Keeping A Dog Safe With Off-Leash Dogs

Keeping your leashed dog safe when off-leash dogs lunge out from nowhere is a concern for many dog parents. Heck, you could even be in your own yard, walking your cat, or just out for an afternoon stroll and suddenly you are approached by an off-leashed dog. It can certainly be stressful. And definitely an adrenaline jolt.

As such, do you have to engage the loose dog? How do you know the dog is safe? But what do you do? How can you safely handle the situation? In this article, I’ll share what I’ve discovered, what others have been successful in using, and my own personal experience. Hold off on your dog walk for a few minutes you may want to use these tips.

*Updated: June 2, 2023

fearful dog of off-leash dogs
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Budget Tip:

The key to keeping you and your dog safe is always preparation. You should prepare for an encounter with an aggressive off-leash dog. Then hope you never need to use your preparation. In college, I had a job as a security supervisor for our sporting and entertainment arena. I learned to always access an area and the people before entering it. That's good information even when walking your dog.

Additonly, don't forget that a walking stick, umbrella, or even a spray do not cost much. Although they may be exactly what you and your dog need to be safe. Besides a walking stick or umbrella could even help alleviate some back pain as long as you have a free hand. Needless to say it's best to always be safe. And it's definitely a budget-wise decision.

Do I have to engage with an off-leash dog?

Absolutely not! Even if a dog is friendly you may not want to engage with the dog. Yes, dogs can be lovable, case in point, my Henry, but sometimes you simply want some space. For example:

Training session

If an off-leash dog approaches while you’re training your dog, it could undo what you’re working on with your pup.

Would you like to train your dog, but don’t have the time or money? In this article, I walk you through how to train your dog on your time for free.

Service dog

These dogs are trained to look after you. When a service dog is “geared-up” he or she is “on duty”. If a crazy off-leash dog approaches, your service dog will protect you.

Your dog is not in the mood

Your dog may not feel like company. Yep, we all have those days, even our dogs. Expect there may be times when even a friendly dog, doesn’t feel like greeting a strange dog. You’ll need to watch your dog’s body language (more on this below).

Dog illness  

Perhaps your dog is ill or fragile and you don’t want to take the chance of interacting with a strange dog. Your dog may not be contagious, but maybe your dog has pain from arthritis. Or even your dog could be blind and uncertain of other dogs.

You are not ready or in the “mood” 

Maybe you went to the dog park to read a book or take photos of the sunset. You probably don’t want to be smothered by a loose dog even if the dog is friendly.

All of the reasons, or simply no reason, are perfectly fine to not engage with a dog. That goes for leashed dogs too. It’s your decision and your right.

How can I tell if a dog will attack?

Good question. Basically, how do you know if a loose dog is a friend or foe? The truth is, you may not always be able to tell right away. The dog may appear friendly and then become aggressive as it gets closer.

Remember, you have the right at any point to refuse to meet a dog. This is both for leashed and off-leashed dogs. Watch the body language of not only the approaching dog but also your dog. The body langue signs could be subtle, such as a little flinch. However, there are a few telling signs of an aggressive dog, which include:

  • Rigid and still
  • Ears pinned or pricked
  • Raised hackles
  • Teeth exposed
  • Lunging
  • Growling or threatening bark
  • Snapping or attempting to bite

Do you have an aggressive dog? Your dog might be trying to tell you something in the aggression. In this article, I share the science back reasons why dogs are aggressive and how to treat them.

What are signs that a dog is friendly? 

Even if a dog appears to be friendly, you’ll want to keep in mind that you don’t know a strange dog’s history. You don’t know what triggers that dog. Additionally, you won’t know a strange dog’s medical history.

Thus, even if the dog seems friendly, you’ll want to take precautions. If the dog owner is nearby or the dog is leashed you can ask simple questions about the loose dog. These questions can appear innocent to the dog owner. Such as how long they’ve been together. Or even what veterinarian the dog owner uses.

Also, I like to say I’m looking for a new veterinarian. I’ve found a key is to ask how long it takes to get an appointment with their veterinarian. The dog parent will normally reveal the last time the dog was at the vet or proudly proclaim how healthy their pup is to you.

However, if the dog parent doesn’t have an answer, then you know you can make up an excuse and leave the scene. I like to say, “I’ve got to call my attorney back.” Of course, the dog parent doesn’t know that’s my brother. At any rate, you don’t want to expose your dog to unknown issues, especially if your dog is older or has health issues.

