Realistic Strategies To Keep You and Your Pets Safe From a Loose Dog

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

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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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


27 thoughts on “Realistic Strategies To Keep You and Your Pets Safe From a Loose Dog

  1. AnimalAndSafePetAdvocate

    I once read that carrying an umbrella is a good idea. I guess the idea is it might be handy to use as a weapon if necessary? I'm wondering what an attacking dog's response would be to the sudden opening of an automatically injectable umbrella would be, especially if pointed in the dog's direction? This type of umbrella held normally with the thumb already on the injection button would take a mere second to activate. Pointed towards the dog low enough to block his vision of my dog(s) beside/behind me...would the visual absence of my dog(s) be a deterrent, or would it increase his agitation instead? I'd be interested to know how this would play out in the real world.

  2. Wishes Weaver

    Hello Alex 🙂 Great tips, and yes definitely a really bad situation to find yourself in. I always carry treats when walking my dogs, and I have found that throwing a handful of treats to the approaching dog might momentarily distract them enabling you an escape. I have quickly walked into someone's front yard with a small fence and a gate that can be closed, providing at least some barrier between the aggressive dog that was rushing my dogs. Just a thought, and I'm interested in hearing other people's suggestions and experiences 🙂

  3. Ivona Tassin

    I have had this happen way too many times!!! The time you have to react is a split second!!!!!! My sweet 8 year old miniature schnauzer has been shredded by 'loose' dogs 3 times already. Now I carry a personal protection metal stick and considering pepper spray. Last time this happened, 2 week ago, a loose un-neutered pitbull has been running the street, totally non-responsive to the owner! I was scared to death for me (5 foot tall female) and my 16 pound dog, so I hid in a nearby driveway and waited it out, praying for the dog not to spot us. He was huge, intense, looking for trouble! This article has some good points, but when you are in this situation, not much can be done if the dog charges you!

  4. owenhowlett

    I heard some authoritative advice about "last resorts" to break up dog fights--grab the collar of the attacking dog (from behind) with both hands, and twist your wrists. This will constrict the collar and cause the dog to choke and therefore lose their grip. I did have to use this method once and it was successful, even though I only had one hand on the collar. It seemed to be an improvement over my alternative method which was to kick the dog in the head, because that has the potential to cause more injury. Both incidents were sudden attacks off leash; the author's advice about on-leash incidents sounds right to me.

  5. zaxzax

    I've had this happen just once, and I put my hand up like a traffic policeman and said "Sit!" - amazingly, the dog sat. It seems to be a command that practically every dog knows. I then told it (dobermann) it was a good dog, put mine into sits and stood between them, giving treats until the panting owner caught up. However, I think one should be careful about giving treats to a strange dog - it can make you VERY attractive to that dog and your own dogs might react to that. Someone else I know recommended smelling salts, although I'm not too sure how quickly one could get those out in an emergency...

  6. Walkaround

    I have a medical assistance dog, and we were trained to take the "handle" end of the leash and twirl it in a circle at the upcoming dog. I have never had to actually use this, but it is known to work. Another thing we were taught is to carry an empty soda can with a couple of small rocks in it; the noise from shaking scares the upcoming dog.

  7. Jill F.

    I too have a dog-reactive dog who has made amazing progress with +R behavior modification. However, he regressed after 2 large unfriendly dogs charged up to us last week. I now carry a can of condensed air (the kind used to clean computer keyboards), which is my warning spray, and a can of citronella spray, which is what I'll go to if a dog ever ignores the warning spray. I've used the warning spray twice and it worked, startling the oncoming dog but not hurting him. I haven't had to use the citronella yet and am hoping I will never need to!

  8. Kelly

    Having a dog reactive bully breed dog - who I walk & work with daily - he would Never stay still, we have used the run/jog away - trying to keep him focused ahead. Not sure if that's the correct way to handle it, I get so nervous that due to his breed - he will get blamed/put down or penalized if something were to unfortunately happen.

