Swimming With The Sharks – Five Tips For Off Leash Dogs

Michael Shikashio CDBC


August 23, 2022

Do You Have Off-Leash Dogs in Your Area That Rush Up to or Have Attacked Your ON-Leash Dog?


You head out the door with your dog on a beautiful day, hoping to go for a nice enjoyable stroll around your neighborhood, and suddenly, another dog charges at you and your dog. What do you do? 


Maybe your dog has had a terrible experience with an off-leash dog attacking them? Or maybe your dog isn’t the biggest fan of other dogs in general? Or maybe it’s just a big, goofy dog that “just wants to say hi,” but your dog isn’t too ecstatic about the other dog’s over exuberant greeting? 


And to top it all off, maybe you’ve changed walking locations more than you can count, but are still encountering off-leash dogs. Or perhaps you and your dog have experienced so many stressful encounters you’ve started to avoid walks altogether? It’s like jumping into shark infested waters!


Let’s explore five things you can do to mitigate this type of scenario and help keep your dog safe!

NOTE: The techniques and tools suggested in this article are for EMERGENCY scenarios and NOT for training.


1 – Situational awareness — I talk about this concept in just about every aggression case I work with because it is incredibly helpful to be proactive, rather than reactive. If we are aware of the environment and buy ourselves more time to prepare when an off-leash dog is coming towards us, we can often proactively avoid potential disaster.


For example, we might see an off-leash dog with their owner at a distance playing fetch at the local park. The key is to assume that dog might come towards us and prepare before they even take a step in our direction, rather than hoping that particular dog has a good recall. 


Much like a good defensive driver will slow down and observe a swerving tractor trailer ahead on a highway, proactivity can avoid many troublesome spots in aggression cases. That dog (or tractor trailer) might not come in our direction, though it is best if we are prepared with the proper techniques and tools (see below!).


Good situational awareness will also typically allow you to spot the owner of the off-leash dogs so you can ask them to recall or come get their dog(s). One way to get them to come more quickly to retrieve their dog(s) is to yell “come get your dog! My dog is contagious!!” (I recommend this over the often heard sayings of “my dog is not good with other dogs” or “my dog is in training” as they are sometimes met with “oh don’t worry. MY dog is great with other dogs!”)


2 – Teach the “get behind” — this is a position where you can cue your dog to move to that will allow you to deal with the oncoming dog(s) much more safely and efficiently than if your dog is in front of you.

Picture an analog clock (the type that has an hour and minute hand). The “get behind” position is at your 5 or 7 on the clock, if you are the center of the clock. This position allows you to efficiently and effectively use the emergency or defensive handling techniques that might not work if your dog is way out in front of you.

If you walk your dog on a standard 6-foot leash, you will want to be holding about halfway down the leash for optimum control in that type of emergency scenario so your dog cannot get too far out in front of you if they also charge towards the other dog.


3- I’ve listed the next few techniques in order of “friendliness” to the off-leash dogs because, let’s face it, if you are reading this article, you most likely love dogs! And as stressful and scary as these encounters may be, my preference is to try the least invasive techniques directed at the other dog(s) first, before resorting to “less friendly” strategies.

NOTE: If you have experienced a dog attack by a particular dog or in a particular location, you may choose to start with items number 4 or 5 on the list in this article. 


The friendliest technique — treats! The generally least invasive technique is to grab a big handful of treats (not just one!) and throw them right at the other dog(s) that are approaching. I recommend trying to “rain” the treats down on top of the other dog(s) as sometimes they do not see (or smell) the treats being tossed near them because they are often so focused on your dog. 


But first, remember the “get behind!” If your dog is way out in front of you, they might also start going for the treats you’ve just tossed, and you might imagine the problems that can occur with that scenario!

If there are multiple dogs, it might require several handfuls of treats tossed at them.
This technique will not work with every dog, but is generally the first technique to try before moving to other, more aversive strategies.

We love Happy Howie’s food rolls because most dogs really enjoy them in our experience, and they are easy to cut into small pieces, which are excellent for training! One small roll can produce hundreds of treats!


4 – The less friendly, but sometimes necessary for emergencies technique — pop open umbrella. Yes, you might receive some strange looks if you are walking around with an umbrella in say, Yuma, Arizona, but this can be a very effective technique to temporarily keep an off-leash dog at bay.
A small and lightweight umbrella is generally all you need (vs. a large, non-collapsible umbrella). An umbrella of this size can also be carried easily on your waist, right next to the treat pouch and spray product (see below!). 

The umbrella can be popped open as the off-leash dogs are approaching. You can then use the open umbrella in a “pushing motion” towards the off-leash dog(s), as generally speaking, it is the visual stimulus of a “big object being shoved in their direction” that will often have them second guessing their approach.
I credit the wonderful Trish King for this technique!

NOTE: It is important to condition your own dog to the stimulus of an umbrella opening suddenly near them. You can do this by allowing them to sniff and check out the umbrella while it is closed. Then you would move at least 20 feet away from your dog and THEN pop open the umbrella. When they see the umbrella pop open, toss your dog their favorite treat. Rinse and repeat this step while GRADUALLY (one foot at a time) decreasing distance. The goal is for your dog to love when the umbrella pops open because it predicts a treat, much like the sound of their favorite treat container or crinkle of that plastic bag where the treats are kept has them running over to you!


5 – The least friendly, but sometimes necessary for emergencies technique — spray products. I prefer spray products over noise deterrents, such as air horns, as they are less likely to affect your dog (in this type of scenario). All the mentioned spray products below would be sprayed directly at the off-leash dog(s). They may also be used in the event of a dog fight. 

Disclaimer #1: Check your local laws and regulations regarding the products suggested in this section as some may be illegal in certain jurisdictions. And again, these are for EMERGENCY scenarios only and NOT for any type of training. 


Disclaimer #2: Check your local laws and regulations regarding the requirements for dogs to be on-leash in a certain location. If your dog has issues with other dogs approaching them, it is of course best to stay away from locations where leashes are not required. We certainly do not want to be spraying dogs in a location where being off-leash is legal, and where dog greetings are to be expected, such as the middle of a dog park!


Spray Shield — this is a citronella-based spray that can be used to deter a dog from approaching and can be used if attacked by a dog. This product can easily be carried on your belt loop or clipped to your treat pouch and can reach distances of up to 15 feet in my experience. Each can of Spray Shield can produce about 12 seconds of continuous spray (or in bursts adding up to about 12 seconds).
I highly recommend practicing how to use any spray product (in a location where your dog will not typically go to or be around when practicing) so you can gain the “muscle memory” of using the product during a stressful moment. 


Pepper spray or Halt — this is a capsaicin-based spray that can be very effective to deter an attacking dog. Extra caution should be taken when deciding to use pepper spray as it can be very noxious to the other dog, your dog, yourself, and any bystanders, especially on a windy day! Though, out of all methods to ward off a dog attack, this is one of the most effective tools available, if legal in your area. 


Bear spray — some of my students who live in Canada swear by this product as it is not only effective for dog attacks, but also other critters such as 1,000 lb. bears! This is also a capsaicin-based product that requires extreme care. It is often sold in larger cans than pepper spray or Spray Shield and has a longer “spray time” and a wider and longer spray pattern. 

About the author: