Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What do you do when an off-leash dog charges at you and your dogs?

I’ll tell you what I do.  And I’ll tell you why I do it. 

I was on a morning walk with Leopold and Halo today when an off-leash, med-large dog saw us, and then ran, barking, full-speed towards us.  The owner tried to call off her dog, but clearly did not have control over her dog (annoying…).
What did I do?  I did not retreat.  I stood tall, held my ground, and then actually took a large step closer to the charging dog.  In a loud, commanding voice, I said “That’s enough!” The dog stopped charging us and stopped barking.  Then I told the dog to go away (both verbally and with an arm movement).
Why did I do this?  I did this to try to take control of the situation.  The owner clearly did not have control over her dog, so I stepped up and took a “dominant” role.  And by that I mean that I did my best to put out a calm, confidant, and assertive energy.  I stepped closer to the dog and used an arm motion when telling it to go away because dogs tend to be more visual communicators than verbal (for more information on this fact, please read mypost on the best way to communicate with dogs).

My goal in reacting to a charging dog this way is not to be aggressive, but to take control of the situation by using verbal and visual cues to let the dog know that I have done so. 

This is not the first time an off-leash dog has charged at me and my dogs:

Chris and I had recently moved to the Annapolis area and were out walking Leopold (we had yet to adopt Halo).  We were strolling down the street in a residential neighborhood when two Boston Terriers suddenly appeared in a yard across the street.  They ran to the edge of the yard and started barking at us.  They were off-leash, and I wondered if they had somehow slipped out of their yard and were roaming free.  I considered trying to catch them to find their owners, but decided there were actually in their own yard because they didn’t seem to be leaving it.  We decided to move along and started back on our way.  As soon as we turned our backs on these dogs, one of the Boston terriers bolted out of its yard and charged at us, barking wildly.
As soon as this happened, I turned back to the dog, took steps towards it and said in a very firm, raised but controlled voice “That’s enough!”.  The charging dog stopped dead in its tracks and both dogs stopped barking.  “Go home!” I said, and pointed to the dogs’ house.  The two Boston Terriers put their tails between their legs and ran back home.  Chris told me later that even he was scared. Ha!

Why did these dogs charge?  From my understanding, these two boston terriers most likely saw us as “intruders” approaching their territory.  They were barking at us to scare us away; when we turned to walk away, in their minds they had been successful, which only encouraged the behavior (positive reinforcement, if you will).  It gave them the confidence to scare us even further out of “their territory”.  This is why I took a step towards them.  In a way, I believe I was telling them it was not their territory, and that they needed to go back to their own. 

Having another person’s dog charge at you can be somewhat frightening, I know.  And some people may not feel comfortable confronting the dog in such a way as I described above.  The alternative is, of course, to let the dog complete its charge and harass you and your own dogs.  And running away will of course not work, because dogs instinctually will chase (as you saw above, even walking away can trigger chasing behavior).  I’d rather stop the charge before the dog gets to me and my dogs.

Of course, it’s important to assess the situation and decide on a response accordingly, but it’s also important to remember that most dogs will respond to a calm, assertive show of “dominance” with respect, not aggression. 


  1. I ran across your blog today! we have so much in common. I am a first time dog owner and have ran into the same exact issues you come across in your blog! This EXACT thing happened to me just last week! I was walking my dog in an unfamiliar neighborhood when a huge dog in a chain link fenced yard spotted us and started going crazy barking...then my worst nightmare happened and he just slipped under the fence and charged us! I did exactly what you did and put my dog behind me, stepped forward and growled/yelled, "get outta here!!" and waved my arms shooing him. The face he gave me was hysterical! He looked at me like, "wtf?" anyway, I just wanted to say I am enjoying your blog!

    1. I'm glad to hear you're enjoying my blog! And I'm glad you were able to safely halt the unfamiliar dog's charge!

      If you ever have any questions about dog ownership, let me know; I might have some experiences I could share for what works (and doesn't work!) for me with my dogs and all the other dogs I interact with at the clinic and the shelter.

      Thanks for checking out Leopold's Crate!