  9. Ally

    Last year, my rat terrier and I were attacked from behind by a male pit bull, who got out of the front door. He didn't bark, but instead ran up behind us and attacked, first my dog and then me, when I tried to rescue my dog from his mouth. I screamed for help for 2-3 minutes and finally the owner came out and got him. I was very upset, because my last rat terrier was killed by loose dogs who got through our fence. This time my dog had bite marks and received vet care. My fingers were bitten, too. He did have rabies shots thankfully.

    It took us awhile to start walking again. Now we both constantly scan our surroundings, including behind us. We avoid loose dogs, even if the owners are with them. I think about carrying pepper spray, but haven't yet. My dog can spot a loose dog way before I can. He tries to hide behind me, which makes me stop and look all around. Then often I'll see a loose dog 3-4 blocks away! I'm glad you posted your story, because it IS so traumatizing and happens in a split second,

  10. Sara Henderson

    Recently I was walking my dog (a partially paralyzed pit bull type who uses a cart) in an industrial area near our office, after hours, so no one else around. Suddenly two unattended dogs approached - a chow, about the same size as Chance, and a fox terrier type. The chow stayed back, but the terrier was a crazy pest. His tail was wagging the whole time, but he had no idea of boundaries. Chance is well behaved but his cart makes him clumsy and it's hard to control some things because of the built-in need for a certain amount of leash space. Having this pesky dog up in his business kept him moving around me (or rather, over my feet). I'm pretty sure my own stress level agitated him, too. I wasn't really afraid of an interaction between the two, but with the third dog hovering just few feet away... nervous Nelly. I kept thinking through what my options were if things changed and they both rushed Chance and since I was wearing flip flops and had not much else, I did not feel confident there would be a good outcome. I tried to act big and said "NO! Go home!" a number of times as we made our way toward the office, but the little bugger just wanted us to play/pay attention. It took weeks for me to be comfortable walking Chance again. Thanks to you I have a couple of ideas!

  11. Maria Gonzalez

    I used to carry a long stick of pvc pipe to swing at approaching aggressive dogs it worked one time but was cumbersome to carry , now I carry a stun gun -it's compact and I can fire it from a distance -if the loud shocking sound doesn't scare the dog then I will be forced to use it directly on the dog and that will stop it, also works on bad humans

  12. Fernando Camacho

    Great post Alex! This kind of thing happens way more than it should. I often recommend my clients carry citronella spray if they live in areas where this is common. It's a very tricky situation if your dogs are a bit reactive and happy to engage in an altercation. Thanks for the tips!

  13. Sam

    When I was 13 I got chased down the road by 2 rotties barking. I say chased, I started to run but took 3 steps before realising how futile that would be! I stood my ground, turned round and they both stayed about 6ft from me just yapping. They were right outside their house and the owners had accidentally left the side gate open.
    In other words they were just guarding their territory. The owner quickly rushed out apologeticly on hearing the noise, ushered them back inside and I carried on walking to school. I was only scared in the initial few seconds when I was figuring out what their intentions were.

  14. doglearner

    I have had very good luck on multiple occasions with distracting and even changing the mind of an oncoming dog by throwing up my hand like a stop signal, stomping one foot forward toward the oncoming dog and shouting NO in a very firm voice. The times that this method did not make the dog turn on it's heels, it did at least stop the dog in it's tracks and I was able to point and say GO with success. I do not look the dog in the face, ever. The problem then becomes being able to leave the situation without a repeat occurrence. I have had to repeat this scenario multiple times when there is no owner present, but thankfully it has worked. This has worked with all different breeds from Chihuahua to very large Labrador mixes and everything in between. The one time I did have to break up an actual attack, I thought the other dog was friendly as I knew the owners and had heard really nice stories of the dog. Turned out the dog just didn't like mine and a friendly greeting turned to an attack in a split second. I panicked and did some things I have read that you should not, such as yell, and hit the dog with no response (most likely aggravated the dog more), I tried grabbing the collar, but it was the break away style. I then tried lifting the hind legs so it would lose some of it's power. This did nothing. After several long minutes of the attacking dog dragging and trying to rip apart my dog's neck and essentially trying to kill my dog, it's owner had to literally sit on it and choke it so it couldn't breath in order to get the dog to release it's hold. Most terrifying experience I have encountered. I struggle with allowing my dog to greet/meet any new dogs now.

