You’re walking your dog on a pleasant spring day, minding your own business with your well-behaved companion. As you come around a corner, you see in the not too far off distance a dog and his owner approaching. The dog alerts to your presence almost immediately and begins to behave aggressively, lunging and straining at the leash, barking, snarling, and growling. Your pulse starts to race as you try to keep your dog calm and keep moving. The dog’s behavior continues to escalate. The owner is struggling to hold the dog back now and her attempts to calm the dog are completely ineffective. You’re not sure if you should turn around and go back the way you came (you sure don’t want to turn your back on this dog), stop, or hurry up and try to go by. Suddenly, the worst case scenario, the dog slips its collar and starts charging right for your dog. Panic sets in and you feel completely helpless as you watch the situation unfolding in front of you. All you can do is brace yourself for the impact…
If you have an aggressive, potentially dangerous dog, you have to face up to the facts because you have a responsibility for the safety and well-being of the general public when you leave your home. If you’re in denial about your dog’s behavior, you won’t be prepared to protect the public. For those of you that have well-adjusted, friendly dogs, you need to employ some “defensive dog walking” strategies to keep yourself and your dog as safe as possible.
The Leash Law
Most population dense areas have leash laws, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and all the surrounding suburbs. These laws are meant to keep everyone and their pets safe. Even if your dog is “friendly,” it won’t help him if he approaches an aggressive dog walking on leash and attempts to make contact. If your dog runs up to greet that dog and gets attacked, it’s your fault because your dog was off-leash. I’ve been charged at least three times in the last several weeks while working with dogs in different neighborhoods throughout the metro. Two additional times I encountered owners allowing their dogs to roam in parks we were both using. When I politely asked these people to please leash their dog while we passed, my request was met with complete disregard. One person even started to argue with me, telling me that he didn’t believe in the leash law and I should be “more concerned” with my dog, the one I had on leash at my side, while he had no physical control over his dog weaving around nearby. In most cities in the metro, you are allowed to mace a dog that you feel threatened by. And if your “friendly” dog is maced as he approaches someone, it’s actually your fault because your dog was off leash in the first place.
It’s also important that every single person, myself included, acknowledge that their dog can and will bite when pushed past their bite threshold. It might be the combination of a fast-moving small dog coupled with a kid screaming nearby and a truck backfiring at the same time. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t happen. It’s completely irresponsible to put the public at risk on the off-chance your dog reaches his bite threshold one day in the park. Research your city ordinances to find out what your leash laws are as well as the legality of using a substance such as mace to defend yourself or your dog.
It should be noted that long retractable leashes of 15 to 20 feet or more are not commonly considered to be appropriate leashes for the purpose of legal definition. Many parks and recreation areas specify using no more than a 6-ft long leash. The rationale is that if your dog is 25 feet ahead of you, you have no ability to control his behavior if he encounters another dog or person anyway. It’s almost as good as being off leash. If you’re concerned about a dog that’s roaming off-leash and the owner is nearby, politely ask that person to leash their dog while you pass. If they ignore, refuse or act belligerently, inform them that you have mace and will use it on their dog if it approaches you (make sure you have mace on you!). This will either encourage them to get their dog under control, or at the very least they can’t say they weren’t warned if you do have to defend yourself. Unfortunately, animal control agencies are not equipped to come out and enforce the leash law or investigate complaints. However, if you really feel a physical threat (by the dog or owner), don’t hesitate to call 911 and report the situation.
