He backed off.
But I got thinking afterward, what if he hadn’t? I could have been in the middle of a huge dog fight. Did I handle it right? Were there other things I could have done, or should have done?
Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed, so I started researching the ways that people can deal with a loose, aggressive dog. I discovered that you’re in the most danger if you’re actually walking your own dog on a leash, even if your dog is very confident and very well-socialized.
Trust me, the worse situation you can ever encounter is a loose dog that appears to be aggressive, and his owner is nowhere to be found. The most important thing that you have to do is stay calm. Nasty owners are one thing, but a dog that appears to be unstable and has no apparent owner, even one that isn’t nasty, is the absolute worst.
First, you need to assess the situation and determine how much danger you might be in. Then, there are five things you need to in circumstances like this.
The best thing that you can do in any dangerous situation is to simply try to avoid it. What this means is that if you know that there are neighborhoods where dogs are prone to run loose, don’t go there. If you know that there is one specific house where a vicious dog is likely to try to jump the fence, simply don’t walk in his neighborhood – find another route.
Should you have to do this? No. In a perfect world, other people would control their dogs. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s just the world that you have to live in. And your dog’s safety, and your own, could depend on your willingness to forget about what is right, and what is fair, in favor of what is safe and sensible. Find another route.
Remember, too, that just because your dog is on a leash, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is safe. A loose dog is not likely going to want to respect the concept of the leash, and he may attack. In the meantime, your leashed dog is vulnerable, having no way of using his “off-leash” behaviors to communicate with the other dog.
Your dog, when he is held close to you on a short leash, can’t change his position. He can’t submit; he can’t run away; and he can’t do much of anything to tell the other dog that he’s uncomfortable, or, for that matter, friendly. He has no way whatsoever of communicating anything to the other dog, and the other dog may be stressed and even aggressive in response to what he sees as a lack of communication.
Now, when you pull back on your dog’s leash in an attempt to protect him from another dog, what you are actually doing is depriving him of the opportunity of defusing what could be a bad situation as he can’t walk away. The tightening of the leash also tells both dogs that you are stressed, so they might be less likely to greet one another in a friendly fashion. As hard as it may be for you to do, the best thing in this situation is for you to loosen up on the leash and let the dogs greet one another.
Can’t Walk Anywhere Else?
If you feel that you’re limited to walking in your own neighborhood, you might consider just getting in your car and going somewhere else. You almost certainly know places where you are unlikely to encounter loose dogs – perhaps a mall parking lot? Sure, it might seem inconvenient, but if encounters with loose dogs are ruining your walk, a bit of expense in gas seems a small price to pay. Finding another neighborhood can prevent behavioral problems, and challenges with other dogs.
The other thing you could consider is visiting the home (without your dog) where the troublesome dog lives. Think of it this way – you already have something in common with these people. You both presumably love your dogs. So just walk up, knock on the door, and gently explain that your dogs seem to be coming into conflict when going walkies. Remember to be kind – tell them how pretty their dog is, and that you’re worried that if he’s running around loose he could be hit by a car. Don’t take the “Keep your mutt away from my baby” approach – remember that you’ll get better results with kindness than you will with invective language. You might even suggest walking your dogs together; it’s always nice for both you and your dog to have friends!
At the very least, you could suggest that you might work out a schedule where you exercise your dogs at different times. Remember, your goal here is to make it easier for you to walk your dog, not to make enemies.
Don’t’ Make Friends with Psychos
Of course, once in a very long while, you are going to encounter people who are not even remotely reasonable. If you’ve done all you can to try to make friends and work out your issues, and what you end up with is a door slammed in your face, you can probably reasonably assume that there is something wrong with that particular dog owner. They may be mentally unstable, and unwilling to control their dog. In that case, sometimes all you can do is call animal control and alert them to a problem dog along your walking route. Best case scenario, they will be told to control their dog. Worst case scenario, the dog may be seized and delivered to a shelter.
Try not to feel guilty if this happens. It’s the fault of the irresponsible owner, not yours.
If you’re just wandering along and you’re suddenly confronted by a loose dog, I’m sorry, but that’s your fault. You weren’t paying attention. When you’re out walking your dog, you should be alert to everything that is happening around you. And if you’re not paying attention, all hell can break loose in very short order.
So, if you see a strange dog, turn around immediately. You may have inadvertently wandered into what he perceives to be his territory. Stay calm, and speak firmly to your dog. Don’t choke them on the leash – this is just going to tell your dog that there is something to be afraid of. Just turn around quickly and calmly, and get out of there. The last thing you want to do is give your dog the chance to pay attention to the loose dog. You don’t know how well socialized that dog is, and you don’t know what is in his mind.
You might be getting really tired of me telling you to “treat away” bad behavior, but I do it because it works. If you can’t reasonably walk away, then offering a treat to the approaching dog can often be a very good way of defusing what could be a bad situation. Give treats to your dog to distract him, and toss a few to the approaching dog as well. This way, they probably won’t pay much attention to each other.