Nevertheless, a few signs of a friendly off-leash dog will include:

  • Wiggly body
  • Bouncing body
  • Wagging tail
  • Ears up and alert

What NOT to do when an off-leash dog approaches my leashed dog?

If you find yourself in a situation where an off-leash dog charges you, especially if it’s aggressive, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. These include:

Don’t run. Seeing you or your dog run will empower the charging dog to pursue more.

Never assume anything. Thinking the dog owner is close by could be a huge mistake! Remember the dog could be a stray dog. How many dogs do you see daily on social media that are missing? Also, don’t think you can calm an aggressive dog. Again, you don’t know this loose dog’s triggers.

NOTE: Always know the leash laws in the area or where you’re visiting with your dog. Plus, don’t forget to read the posted leash laws at dog parks you visit. And most importantly follow them. However, if the posted regulations say dogs can be off-leash, be prepared to see loose dogs on your walk or hike. 

What do I do when an off-leash dog approaches my leashed dog?  

You may find yourself face-to-face with a lunging off-leash dog anytime and anyplace. The dog could be friendly. Or it may be aggressive. Perhaps, as discussed earlier, you or your dog just don’t want to engage with a strange loose dog in your neighborhood, on a walk at your dog park, or on a hike. You should be prepared for both yourself and your dog. Here are a few tested tricks:

Is it time to get a new dog park or switch do something other than the dog park? In this article, I share the top 10 signs that you need to know when your dog park isn’t a good fit for you.

Access the area

This goes back to my security days. I have a need to always scan any area, whether inside or outside. I look at the people, what they have, and scan for exits. Think about how you would remove yourself from an aggressive situation. If you can get on the other side of a fence or barrier, do it.

Throw dog treats

This one works great, especially for dogs who are food motivated. The theory is that you throw dog treats at the approaching loose dog. When he or she stops to eat them, you and your dog can calmly but quickly escape. Of course, you must have a pouch of dog treats at your ready for this one to work. But most dog parents are good about walking with some kind of dog treat.

Do you know that you can save a lot of money with homemade dog treats? In this article, I break it all out.

Yell verbal commands “NO!”  “SIT!” or “GO HOME!”

Again, try to remain calm. But you’ll want to assert your authority over the off-leash dog. If the dog knows basic dog training commands, he or she should comply appropriately. However, if you find yourself in the worst of situations, and multiple loose aggressive dogs are approaching, they’ll most likely be in pack mode. You’ll need something stronger.

Shout to the dog owner “CALL YOUR DOG!”  

If the loose dog is far ahead of the owner, then there’s a chance the owner hasn’t a clue there’s an altercation. Hopefully, this will get the dog owner’s attention and calm the situation.

The dog owner yells “He’s friendly!”

This happens a lot as if it’s an excuse. You respond with, “Mine’s contagious!” This should get the loose dog owner running quickly to snatch up their pup.

NOTE: Of course, you never want to take your dog out to possibly interact with any dogs or pets if he or she is actually contagious. It’s never wise. So, consider this a white lie or an exaggeration to protect your dog. Although, for Henry, I’d say his playfulness is contagious and rationalize it in my mind.

Tell the loose dog owner, “My dog doesn’t do well with other dogs yet.” 

This could be a great option. In theory, it should make the dog owner jump to get their off-leash dog. However, not all dog owners are created equal. Keep in mind you just told this dog owner that your dog isn’t friendly. So, if there’s an altercation, you could be held liable.

NOTE: Some will recommend saying your well-mannered and friendly dog is aggressive to an off-leash dog owner. They argue this is the best method to deter an unleashed dog encounter. The problem with this action is that it could leave you open to liability if there is an altercation.

Umbrella to the rescue

I’ve seen and heard this one being used a lot to great success. Although, you will need to have one hand free to properly execute it. The idea is that you simply open the umbrella toward the aggressive and keep it between you and the unfamiliar dog. Some dog parents think painted angry eyes on the umbrella makes this method even more effective.

Spray shield, Pepper, or bear spray could help

While the theory behind spray shield is great, there is one major drawback. You need to make sure you are upwind when you use the spray. There are gel versions, which are much better. But if you live in high wind areas, as I do, it could still be an issue.

Although, the threat can be just as effective. So, even if you hold up the spray can, it will often make the owner of the loose dog move quickly so their dog isn’t sprayed.

