Dog Walking Tips: Dealing With Stray or Off-Leash Dogs


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Recently when walking my Golden Retriever, we encountered an off-leash dog. The dog had a collar on, and I sensed he was friendly or, at the very least, not aggressive. But, I admit I panicked and was at a loss as to what to do in this situation. 

Fortunately, the dog got distracted by something else, and we were able to run out of the area. But here’s what I learned. Encountering a stray or off-leash dog while walking a dog can cause issues along with a lot of anxiety and fear. 

So, what do you do in a situation like this?

What To Do if You Encounter a Stray or Off-leash Dog on Walks?

I reached out to Master dog trainer Adrienne Farcelli and the author of Braining Training for Dogs for advice and tips on handling these situations. 

Encountering a stray or off-leash dog on a walk is not uncommon and will probably happen to most dog owners at some point. While avoiding such a situation is not always possible, the best course is to prepare beforehand to handle any negative encounters. 

Preventive steps include: 

  • Stick to designated dog walking areas that you know are safe.
  • Change walking areas if there are unfriendly dogs in the area.
  • Always use the utmost caution with a dog you do not know.
  • Carry extra treats to throw in the dog’s direction as a distraction (treat bomb).
  • Carry a citronella-based pet spray.
  • Teach your dog to attention-heel in the presence of other dogs.
  • Work with your dog on emergency turns to leave the area quickly (Schutzhund turn).
  • Call Animal Control when you have a safe moment to do so.

I’m sure if you’re a dog owner, you have experienced a stray dog at some point. If you were like me, your mind might have raced with anxiety as the dreaded “what if’s” flashed through your mind. What if he’s aggressive? What should I do if he attacks my dog or me? What if he wants to follow us for the rest of the walk? 

For clarity’s sake, a stray dog is defined as a dog without a home or a free-ranging dog. Off-leash dogs have an owner but have either been taken off-leash, been lost, or escaped from their owners.

So, let’s explore each of these tips in more depth. While they will not prevent you from encountering a stray, the hope is they will give you some options should this ever occur. 

Stick to Designated Dog Walking Areas

The first two tips are what I refer to as the proactive steps. Be cautioned that this is no guarantee you won’t encounter a stray or off-leash dog. Still, it can help limit the occurrence of it happening. 

Adrienne Farcellie tries to stick to well-known routes where she is confident there are no aggressive dogs or strays.

“I aim to walk dogs in areas I am pretty familiar with, and where I know there are no stray, aggressive dogs,” says Adrienne.

You may live in a neighborhood where other dog owners routinely walk their dogs. Most often, these tried and true paths are popular due to the convenience and safety of walking dogs. A good indicator?

Look for signage as in “dogs must be leashed at all times.” Or something like the image below.

Designated on-leash walking areas should help reduce unwanted encounters with an off-leash dog.

Still, you may encounter a stray even if all owners adhere to the laws and have their dogs leashed. But, you are minimizing the chances of such encounters by sticking to areas that are signed and patrolled by animal services.

If no such area exists, I suggest “scouting” out a path beforehand. That might require you to walk that route a few times without your dog to ensure it is safe. 

Or, ask other dog owners. Most dog owners will know from experience what routes work well and how frequent stray or off-leash encounters are on that particular route. 

And yes, that can also mean calling Animal Control to alert them to those who choose not to abide by the rules, such as walking their dogs off-leash. In the meantime, leave the area and find another route.

Change Walking Routes if You Must

I have multiple routes, and I also have secondary ways off my main walking routes. I call these secondary routes my “off ramps” or escape routes.

I use these routes as an avoidance strategy to avoid a negative encounter (and getting my dog triggered) with another dog if that dog is unfriendly. 

For example, Bailey is great on walks unless a dog barks and lunges at him, then he reacts. So, I use these escape routes as a tool to avoid these encounters if I see a dog approaching that is a known trigger.

The same strategy goes for off-leash dogs. Lately, I have encountered a disturbing amount of strays on my walks—three strays in the last two weeks at the time of this writing, plus some unfriendlies.

As a result, I have opted to walk my dog on my alternate route for the time being. Recently, I avoided a potential encounter with a stray by using my escape route before the dog noticed us.

The goal is to minimize encounters; 100% avoidance is probably impossible – encountering a stray or off-leash dog at some point is probably inevitable.

I even have routes that I have to drive to. Now, that might sound like it is a lot of work. And honestly, it can be, but it’s easier to avoid the situation than have to deal with stressful and possibly negative encounters.

Driving to another route is one Adrienne Farcelli recommends as well; “I sometimes had to drive to other areas if there were dogs I didn’t trust around my dogs,” she told me. That is great advice.

Ultimately, you are responsible for keeping your dog safe. And yes, that means leaving the area if other pet owners are walking their dogs off-leash. Leaving is much safer than staying and breaking up a fight.