Let’s talk a little bit more about appropriate equipment. You must use reliable equipment that enables you to control your dog. The equipment should be made of quality materials and should be appropriate for the type of dog you have as well as his behavior. The dog I had the recent misfortune to encounter was being walked on what appeared to be a Gentle Leader (head halter) with only the neck strap connected. During the course of his aggressive fit, he backed out of the collar and proceeded to charge and attack. In addition to the ineffective collar, the woman was using a slippery nylon leash. If your dog is so aggressive that it will cover 20 feet at a dead run to attack, the last thing you need to be worried about is using a “gentle” leader. This person should have been using a strong, slip-resistant leather leash, and a training collar (aka choke chain). Straining on the leash would have tightened the collar around the dog’s neck and not allowed him to slip out of it. I’d rather have your dog choking securely on the leash for a minute if it allows me to pass without incident. If your dog is formally recognized as a “dangerous dog” there are other pieces of equipment you are required to use at all times when in public, including a 3-foot leash and a muzzle. Even better than just using the proper equipment, you should obedience train your dog or at the very least, implement proper handling techniques to ensure you’re not fueling the fire.
Proper Handling Techniques and Obedience Training
Obedience training can instill focus, responsiveness, confidence, and self-control in your dog. Whether or not your dog is aggressive (and ESPECIALLY if your dog is aggressive), you and your dog will benefit from learning and practicing some basic obedience to help manage his behavior in public and improve his overall behavior. Otherwise “good” dogs can make themselves less of a target for aggressive dogs if they don’t react to the aggressive dog’s behavior. If your dog responds by fixating on the aggressive dog, raising his hackles, and barking, he’s only fueling the fire. Your dog can help diffuse the aggressive dog’s behavior by not mirroring it, but calmly walking by or paying attention to YOU instead.
If you have an aggressive dog and you aren’t interested in fixing the problem, at least manage it properly. A tight leash only intensifies a dog’s frustration and increases his aggression. The last thing you want to do is ineffectively physically restrain your dog as he begins to react aggressively. And this was exactly what the woman was doing in the situation I was involved in. She did everything wrong. Her dog was at the other end of the 6 foot leash and the leash was completely taut. The woman was trying to pull the dog along but the dog had already planted its feet and squared up. She should have maintained a loose leash by giving quick, hard jerks in the direction she wanted the dog to go and completely released the leash between tugs (these are commonly called “corrections” when used in the context of obedience training). She also should have attained a better physical advantage over her dog by standing as close to him as possible while trying to manage the behavior. It’s hard enough to pull a dog away from an interesting smelling post let alone a dog he wants to rip apart while you’re standing at the far end of the leash. Another behavior to quash during your walks is marking. Marking gives a dog something to act aggressive about—defending his territory. Allow your dog a potty break during your walk, but pull him away from trees and posts that he approaches with the intention of marking.
This list may sound over-the-top, but it only takes that first attack to drive home the importance of having a few items on-hand to help avoid or manage the situation. Decide which items you think are important to have with you. Carry a cell phone, an extra rope or simple slip leash in the event you need to restrain a dog, mace (wear it on your hip for easy access and know how to use it), possibly a walking stick or telescoping baton, a pen to take down information (you may find it’s easier to write on your arm or hand than try to fumble with a piece of paper), your vet’s phone number, the phone number of a backup emergency veterinarian in the event you’re walking off-hours, and local animal control. You can use a fanny pack or a more streamline runners “belt” to carry many of these items hands-free.
Be Aware of your Surroundings
The first thing taught in self-defense class is to be aware of your surroundings to avoid putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation in the first place. This means being aware of who’s around you at all times, not being distracted by an MP3 player or cell phone, being aware of any blind spots where you may suddenly be confronted with another dog, the direction the wind is blowing in the event you have to use mace, any fenced in areas nearby or barriers that could offer you protection, escape routes, and also watching your dog’s body language. Often your dog will sense the presence of another dog before you’re aware of it. Your dog may start to air scent, his ears might perk up, he may raise his hackles or walk in a more upright, alert posture. If he’s fearful of dogs, you might see a fear response like tucking his tail, trying to get behind you or backing away.
