Realistic Strategies To Keep You and Your Pets Safe From a Loose Dog
I work in "the dog world." I eat, live, and breathe dog body language, behavior and training. So why was it that when I was faced with a large loose dog charging at me and my leashed dogs, I felt completely and utterly helpless?
I was walking my two dogs in my neighborhood like I do every day. We took a different turn than usual, and passed by a house with a dog barking and scratching at his glass front door. To my horror, he was able to scratch open the door and came charging at us barking, growling, and extremely agitated. I had mace in the fanny pack I carry on walks (remember, if you look fashionable walking your dog, you're doing it wrong!), but in the split seconds I had to come up with a plan, I determined that would have to be a last resort since everybody (including me and my dogs) would end up covered in mace.
So first I'll tell you what I did, and then I'll tell you what you can do to be better prepared than I was! Many tips you'll find online sound great in theory, but they aren't always feasible in that split second when you have to think about what to do to keep yourself and your dogs out of harm's way. I hope that you'll find mine a bit more realistic!
What I Did:
1. Said out loud: "Oh s**t."
2. Glanced around in a panic for anyone to help me. Nobody.
3. Put my dogs behind me and used my body language to signal the approaching dog to stop.
4. At this point, the owner realized his dog was outside and told me to "give him a minute." (Seriously.) Panic continues.
5. I watched the dog's body language and could tell that he was completely fine with me, but he was very close to starting a fight with one of my dogs. His body was extremely tense and he was hard staring at my dogs while growling, and it was only my verbal distractions that were keeping him unfocused enough to not instigate a fight. If it had only been me, I may have approached the situation differently. But things are very different when you've got your own dogs with you that are communicating with the loose dog in their own way. In this situation, I was the only protection for my dogs, and their safety was my top priority in that moment.
6. When talking sweetly to him didn't work, I mustered up my best "stern voice" and used my body language to point him home. Dogs are one of the few animals that can follow a point, and this tactic got him about halfway back home before he changed his mind and lunged towards my dogs again.
7. Finally, a neighboring woman came walking out with her two dogs and she knew the loose dog personally. She was able to call him to her, and at this point the owner finally came outside to get his dog.
The whole experience left me frustrated and shaken up. Even with extensive training in dog body language and communication and plenty of experience working with aggressive dogs, I felt totally helpless. Having your own dogs on leash and helpless makes the situation incredibly tedious. The worst part of my whole ordeal is that the extensive force-free training I've done with my leash reactive dog took a major step backwards as a result of this frightening encounter.
What You Should Do:
1. Carry treats and a slip lead. I found myself wishing I had a slip lead to loop around the dog's neck. While I can generally control and predict my own dog's behavior, on or off leash, having the strange dog completely out of my control made the situation much more dangerous. If I had tried to grab his collar, I would have likely gotten bitten. While trying to leash a strange dog isn't appropriate for every loose dog situation, especially a situation where the dog is showing aggression or tension towards you and not just your dogs, it would have been much easier for me to put my two dogs in an emergency down/stay and keep the strange dog securely on-leash until the owner arrived. If you're dealing with a dog that's comfortable with you but not with your dogs (like this dog was with me) this could be a good option. I will now be keeping one with me on every walk.
2. Have a last resort plan. If you do find yourself in the terrifying situation of being attacked, you need to be prepared. If possible, carry a physical deterrent like pepper spray, or a jacket that can be used to cover the attacking dog's eyes. These last resort options should ONLY be used when the dog has crossed that threshold; otherwise you could trigger an attack that wouldn't have otherwise happened. I've heard varying reports of how successful these emergency strategies are. The reality is that it's much easier to prevent an attack than to stop one that has already started.
3. Keep the dog focused on you, rather than your dog(s). You can manage your own body language and reactions much easier than you can manage your dog's, especially in this type of situation. Practice emergency sit/stays or down/stays for situations like this. If your dog is giving off not-so-friendly body language, the likelihood of a fight breaking out becomes even more likely. Use treats or your voice to keep the loose dog as focused on you as possible. Keep your body language fluid, not stiff, don't stare directly at the dog, and if possible, turn your body to the side. If this doesn't work, you can try the "go home" tactic I tried above. It almost worked for me, and I have heard others use this method successfully.
4. Be aware of your fight/flight/freeze response. Everyone responds differently in these situations. Fortunately for me, I'm a freezer. You absolutely do not want to run away, scream, or physically confront the dog in a situation like this. The calmer you and your dogs can be, the more easily you will be able to diffuse the loose dog.
5. Don't stop walking your dog. These situations are TERRIFYING, I know! They make you feel like no matter how prepared you are, you'll never be prepared enough. But even though my leash reactive dog is now a bit more on edge on walks (and probably will be for a little while), I won't stop walking her and continuing her training while letting her explore the world.
Have you faced this situation before? Do you have any additional tips? Leave them in the comments below.
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