Thinking About Unleashing Your Dog in Public? Here’s What You Need to Know

It was 7 a.m. and I had just stepped onto the trail in Goosepond Mountain State Park with my dogs when a German shepherd came barreling towards us.  Bella was busy smelling and paid no attention as the shepherd began circling. But Jason is leash reactive and started to lung at the intruder.

I’ve worked hard to manage Jason’s issues. When we see dogs approaching, I remove him from the trail and work on sit, look-at-me and reward exercises to redirect his attention from passing dogs.

Negative interactions such as meeting unsupervised loose dogs on the trail set this training back. On this particular morning Jason was stressed as the shepherd continued to get in his face. I couldn’t safely remove him from the situation, and the owner was nowhere to be seen. When he did finally stroll into view he shouted, “Don’t worry, he gets along with everyone.”

It didn’t matter to this man that I was struggling to prevent a dog fight and to keep his dog from getting tangled in the leashes.  He just passed us by calling to his dog. There was no apology and he didn’t even try to leash the shepherd.

Bella (left), and Jason (right) love to walk with their friend Happy (middle).

The Problem with Unruly Loose Dogs in Public

I’m hearing more and more stories about people whose dogs were attacked or ambushed by loose dogs in the park.  Many, like me, are dealing with leash reactive dogs and these encounters can be a nightmare. Large loose dogs are also horrific for owners of small dogs who can be seriously injured. There are even horror stories about little dogs being killed after attacks by large off-leash dogs.

According to an article by Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, there are no numbers for how often big dogs attack little ones, but it’s a common enough scenario that veterinarians have an acronym for it, BDLD, which means Big Dog Little Dog. Veterinary experts say that these attacks frequently turn into serious medical emergencies.

Norine Twaddell, the owner of DogVentures, Dog Behavior Solutions LLC, a dog training business in New Jersey, has been called by clients for help after their dogs were attacked while out on a walk.

“These attacks can destroy a dog’s nature and it takes a lot of work to get their confidence back,” said Twaddell, who is a certified dog behavior consultant and a clinical member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

It’s not just leashed dogs and their owners who are affected by unruly off-leash dogs. There are plenty of non-dog people who don’t appreciate being jumped on by dogs. And it’s unfair to children who can easily be knocked down or traumatized. I’m a dog person and I can tell you that it wasn’t fun seeing that big German shepherd coming at us full speed. You just don’t know what to expect!

And now in the age of COVID-19, there’s an added concern. Nobody wants to be forced to have a close-up encounter with the owner of a loose dog.

If You Don’t Have Recall Keep Your Dog Leashed

I wish people would think before turning their dogs loose in public parks when their dogs aren’t properly trained. If for no other reason, they should consider the safety of their dogs. Instead, they act as though the park is their personal property and they are exempt from any rules or regulations. It’s a privilege to have access to public parks with our dogs. And everyone can enjoy the great outdoors if we all respect the rules.

Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

I asked a park ranger about the leash law at Stewart State Park where we frequently run into loose dogs. He told me that while dogs are supposed to be leashed at all times, he isn’t strict about enforcing this law if owners have control over their dogs. But the ranger added that if there’s a confrontation between a leashed and loose dog, it’s likely the unleashed dog’s owner who will pay the fine for any injuries.

According to Twaddell, the biggest issue with unruly loose dogs in public spaces is uneducated owners.

“Of course, there are those owners who just don’t care how their dogs behave in public and how that impacts on other people, but there are also those who just don’t know any better,” the trainer said.

What To Do If Ambushed by a Loose Dog

If you do encounter a loose dog when out for a walk with your dog, Patricia B. McConnell, applied animal behaviorist, advises against trying to influence the behavior of the irresponsible owner by shouting things like “catch your dog” or “leash your dog.” Instead, she suggests focusing on the approaching dog. On her blog The Other End of The Leash, McConnell writes:

I’ve found it much more useful to ignore the owner and work with the dog, whether it’s a body block or tossing a handful of treats or turning and moving away to distract the dogs from a tense encounter. Yes, it’s polite to ask if you can give someone else’s dog a treat, but if an 80 pound Chessie ( Chesapeake Bay Retriever) running full bore at my dog, ears pinned and hackles up, I’m throwing a handful of treats in its face and asking questions later.”

Twaddell agrees that it’s pointless trying to engage with the owner of the off-leash dog.

“The owner obviously doesn’t have control of their dogs, otherwise the dog wouldn’t be bothering your leashed dog in the first place,” said Twaddell, who is a certified dog behavior consultant and a clinical member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Twaddell also suggests using a body block, tossing treats, or when possible turning and moving away.

“You could also consider raising your hand towards the oncoming dog and saying ‘Stop’ or ‘Go Home.’” Twaddell says. “If nothing else, people don’t like you speaking sternly to their dog and it might be enough to make them step up and call or leash their dog.”

Image by Adrius Vizbaras from Pixabay.

Should You Use a Product To Protect Against a Dog Attack?

I was surprised at the long list of products on the market to protect against dog attacks. While you have a right to protect your dog and yourself from an attack by a loose dog, it’s best to use a product that won’t cause harm. If in doubt, check with a veterinary expert.

Here are a few that dog owners report having used with success:

  • SprayShield is citronella based animal deterrent spray with a belt clip.
  • Pet Corrector emits a hiss of compressed gas to interrupt a dog’s unwanted behavior.
  • Eliminator Handheld Dog Repellent emits a high-pitched ultrasonic sound that’s inaudible to the human ear but highly irritating to dogs that reportedly effectively stops aggression.
  • The Dog Horn produces two distinct sounds and is recommended by humane societies, dog trainers, and veterinary specialists to help stop an approaching dog and help prevent a fight.

Trail Etiquette When Hiking With Dogs

Twaddell offers the following tips:

  1. If there are leash laws you should obey them. Don’t leave dogs off leash if the rules of the park say dogs must be leashed at all times.
  2. Some parks allow dogs to run loose when they are under the owners’ control. Never allow your dog off leash unless you have instant recall. This means that no matter the stimulus when you call your dog’s name he/she instantly returns to you.
  3. Never allow your dog to run up to other people and dogs on the trail. If your dog is loose and you see other hikers and dogs approaching, leash your dog.
  4. When hiking with your dog or with a group of dog owners, move all dogs to the same side of the trail to allow oncoming hikers to pass by without feeling intimidated.
  5. If your dog is reactive when leashed, consider taking training classes to work on this behavior so that walking in a park is a more pleasant experience for you, your dog, and other dogs. Community dog walks supervised by professional trainers offer a great way to introduce your dog to walking in public.
The Traveling Leash sponsors group dog walks in the local community to help socialize dogs.

Two Group Dog Walks Led by Professionals and Open to the Public

Because of COVID-19 there may be social distancing and mask-wearing restrictions, so be sure to check ahead of time and be prepared to follow the rules and regulations. 

  • Twaddell educates her clients and others who are interested in joining her classes during monthly walkabouts and training walks in parks in northern New Jersey. Participants learn how to properly introduce dogs, dog walking etiquette, and how to deal with leash pulling and leash aggression.
  • The Traveling Leash (TTL), a dog walking and pet sitting company in Orange County, NY, sponsors community group walks. These walks offer a wonderful opportunity for anyone working on leash reactivity issues.  Dog Trainer Ken Nolte of Etlon Training Academy, is always on hand to offer advice on any behavioral problems.