So, the best strategy is often to manage the behavior in the simplest way possible. For example, if your dog barks while looking out the window, you can spend time and effort training him not to do so. Or you can close the blinds or curtains. The latter option is more straightforward and simple.

The same goes for stray or unfriendly dogs in the area. But, again, managing the behavior by avoiding negative encounters rather than dealing with issues is far easier and less stressful. 

Always Use the Utmost Caution With a Dog You Do Not Know

Never try to pet a stray dog or a dog with whom you are unfamiliar. If a lost or unleashed dog approaches you, resist the urge to run away, and once you know you can exit the area safely, try to walk out of the area. 

In my situation, I was lucky because I panicked and ran away with my dog, but running can elicit some dogs to chase due to their prey drive. So, the best course is to distract the dog and walk out calmly.

Resist the urge to run. Running can elicit a dog’s prey drive to chase

If you’re interested in why Golden Retrievers like to chase things, then check out this recent article here. And yes, Golden Retrievers can have a strong prey drive, which you can read about here.

I know that not running when panicked can be easier said than done. After all, not only do you have to contend with the stray dog but with your dog as well, who may now be aroused by the unexpected guest. 

But, by employing some additional tips below, you hopefully can cause a distraction for the stray dog to allow a safe exit. Additionally, extra training with your dog to help focus its attention on you when asked is essential. 

If the off-leash or stray dog has already engaged you and your dog and is not acting aggressively, then stand still and allow the dogs to check each other out. While it’s better not to get into this situation, often, it is unavoidable as you may not have noticed the other dog approaching until it’s too late. 

What you want is to avoid having to break up a dog fight, which has the potential for injury to both the dogs and yourself. 

If your dog listens well to you, then instruct your dog to get going again and begin to walk out of the area. Often stray or off-leash dogs will not venture too far from their home territory, so once you are out of the area, they may stop following. 

Also, resist the temptation to “shoo” the dog away by yelling at it or using threatening body language. The unattended dog may see that as aggressive. It also can trigger your dog (it may see the other dog as a threat), and the situation escalates into a fight.

However, a distraction may be necessary if the dog wants to come along for the walk or follow you home. 

Use a Treat Bomb

Treat bombs can be very effective for stray dogs not showing aggressive body language. The strategy is simple. Carry extra treats and throw them at the stray dog. 

The goal of the treat bomb is a distraction. And distraction and delay are the names of the game. In other words, while the dog is distracted, get out of the area while the getting is good. 

My personal “go-to” approach is to carry extra treats in my treat bag and “treat bomb” the dog. In other words, I will aim to scatter the treats in the dog’s direction, hoping to distract him (several treats end up bouncing off of him) and that he realizes that we “come in peace.”

Adrienne Farcelli

Try to scatter the treats, and don’t worry if some treats bounce off the dog. And be generous with the bomb. And lob the treats; don’t overhand pitch or throw them as hard as possible. 

Once the dog stops and eats his unexpected haul of goodies, you can walk out of the area quickly.

In her experience, Adrienne has personally found that once she distances herself past what the dog perceives as his territory, the dog will go back to his property. She’ll then use a different route for the following few times until she’s comfortable that there are no longer issues.  

Treat bombs can also work on aggressive dogs, provided they are not poised to attack or intend to harm. A more forceful deterrent may be required if the dog is highly confrontational or charging. 

Carry a Citronella-Based Pet-Friendly Spray

Adrienne also recommends carrying a citronella-based pet-friendly spray. 

Keyword “citronella.” Not bear or pepper spray. The intent is not to harm the other dog but rather to deter an attack or prevent a persistent dog from causing issues.

Citronella sprays like this one are pet friendly and designed to inhibit the dog without harm. 

Let me also add that this is for an aggressive or reactive dog. If the dog is friendly and your dog is not getting agitated, then you’re far better to use a treat bomb or call Pet Control (see the last tip).  

A pet-safe citronella spray may be necessary if a stray or off-leash dog is aggressive.

For unfriendly or aggressive dogs, as discussed earlier, do not run. Running can further evoke an attack. Instead, square up, and yell as loudly as you can “stop” and “no.”

Hopefully, a forceful command will snap the dog out of the arousal state or at least cause a pause. 

If the aggressive stray keeps coming, spray the citronella directly at the eyes and nose area. Be forewarned, however, that in high adrenaline and panic situations, you may not have time to yell, or if the dog is charging, spray without hesitation. 

And be aware that it may not work on a larger dog, cautions Adrienne Farcelli.  

“I have never tested it on a large dog with a serious intent to harm, and there may be chances that it may not work.”

Teach Your Dog to Attention Heel

Most dog owners don’t walk their dogs; their dogs walk them. And yes, I’m guilty of the same. But, most often, that’s due to not knowing how to teach the dog to walk correctly on a leash. 