  2. Hey, I can't seem to find your email. I had a quick question about your blog! Can you email me?



  3. Thanks for posting this, wish I had read it earlier! If I had known to try this the following may had been adverted. I recently encountered a neighbors teeth bared and snarling dog off leash in their yard. I hesitated. Most people in my neighborhood keep dogs for protection and I never see anyone else walking their dogs so many are maladjusted, but they at least their owners keep them restrained from being able to run into the street! Not this neighbor. Their dog was bigger than my 90lb dobermutt. We hadn't noticed it behind a parked car across the street from where we were, but when we did it charged at us. When it ran up on us and my dog somehow slipped out of her collar and before I knew it I was standing with an umbrella between the two dogs with no idea of what to do. Eventually the neighbor opened their door and called off the dog. Clearly my dog needs a tighter collar, she has really thick neck so it's hard to find a non choke collar that fits right but if their dog had been restrained, this wouldn't have happened. I'm going to try to be more assertive and find a better collar. But the neighbor had the gall to say that I had intentionally set my dog on hers... would someone do that then try to intervene with their own person?! I don't want to start trouble with people but they and their dog can't be allowed to bully the neighborhood. What would you suggest? PS I'm really tired of people who don't exercise their doggies and keep them in this hyper aggressive state. A dog will be loyal and very protective without creating a menace to society. I said recently, I meant recent like today. So I'm still all shaken up. And this maybe the same neighbors who had the police called on them and their dogs. The police had to shoot their poor maladjusted dogs. It's so tragic. But it's not the dogs it's their people.

    1. Hi Alexandra,

      I don’t know exactly what your situation is, so I hesitate to offer any suggestions about what to do about your neighbor or their dog—especially if it is a maladjusted dog. I don’t want to be responsible for you or your dog getting hurt—you know your situation better than I do.

      Though one thing I can tell you that is true about your situation (because it’s true of all situations) is that the only person whose actions you can control are your own.

      Getting a collar that won’t slip off your dog’s head is definitely something that you can control, so let’s start there. You said your dog’s neck is thick. Is it thicker at the base and gets narrow towards the head? If so, you might try getting a martingale collar. They’re used most often for grey hounds and whippits b/c those breeds have tapered necks. A lot of the martingale collars I’ve seen have a fabric loop (some have chains), which allows the collar to be larger when loose (so it won’t choke your dog when its just hanging out on their neck), but will get smaller if you or the dog pulls on the attached leash (so it will tighten as it slips up the neck, and will be less able to slip over and off your dog’s head). These collars tend to be very wide and shouldn’t choke your dog when they tighten (google “grey hound collar” if you’re having trouble finding a wider one).
      Another route you might consider is the easy-walk harness, which is what I use on my dogs. If you have a 90lb dog, I imagine it can be hard to control when it decides to pull. I always recommend easy-walk harnesses for large dogs. Even if they’re trained to walk nice, there could come a day when they see something that they really want to chase and they could pull you along with them across the street.
      ( http://leopolds-crate.blogspot.com/2012/09/walkin-easy-with-easy-walk-harness.html )

      As for your neighbor…..if you don’t feel safe walking around your own neighborhood b/c of loose and maladjusted dogs, you might want to consider talking to the authorities about the situation. (you also might look into your local dog laws, as your neighbors could be breaking those laws). A visit from the authorities might be enough to change your neighbor’s dog-owning behavior. But if this is the same neighbor who already had the police called on them, maybe it won't. I guess you won't know until you try.

      Lastly, you sound very frustrated with bad dog owners (I am as well). You might turn that frustration into education—volunteering at a local shelter might give you opportunities to talk one-on-one with people about proper dog care and how important it is for dogs to be exercised daily (both mentally and physically). I’ve found that people don’t like to be preached at, but being able to talk with potential adopters is a good situation in which casually mention some dog-ownership knowledge, which helps to to nip some bad-owner problems in the bud.

      I’m sorry that you had the bad experience that you did. I hope you’re able to feel safe walking through your neighborhood soon!

  4. There are so many words to use other than 'dominance' though I understand what you mean when dealing with a charging dog. Most blogs/articles I read that use the word, I never go back to. Luckily, I read a couple of your other articles first and enjoyed them ;)
    One of the best dog training/info websites around is Dog Star Daily www.dogstardaily.com All positive based, science based dog training. If you are truly looking to be an authority in the dog world, get to know some of the names of the bloggers there. They are some of the biggest dog names in the dog training world.
    Thank you for your insight and for helping with dogs in need!