  15. cobird2

    Just reading this gets my heart beating 100 times normal. We have had too many close calls even with dogs on leashes because owners think all dogs are friendly to each other.

  16. Jamie_R

    A gun is better than mace. Agai, why did the loser owner take so long to come out and retrieve his dog? So many idiots have no right owning a dog with such carelessness.

  17. arlene abrams

    Completely out of German Shep blindsided me to get to a dog....I was AIRBORNE..... Saw the tree coming...told myself to grab it but apparently I hit it with my head and found myself on the ground. Xena was still at the end of the leash.I got up and amazingly walked home..nothing broken except I didn't have my glasses on (went back and found the) I was afraid i'd have to give up our daily mile long walks. Advised to contact a trainer.....we walked the route together and she mentioned when we came home...that I told her Xena was attacked twice at that same spot by the dog that lives in that either she or I were tense in that narrow space. She is people friendly BUT not dog friendly--I walk her in a park very early in the morning. Still a bit uptight after the experience about a month ago.

  18. Marge Day

    I have had success in emergencies like that by reaching down and grabbing a handful of dirt and throwing it the dog's face. One time, I just faked a throw and bought enough distance and time to get safely out of sight.

  19. Lance Brown

    Why would you kill a dog that could almost certainly be stopped with a face full of pepper spray? An aggressive dog is aggressive because of a person and only doing what it thinks it is supposed to do. Plus if you kill the dog you can expect to be sues at the very least.

  20. Mollie Kidd

    I tend to walk towards the dog (with my own in a 'stay') shouting "Go home" in a loud, calm voice. Normally works. If safe I will let Mollie go if an 'attack' does happen, she will run her way out of trouble. It is a scary situation though.

  21. Leslie Celia

    A large puppy was loose and wanted to play with my reactive dog. We kept walking, but she was lunging and barking but I put her behind me as much as possible. Every time the puppy bounded close, I stamped and yelled NO! A few more interludes adding GO HOME! and the owner found us and took her away. My dog is highly reactive and I had no way to know if she would understand the puppy only wanted to play or go for her throat. This was the first time I had to defend my girl and it actually made her realize I could be trusted to keep her out of dangerous situation.

  22. Mary Scott

    My mal-shi was on leash and attacked by a loose pitbull. My boy didn't servive the attack. I tried everything I could think of without actually hitting the pitbull. What really stopped me from resorting to violence was that I was 23 weeks pregnant at the time and if she knocked me over and stepped on me the wrong way, I could miscarry. I pulled at her collar while using a stern voice using every command I could think of until her collar came off. My boy did nothing to warrant an attack or protect himself after the attack started, he was completely passive. What it took for the attack to stop was 2 neighbors came out with a baseball bat and shoved it in the pitbull face which caused her to drop my dog long enough for me to grab him up and she was still trying to jump up to pull him out of my arms. He bled to death on the way to the emergency vet. As much justification as I try to give in my mind, I can't understand what else I could have done. I was completely unarmed and was worried that if I ran inside (this all happened in my yard) to get something that she would have dragged him off somewhere. I kno that if I weren't pregnant I would have kicked, screamed, and punched that dog until she either stopped or attacked me instead. The doctors are legally required to fix me. But I couldn't bring myself to risk my baby to save my boy. Now I'm scared of big dogs when their owners aren't around and am having to deal with that in addition to the trauma of going through the attack. I 100% understand the feeling of helplessness.

  23. Karen Lee

    I am also hyper-vigilant and am always watching. But a couple times I have had loose dogs charge around corners at me and my 2 dogs. I try to avoid blind corners.

  24. Marie

    This repeatly has happened to me, not so much a dog meaning harm however a dog charging off their property to me and my leashed dogs.
    I'm lucky in most cases the "go home" has worked, but what an uncomfortable situation to be in when one of your dogs is leash reactive!

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