Distilled vinegar spray

This is an interesting one that I hadn’t considered until recently. Although, it should work just as well if not better than the store-bought spray. Plus, it’s not as harmful. All you need to do is fill or half fill a spray bottle with distilled vinegar. You can even put a loop of velcro on it and your belt loop so you have easy access.

Thus, if an off-leash dog approaches, grab the spray bottle and aim for the nose. It will turn the dog immediately. Super smart idea provided by Chris Ramsay of Shaker Hound Academy during KittyCatGo off-leash dog discussion.

NOTE: Some cities or counties may restrict the carrying of spray shield or pepper spray as a defensive weapon. Thus, you’ll need a license. However, distilled vinegar shouldn’t require any special license. But I would still highly recommend knowing your local and state laws when it comes to protecting yourself and your pets. 

Turn your back – or not on the off-leash dog

While there is some controversy about turning your back and picking up your dog, my experience is it worked for me with my small rescue dog. Of course, if you have a large dog, or you are unable to pick up your dog, this isn’t an option. Additionally, if the aggressive dog is huge it may not be the smartest option. The loose dog attacking Henry was large, but not huge.

On the other hand, some dog owners caution turning your back on an approaching unleashed dog saying it empowers that dog to become more aggressive.

A personal experience with an off-leash aggressive dog

Nonetheless, from my personal experience, picking up my small rescue dog and turning my back on the attacking dog worked. Specifically, when a loose dog aggressively lunged at my dog, Henry at our local dog park. The action I took bought us time. And yes, our dog park is an on-leash dog park. Although, there was no owner insight or no one else for that matter.

This isn’t saying it will work for you. It did for us that day.

My scary experience with an off-leash dog

While at the local dog park one crisp Fall morning a loose dog bounded out of nowhere barking and lunging. I grabbed Henry and pulled him close to my chest while turning my back to the dog. I did this dance for what seemed like 5 minutes.

However, in reality, it was probably about 20-30 seconds. I pulled my arms tightly against my body. My thought was there would be nothing for the lunging dog to bite. Thankfully, I made sure my stance was firm in case the growling dog jumped on me. Gratefully, he kept turning with me, teeth exposed while trying to bite Henry.

Finally, a woman appeared and casually said, “Oh, I didn’t think anyone was here.” I reminded her that it was an on-leash dog park and that her aggressive dog behavior left her open to huge liability.

Since that day, I now walk and hike with either spray shield or pepper spray. You never know where you may meet an aggressive off-leash dog or a clueless dog owner.

Consequently, I talked with other dog park parents. This woman and her dog had become a nuisance and had been reported numerous times to animal control.

NOTE: The more reports animal control have about a pet owner or pet, the more likely they will force the owner to act by taking training classes, always having their dog leashed, or some other solution. 

Another option is to carry a walking stick which can also help with back pain and be used to fend off an aggressive dog or even wildlife. However, like the umbrella method you need to have a free hand to execute it properly.

What do I do if my dog ends up in a dog fight with an off-leash dog?

You want to avoid a dog fight. So, if you see an aggressive dog approaching, use verbal commands to tell the loose dog to “SIT”, “GO HOME” or “NO”. If the dog is a stray dog, you may need to throw dog treats, use your walking stick, or use a spray like distilled vinegar, spray shield, or pepper spray.

However, never reach into a dog fight to break it up.

Once you have reached a safe location, call animal control on the strange loose dog. Even as a dog lover, you need to consider that the next encounter may not go so well. Moreover, if this incident happened at a dog park that has a leash area and an off-leash area, the attacking dog probably doesn’t know the difference between the areas.

Furthermore, the loose dog may not have any manners or know how to properly play without being aggressive. The loose dog owner will need to access their dog’s needs and most likely seek dog training. However, you’ll want this push coming from city officials, such as animal control.

NOTE: Remember your goal is to keep you and your dog safe and avoid a dog fight.

What else can I do to keep my dog safe when off-leash dogs approach?

Below is a link to a fabulous discussion by KittyCatGo on how to deal with off-leash dogs. It’s a roundtable discussion and covers a multitude of issues you may encounter with loose dogs. Included in the discussion are two dog experts. The tips and discussion are very valuable. I’ve incorporated many tips into how I keep Henry safe when we’re out and about. Emily of KittyCatGo has also written a very informative article on how to keep your pets safe with off-leash dogs. 

kittycatgo podcast discussion how to deal with off-leash dogs

Related articles:

Summary of keeping a dog safe with off-leash dogs 

I know firsthand that it can be stressful when an off-leash dog aggressively approaches your leashed dog. Your mind can either freeze or go into dog mom protection mode. I’m grateful that my protection mode worked for Henry. Additionally, I’m thankful to have discovered a few new tips, like yelling at the dog owner “My dog is contagious!” Or distilled vinegar as a spray. Although I have to admit, I really like the umbrella idea as well. I could even pretend to be Mary Poppins with a caned umbrella. And with that vision, I’m definitely getting a caned umbrella.

dog watching off-leash dogs

Have you encountered any aggressive off-leashed dogs while your dogs are leashed? How did you handle the situation? What tips can you share? 