Train, Train, and Train
You might not think it’s a big deal if your dog doesn’t totally focus on what you want him to do, or if he wanders on a walk, or if he gets excited when he sees other dogs. And it’s true, most of the time these aren’t big deals. But if you find yourself in a situation where you and your dog could be in danger from another dog wandering loose, then it is a very, very big deal. You have to keep your dog focused on you, not on any outside distractions. When the going gets tough, you don’t want your dog focused on another dog. You want him cool and calm, and focused on you.
So, you’re in a situation where you can’t avoid an interaction that you don’t want. What you have to do is stay cool and calm, and use your body language to tell your dog, and the other one as well, that all is fine and there’s no need for aggression on anyone’s part.
You do this by means of calming signals. You do not step toward the other dog. You do not make eye contact. And you observe the other dog’s signals as well. If he yawns, licks his lips, or sniffs the ground, he’s probably feeling good about the whole situation. On the other hand, if he scrunches down, positions his head forward, and holds his tail out straight, he’s probably not a happy camper. Your job here is to stay cool, speak softly, and hold your arms at your sides in a non-aggressive position. Do your best to make the other dog comfortable. This will make the loose dog, and your own as well, more relaxed. You’re showing them that there’s nothing wrong, and no one needs to become aggressive.
In this way, you can avoid the potential for confrontation.
Okay, so the situation has escalated, and now you’re really worried about your safety and that of your dog. This is where you have to stop worrying about calming the loose dog, and think about protection.
If the loose dog is moving toward you and your dog, first position yourself between them. Ask your dog to sit, and place your dog in front of him.
Now, you need to try to determine what the loose dog wants to do. If he seems a bit uncertain, you can try posturing. In other words, move your weight forward, and yell “Go home,” or “Get away!” You can also assume that he’s at least a little bit trained, and shout “Sit!” Any of these commands might stop him from moving forward. You can also try tossing treats in his direction – after all, if he’s stopping to get treats, he’s not moving forward toward you and your dog.
Now, if he’s coming at you full-on, really, really use those treats. Throw them right in his face. Sure, it’s kind of a “last resort” approach, but it’s been known to work.
I really hesitate to suggest measures like bear spray – it’s extremely painful to dogs, and should be used only as the very last resort, but sometimes extreme situations call for extreme measures. When confronted with very hostile dogs, you can use pepper spray. A gentler deterrent is citronella spray, but you have to understand that it may not work in extreme situations.
An aging friend of mine walks with a cane. He doesn’t really need it to help him to walk, but he’s encountered aggressive dogs from time to time. I referred, one time, to his cane as a “cudgel,” and he told me, “No, it’s a cuddler. I would never hit a dog. I only want to cuddle dogs. But usually when they’re being bad, I point the ‘cuddler’ at them, and they back off.”
Sometimes, dogs will respond to loud sounds. A pocket air horn can cause an aggressive dog to turn tail and run. Of course, the downside to this is that it can scare your dog as well, so if you plan on using this on your walks as a means of deterring loose dogs, it would be a good idea to desensitize your dog to it first.
This is similar to the “cuddler.” You don’t actually use it to make a dog move away or keep him away from your dog. You just slam it on the ground, and rely on the sound to motivate the dog to move away. Again, though, you could scare your own dog.
Go Somewhere Else
Dogs are very territorial, and if they think they’re going into someone else’s territory, they may back off. So go up a driveway, as if you’re going home. Many dogs will stop at the end of even a strange driveway, thinking that you’re entering your own territory.
If you have a little dog, and he’s being threatened by a bigger one, take him out of the situation. Throw him in the back of a pickup truck where the big dog can’t get at him. Toss him in a dumpster. You can always retrieve him once the threat is removed. Dive into a vacant building. Do whatever you have to do to protect your dog. Whatever you do, though, always, always stay calm and cool. Remember, it’s a pretty poor person who can’t get the best of even the smartest dog. So if you’re confronted by a loose dog on your walk around town, stay in control.
I was really scared that day that I took Janice and Leroy out of our usual neighborhood. I guess I just wanted to see different things, and assumed that they would, too. I didn’t really think much about how we were going outside our usual area, and didn’t consider that we might encounter other dogs that we didn’t know, and that might not be friendly. I guess we found out quickly enough that once you decide to step outside your usual boundaries, bad things might happen.
It could have ended up badly. But I guess I’m a pretty assertive person, and I figured out how to react. It doesn’t always work out that way, though, and I’m the first person to tell you, “Don’t’ do what I do; do what I say.” I could have gotten Janice, Leroy, and me in huge trouble. We’re all home, safe and sound, but we were lucky. The dogs we encountered weren’t huge, weren’t horribly aggressive, and were easily subdued.
I think, though, that from now on we’ll stick to the neighborhood, and the dogs we know. It’s fine to be adventurous, but I think I’ve learned a little common sense. So learn from my mistakes, and keep your dogs safe in familiar neighborhoods. Sometimes, your dogs and strange dogs are just a bad mix.