A key component of leash walking is teaching your dog to attention-heel. Attention-heeling is where the dog walks beside you and focuses only on you, ignoring distractions such as other dogs, bikes, or squirrels. 

Attention heeling (like teaching your dog to walk politely on the leash) is introduced inside the house or in the backyard, to begin with. Doing so teaches the skill in a low or no-distraction environment first, then progressing slowly to more challenging environments. 

Adrienne Farcelli teaches attention-heeling in the backyard.

Trust me; if you try teaching this skill immediately outside, you’ll most likely fail. There are just too many distractions. And, if your dog is easily triggered and likes to pull or bolt at distractions such as cars or joggers, then you’ll need to teach the skill under the threshold.

Training under a threshold means you teach with distractions, but they’re at a distance. The threshold is the minimum distance your dog is alert to the distraction or “trigger” but does not react.

The goal is to allow the dog to see the distraction while remaining calm and while heeling. As you and your dog progress, you shorten the distance to the distraction. This process takes time, but ultimately you can have a dog that will focus on you and ignore another dog while you walk past another dog. 

So, in the case of a stray dog, the skill can prove helpful combined with a treat bomb. Then, as the stray is preoccupied, you ask your dog to heel as you calmly walk it out of the area. 

Let me end by saying that this skill is not easy to teach a reactive dog. First, think in terms of weeks or months, not days. Secondly, it is still advised to use avoidance confrontations as much as possible. If you see a dog coming, turn around or cross the street. Get out of there. 

We discuss emergency turns next. Emergency turns are another valuable skill as they allow quick exit to leave the area quickly. I often use it if I have seen a dog or distraction before BAR has, so I turn around before he can get triggered. 

Emergency Turns (Schutzhund Turn)

I like this skill. Teaching the emergency turn, or Shuctzhund Turn is relatively easy to prepare and works exceptionally well for reactive dogs. Why? Because it allows you to exit the area before your dog can have time to react to the trigger and escalate on the arousal scale. 

The Schutzhund Turn has the added benefit of being a management tool to allow you and your dog to exit an area quickly if needed.

The video below shows Adrienne Farcelli teaching the emergency turn and attention heeling.

The skill is also helpful to use while teaching your dog to attention-heel, which may take some time depending on how reactive your dog is. Emergency turns prevent your dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors while you’re working on how to ignore distractions. 

Attention healing, as noted, is an advanced skill and requires patience, so it’s beyond the scope of this discussion. Nor could I do you justice by trying to teach this skill by explaining it here. 

Hold up. Are you looking for a good online training program for your dog? I recently wrote an article comparing some of the most popular online dog training systems. To find out more about the features, pros, cons, and cost of each program, check out this article: Online Dog Training Courses: These Are The Ones To Buy.

Call Animal Control

The last tip is a simple but important one. Call your local animal control at the safest moment you can do so. I have the number programmed into my cell, which I carry with me during all my walks.

Doing so might prevent another dog or person from being hurt. Or you may help the stray or off-leash dog from getting hurt. The loose dog may run into traffic or encounter other risks that put it in danger. Or the loose dog may dart out in front of a biker or skateboarder, putting all parties at risk.

Animal control must get involved if the stray is a problem dog or aggressive. 

Moreover, an off-leash dog may have escaped or become lost, and the owner may be worried. Often, as a first step, most owners will call animal control to see if the dog has been picked up.

If you’re curious about what you should do if your dog has been lost (tip: act quickly), check out this post here. In it, I give tips on how to react quickly and best increase your chances of getting your dog home quickly and safely. 

Animal control will contact the owner if the dog has a tag or is chipped. 

Lastly, it also helps prevent the dog from being stolen. Yes, there are people out there that will take a dog either to keep or to sell. 

Calling animal control is as easy as putting it in your contacts and pushing a button.

Calling animal control if you encounter a stray or off-leash dog is a safety precaution for dogs and people alike.

Final Thoughts

At some point in the lifetime of walking your dog, you will almost certainly encounter a stray or off-leash dog. However, sticking to well-known walking routes can substantially reduce the chance of encounters. That is step one.

Step two is to be proactive by employing the earlier tips to manage the interaction if and when it happens. Ultimately, the goal is to avoid the encounters, but when that is not doable, safely extracting you and your dog from the situation becomes paramount.

Treat bombs, pet-safe citronella sprays, and well-developed training skills when walking your dog are some of the tools you can employ. A bonus is that by arming yourself with some tools, you can feel more comfortable and less stressed, knowing you have some control should the worst case occur.

Woof-woof!


I want to thank and acknowledge Adrienne Farcelli, author of Braining Training for Dogs, for her guidance on this topic. I reached out to her on the Brain Training for Dogs forum with this question, and this post was written based on her response (with her permission, of course).


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