You are trying to do the right thing.
Following the signs and the rules.
Walking, training, and spending quality time with your dog.
Enjoying the day, the weather, the simple pleasure of movement.
And then you see an off-leash dog coming your way with an owner making no effort whatsoever to call their dog back.
The dog could be nice, maybe, could be testing, or curious, or opinionated, or just out for a walk, but all the same, they are off-leash and basically unattended.
When you have your dog on-leash in an on-leash area, which is basically everyplace in an urban environment unless marked otherwise, you are doing the right thing, you would think you are in the right, and you would think others would be doing the same. But the reality is, not really.
Any time you step out with your dog, and even if you are doing right by the laws and signs, if there is an off-leash dog, walking, running, and stalking you and your dog, you must do right by your dog, and that means being their advocate in the human world, and making choices for their safety.
Yes, easy enough to call the off-leash dog owner a plethora of unsavory names, yell, let the ‘F’ bombs fly, but once you let your emotions ratchet up, your dog will know something is wrong and their emotions will rise with yours. Nothing good happens in that space, for you or your dog.
So here are some strategies for dealing with off-leash dogs in leash only areas, which again is basically everyplace in urban environments unless stated otherwise.
Not all of these strategies work in every situation, but if you practice them all, just because, than when you need that skill you will have it. Context, always think of context and what will work best and when.
YOUR EMOTIONS COUNT – When you see an off leash dog coming your way, don’t panic, but have an idea of what action you are going to take. Keep your voice light, your body language lose, and your eye on the on coming dog while you decide on your strategy. You don’t want to signal your dog that something is wrong, you want to keep things as even as possible. So breathe.
ENVIRONMENT – If an area of your town is notorious for off-leash dog users than please choose another area to walk your dog, even if they are in the wrong, you need a place where you and your dog can enjoy your walk stress free, and come home more relaxed than when you left.
DETOURS vs DESTINATIONS – When you are walking your dog, always be okay with detouring and changing your walk up if need be. If an off leash dog is coming towards you, don’t try to blow past them and cause possible conflict for your dog, make a detour, down another street, up to someones front door if need be, or on the other side of a parked car. Holding your course because your planned route or destination is important to you will not serve your dog in the long run. Their safety always comes first.
CROSS THE STREET – When you are walking down a sidewalk, you have a pretty clear view of who is coming your way. If there is an off-leash dog or a super excited on-leash dog coming head on, even if they are a block or more away, cross the street. Sidewalks, most of the time, are narrow and do not allow for passing with grace unless you have made it your full time job to work on that one skill.
OUTSIDE PASS – If say crossing the street isn’t an option because of traffic or whatever, than have your dog on your ‘outside’, meaning you are the buffer between the on coming person and dog. Always keep motion going forward, never stop and make your dog sit. After passing, reward your dog heavily.
U TURN – If you see a dog coming your way, and you can feel too much unwarranted attention, or the dog has made it clear that they ARE coming into your space in 3-2-1, do a U TURN, about face, or go back the way you came, whatever you like to call it. As you turn, make it a super good thing for your dog, and say ‘turn’ with as happy a voice as positive, and then walk quickly away and reward your dog.
RAINING MEATBALLS – I always have food rewards on me for my dogs if I am actively training, or if they do something amazing while we are out on a walk and I want to ‘mark & reward’ it. And I also have another pocket filled with frozen left over meat and kibble. IF an off-leash dog is coming your way, and it doesn’t look like the owner is going to call them back, take a giant handful of the kibble & meat mixture out of your pocket and chuck it in their direction, as you and your dog cross the street.
Now this is when off-leash dog owners usually speak up and become active in what is happening, “hey don’t feed my dog!” You and I know they missed the boat a while back, and didn’t seem to care about the six on-leash only signs they passed, but this is literally the only time I will ever respond or talk with a person who lacks respect for those around them. My response is along the lines of, “because your dog was off-leash you left the decision making in the hands of others”. And I keep walking.
It is pointless, absolutely dead air space, to try and ask a person to get their dog on leash or call the dog back, when they are already demonstrating that they don’t care enough.
So instead of getting into the already beaten to death diatribe, “call your dog, oh he is friendly, I don’t care call him anyway, what the hell is wrong with your dog is he not friendly? F#*@ OFF!, It’s cruel to have a dog on-leash your not letting your dog be a dog …etc”, always take the path of least resistance, for you and your dogs well being.
SMALL DOGS – The beauty of walking a small dog is that you can pick them up if you are ever uncertain. Never make a small dog take it, and never make them feel like bait. Ever.
But please don’t pick up your small dog and stand there, you must keep moving, whether forward, turning around, or crossing the street. Once the off-leash dog is far gone, then put your little one down and continue your walk. Safety is goal.
LARGE DOGS – Unless you are a professional wrestler, good luck picking up a large breed or giant dog. If you are walking a big lunk of love, you must choose your environment carefully.
MULTIPLE DOGS – Walking two or more dogs together is nothing short of magic. Your attention, your observations, your route choice, and your well practiced strategies all count, times however many dogs you are walking. Having an off-leash dog run into two or more leashed dogs with one person, does not bode well for anyone. It is important that when walking multiple dogs you have a working vocabulary that you can use while in motion.
When walking multiple dogs choose areas with wider sidewalks, or where cross the street is a possibility. Be super flexible with your route, and be okay with detours.
Teach your dogs’switch’ which means going from your right side to your left side and visa versa.
Teach your dogs ‘turn’ which means turn and go in the opposite direction.
Choose well managed areas for your walks.
THE STICK – I have recommended to some of our clients to walk with a walking stick. If something really hits the fan, in a lawless neighborhood or conversely a schwanky neighborhood that doesn’t’ allow fencing, swinging a stick towards an on coming dog, or crossing it in front of you and your dog, will stop the approaching dog.
Now a few things can go really wrong really quickly with a walking stick. It might scare your dog, the off-leash dog person might accuse you of harming dogs with a stick, or you might just get tired of carrying it. This is for use when there is a risk of you and your dog getting harmed by other dogs in certain areas.
VIDEO – If you have persistent off-leash dogs with their owners in on-leash areas, pull out your phone and video tape them as you cross the street, scoop your dog up, or are turning around. Call your Animal Control, tell them the problems you are having and state clearly that you have video tape to prove it.
I hope this helps in some way. The one thing that we all have going for us is ‘social norms’. Whether we want to or not, we are programmed to do what others are doing. The more dogs are walked on leash in on-leash areas the more others will do the same. But it takes more people wanting to do the right thing.