Strategies for dealing with off-leash dogs in on-leash only areas

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.


20 Comments Add yours

  1. tippysmom2 says:

    Great advice. I am always a little unsure if I meet an off-leash dog. I try not to show it and do use some of the above strategies. So far, no issues, thank goodness.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      here is to zero conflict walks, may we all have more of them! ❤ Nancy

  2. cindy knoke says:

    We live in The Holler an open rural space where dog owners pride themselves on their viscous dogs, who often of course, get out. We have been charged by pitbulls, by a mastiff and by a Cheasapeke Bay Retriever who should be a lovely dog but is neglected and quite homi- and dogi-cidal. I walk with two very mellow basset hounds on leash who get along with every dog they meet. We also have a dog rehab nearby where the mostly pit-bulls are often walked in groups off leash. Moving out here was an emergant situation that required action on my part to for all of us to stay un-mauled. Our vet, her dog and her son, were seriously injured and mauled. I have a big problem with people who raise viscous dogs.
    Here’s what I do when walking without my dogs. I walk with a marine fog horn. We only get charged once by a dog using this. It is ear splittingly loud. A charging dog does a 360 and never bothers us again. I can’t do this if with my dogs obviously, so in these situations, I carry bear spray. It’s dangerous for everyone to use bearspray because of blow back so it is less than ideal, but at least I can save lives. Note I would only use these measures in a full charge situation.
    I love your ideas. They are extremely helpful. I never knew about turning around and walking backward. The mastiff who loves to charge wouldn’t be fazed, but dropping frozen meat is an awesome idea, and I love the putting the stick in front idea too. It is terrifying to be charged by a large viscous dog. Time slows down and you watch the charge in slow motion. My husband got charged once too and called my name, I deployed the air horn or he would have been pit bull kibble. Animal control came out on all the charges. I had a conversation with one owner who only spoke spanish and the animal control officer. The owner said, “Tell me when you want to walk each day, and I will tie up the dog.” I thought the animal control officer might pepper spray him.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I have senior clients that hen they walk by themselves they do carry an air horn for this very reason, you are not alone in this, and I support it as long as your dogs are not with you.

      Being charged by a group of off leash dogs is just the PERFECT STORM waiting to happen, that would terrify me as well, I would carry a big fat can of bear spray in that case.

      Please be safe!!! ❤ Nancy

  3. Linda says:

    You are so right. I don’t want to wait until the fight happens .But the last owner purposely followed her off leash dog walking toward my rescue dog so he ‘ could have a friend’. I saw the stalking ,hair raised up and all I could do is tell her to get her dog. Ignoring me,she said’ oh,isn’t your dog friendly ?” and by this time I am backed up in someone’s yard as she never called the dog and I did all those things you said don’t do and my dog was worse because of it. I was so mad. And the clincher is that these people call you rude for telling them to get their dog. Ugh!

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      it is an interesting part of human psychology that some people see their dog as an extension of their own life, both emotionally and physically, and cannot understand others not accepting that ..

  4. peacelovepointers says:

    I imagine these same things apply if you’re walking on a narrow-ish trail and there is someone ahead with a dog that is on leash but barking and lunging, and the owner obviously can’t control it? It’s happened to me more than once, and usually just move as far to the side of the trail as possible and pull my dog as close to me as I can…maybe that’s wrong?

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi peacelovepointers, well yes and no.

      On trails you don’t have many options unless you can make a big arcing loop into the woods and around. Stepping 2-15 feet off of the main trail isn’t going to accomplish much as that is generally not enough distance.

      Here is a link to our TURN video –
      You want to be able to turn and move away until you find a way to get WAY OFF the trail, and then let them pass and then continue your journey.


  5. This reminds me of the time it took me almost an extra hour to get my reactive dog home, we were inside a than half a mile perimeter. We tried each route multiple times and were thwarted every time. It was dark when we got home. LOL!

    Extra treats in your pocked is a miracle worker. You cannot control the world, but you can steer yourself away from chaos!

    Also, I think people hear from various sources that their behavior dictates how their dogs act. Sometimes people can take this so personally, as though they are a part of their dog. Yes, your behavior influences your dog, but you are not your dog and your dog is not you. They have brains and they use them! Since we can influence them, best to do it in ways that create positive experiences for all.

  6. idiane2scots says:

    Very well writting article full of practical information! Thank you!