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10 thoughts on “Keeping A Dog Safe With Off-Leash Dogs”

  1. Off leash dogs can be so frustrating! I had to deal with quite a few of them, surprisingly, when we still lived in the city. On more than a handful of occasions I’ve been thankful that my dogs are small, so that I can easily pick them up to protect them.

    Reply
    • I love big dogs, but you are right. There are benefits to small dogs and the ability to swoop them up when an aggressive off-leash dog approaches is definitely top of the list. I’m still hoping one day people will get that it’s important to follow the leash laws. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Reply
  2. With Layla aging and going blind off leash dogs worry me but I am fortunate that I live in an area where everyone has their dogs leashed and if off leash I call the owner to leash their dog while walking Layla as I explain her condition and have not had any problems, the opposite they are very understanding. It does fear me though and I keep a watchful eye on her at all times

    Reply
    • It sounds like you have a perfect plan for dealing with off-leash dogs. I’m glad the dog owners in your area are most respectful and quickly act to gather their dogs. Give Layla a pet for Henry and me!

      Reply
  3. This is a great post of clever ideas on how to handle off-leash dogs. I never would have thought about the umbrella trick. That’s clever. Kuddos to you keeping your dog safe. I know if I had a dog, my mom instinct would be to put myself in harms way too.

    Reply
    • You are certainly right, dog mom mode does kick in on high when there’s a dangerous situation. While I haven’t used the umbrella method yet, I’m definitely trying it. I love the beautiful caned umbrellas. You can sometimes even find them in animal thrift stores. This is a great way of trying it out and giving back to a great organization for animals.

      Reply
  4. A few years ago, a large off-leash dog snuck up on me, my husband, and our Maltese. My husband heard the dog growl and started yelling “NO!” at the dog which gave me time to pick up our dog. My husband kept yelling at the dog until it turned around. It was a terrifying experience because if he hadn’t been there, I don’t think I would have noticed until it was too late for my dog.

    Even though most dogs we encounter are on leashes, this experience makes me nervous to walk our dog by myself. I need to get some vinegar spray and take it with me. I’m afraid if I had pepper spray, I would end up spraying myself in the face in my panicked state.

    Reply
    • WOW!!! That is a scary experience! I’m really glad your husband was with you. Distilled vinegar is a safe alternative. Here’s one more tip…you can even put a few drops of food coloring in the vinegar. It marks the off-leash dog. This way if the dog is a stray or the loose dog owner says the dog wasn’t in the area, you can tell animal control “the dog was sprayed with blue vinegar”. The dog owner won’t be able to wash it out very quickly. Of course, it will wear out or they could cut it out, which would be obvious. The point is that it’s another fact in the story for animal control to gather about the loose dog. The hope is that with enough facts, animal control will be able to force the dog owner to tell the dog owner to keep their dog leashed, take lessons, or some other kind of solution.

      Thank you for sharing your story! I’m glad I’ve been able to provide you with an alternative to pepper spray. Be safe!

      Reply
  5. This is SO helpful! Off leash dogs is one of my pet peeves and one of my biggest fears. It’s happened a few times and we’ve been lucky. I’m definitely going to use some of these tips, like the distilled vinegar spray and carrying an umbrella. I have a small foldup umbrella that opens w/ just the push of a button. We have an irresponsible neighbor who’s dog continually runs out their door or garage – the dog isn’t necessarily aggressive but it’s super rambunctious and frightens or agitates dogs out for walks on leash w/ their owners. They’ve been told several times to get control of their dog but they just apologize and attempt to wrangle the dog. It’s infuriating and worrisome! Thanks for posting this.

    Reply
    • I would suspect if you sprayed that dog once it would steer clear of you. Even if you held up the spray bottle and the dog owner was standing nearby, they may act quickly. Simply because they won’t know what is in your spray bottle. It’s a nice trick and one that seems to have some staying power for persistent off-leashed dogs and the clueless owners.

      Good luck!

      Reply

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