  7. Erica says:

    I may or may not have picked up my dog and put her in the back of a parked pick up truck when a loose dog was following us (with no owner in sight)…

  8. Dino Safety says:

    Dear Nancy, do you think an umbrella used as a dog blocker, with the name of my website on it would work? I carry a folded up umbrella with me on every walk. Folks, I am so sick of off-leash dogs. I am looking for any feedback or ideas. I am just working on a couple of strategies at the moment. Please check out my website. This is a world wide issue, but I am in Australia. Ultimately you want these idiots to leave you alone. I am making a lightweight “dog blocker” that has a friendly message on one side – please keep your dog with you. On the other side it has the website name. People are not auditory. Meaning don’t even bother telling them to put their dog on a leash. I only say 2 things. 1) That is not appropriate. 2) Leave us alone. I am working on a way of clearly displaying the name of my website. Certainly seeking / lending support on this topic. Please visit Thanks. Dino

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Dino, you can do that, and it would be creative, until someone considers your umbrella a weapon of sorts, OR if the dog you are walking becomes afraid of the umbrella, as the use and association of it opening will signal that an off leash dog is approaching. ASSOCIATION is huge, and an umbrella is a hard thing to fade out over time.

      While off leash dogs are a problem world wide, it is the owners that are the real problem, and franky no change will happen until their pocket book gets a little hit, meaning, take a video with your cell phone, and then call animal control. If that is not a possibility in your area, then the path of least resistance is the next option.

      Because I walk multiple dogs at a time, and we are not looking to meet or make friends when out and about, I choose my locations, and times that I walk. I like leaving calmly and returning calmly, and I just don’t trust others to do the same. So I shoulder the responsibility to do that for me and my dogs, especially when they are seniors and not moving to quickly.

      All the best, Nancy

      1. Dino Safety says:

        Dear Nancy, Thank you very much for your reply (and all your other great advice). Like yourself, I am not looking to make friends – I just want to enjoy “Us Time” with my dogs. I have a small medium and a tiny dog. We follow the leash laws. For their sake, I don’t say what I really think. My ultimate aim is to remain calm. Animal Control are absolutely futile. I have been writing to my local council for a long time and they don’t care. One thing I have found that gives me more confidence and is working is I have a bicycle camera that I have installed on my baseball cap. I also have a security guard’s camera that I clip into my shirt. These act as a really good deterrent for human bad behaviour. That’s one thing that is helping me. (Got them both off ebay). I have great connections with people who also have calm obedient leashed dogs, but I have zero respect for the crazy canine behaviour that we all suffer. Why, I wonder – is it not a priority for Animal Control to actually do their job? My thought is an Animal Behaviourist will explain that off-leash dog parks are dangerous, whereas a vet supports them as a good idea. But my theory is that vets are like panel beaters. Vets rely on injury and damage control to make a portion of their income. There are a lot of ads on tv about signing up for pet insurance. Somehow, I am thinking that the vets are in bed with the insurance companies and somehow the councils are too. The one thing that I have been asking for, for three years is bigger clearer signage. People have not been taught by the council what effective control is. Its common sense for those of us who do a bit of research but I am amazed at the mentality of people and how selfish it is. If anyone is interested, I have also built a 3rd website. I have taken it to the authorities, but they don’t care. Anyway…. here it is: If Animal Control won’t educate and enforce the boundaries, us on-leashers need some kind of better way to protect our dogs legally. The way it is currently is incredibly unjust. Thanks. Dino Safety

  9. Carol says:

    My rescue beagle and I were charged at by a large German Shepherd that was untied on his front porch with the owner present. The dog charged down the street towards us and we turned immediately and headed in the opposite direction, the owner took off after the dog calling him but nothing would deter him. I kept an eye out and as soon as he got within 15 feet or so, I kept my dog behind me and turned and stamped my foot and put up my flat hand and yelled STOP! I think it was just enough of a startle for the dog that he stopped in his tracks and the owner was able to catch up. So thankful it worked because my girl is very reactive to off leash dogs. Thanks for the advice, I love hearing other techniques!

  10. Matt says:

    Another option I have used with my dog, (she’s aggressive when being held on leash) is to let go of the leash I’m holding when an off-leash dog is approaching. This usually prevents any possible fights or aggression from both ends.

    1. barbara says:

      yes, leashes have a tendency to make a dog feel ‘not’ in control, especially when an off leash dog is coming toward them, many times it is much calmer if two dogs meet, both off leash, but one can’t do that, for that reason, when walking in an area for ‘leashed dogs’ only. I wish there was a way these areas could be controlled better, and those in charge of what dogs can and cannot do when out and about, could approach those who don’t care, and set them straight, give them a warning, and next time a good hefty fine.

  11. Pat Engel says:

    Yes to all these suggestions. Above all, I always carry a small canister of pressurized citronella- Direct Stop and Spray Shield are two brand names.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s