What to do when you Encounter an Aggressive Dog with an Owner
If you encounter what appears to be an aggressive dog and/or an owner that’s not in control of their dog, first try to avoid an attack, then try to prevent it. Create more space if possible, move to the other side of the street. If the other dog is really pitching a fit but your dog is relatively non-reactive, ask the owner to stop moving and secure their dog, tell them that you’ll go around them. By them trying to pull their dog along, they’re creating more excitement, tension and frustration that will increase aggression. The most reactive dog should be stationary and physically secured, and the calmer dog should be walked by at a safe distance. If you’re running your dog and approaching an aggressive-looking dog, slow to a walk. Fast movement can ignite chase drive and increase aggression. Continue to move by so as not to allow your dog the opportunity to square up to the aggressive dog (this will also increase the aggression—a direct challenge).
If the situation escalates and the aggressive dog is able to get lose, do not drop your dog’s leash. Try not to tighten up on your dog’s leash as this will increase his tension and anxiety, and mace the oncoming dog. Mace doesn’t always work and it may exacerbate the problem. If a dog is really gunning to attack, no amount of yelling will ward him off, in fact, it will probable excite him further. Similarly, beating a dog with a stick or shoe when he’s attacking will likely also increase his aggression rather than reduce it. For information about how to break up a dog fight, see the section below.
What to do when you Encounter a Roaming Dog
If an unsupervised dog appears merely to be curious, is hesitant or unsure about approaching, curves his body as he approaches, averts his eyes, and loosely wags his tail, he’s probably not aggressive and you’ll likely be able to spook him. Stop at a distance of at least 20 feet and pick up some rocks and hurl them in his direction, yell “GET!” as loud as you can, if you’re carrying a walking stick or baton, hit the ground in front of you in his direction. The racket may also bring the absent owner running. It’s important that you don’t misread the dog. If it’s truly an aggressive dog, these things will likely excite him and incite an attack.
If the dog you’re approaching stands very still, lowers his head, pulls back his lips, flattens his ears, holds his tail erect, etc., these are all signs that this is a dog gunning for an attack. Do not approach. With your dog behind you if possible, turn sideways to show him that you don’t pose a threat and back away. If there’s a home nearby with a fenced yard, go inside the yard with your dog and get help from someone nearby, call animal control, or call a friend to come pick up you and your dog (sounds extreme, but better to get into a car and drive to safety than to be attacked on your way home). If mace is not an effective deterrent, your dog is attacked by a roaming dog, and there’s no one else around to help, you’ll have to break up the fight on your own. See the section below.
Keep it Moving
Your walk should be about exercise. Move along quickly and purposefully. When dogs are in a “working” frame of mind, they are less likely to get distracted by other dogs. For the aggressive dog, this reduces their opportunities to react aggressively to other dogs.
Parks or neighborhoods—where’s the safest place to walk your dog? It probably depends on where you live. Some areas are crawling with caring, responsible pet owners. Other neighborhoods aren’t so fortunate. In the park, there may be more people nearby to help in case there’s an incident, other walkers or people in an official capacity like park police or maintenance workers. If there’s a walking path, it’s likely that people are walking their dogs on leash because they come to the park for that purpose. However, if the park contains a football or soccer field, this might be where people go to launch tennis balls for their dog for some off-leash exercise. It’s important to consider the type of people that frequent the park, as well as the amenities at the park to decide if it’s a safe option for walking your dog. Neighborhoods have their own risks and benefits. Many people like to bring the dog out to the front with them while they mow the lawn or water the garden, but if they’re not directly in control of their dog or they’re distracted for a moment, that’s as long as it takes for the dog to charge you. Gates can be left open accidentally and dogs can escape yards. If you typically walk during the day when many people are at work, you may be less likely to get help if you need it.
Breaking up a Dog Fight
Dog fights are scary, but knowing how you’re going to react and mentally rehearsing it will help you feel more prepared and less terrified. Dogs engaged in a fight are in survival mode: fight or die. Grabbing at the collar or anywhere near the head is a good way to get bitten since the dog isn’t taking the time to distinguish between you, his loving owner, and the dog that’s trying to tear him apart. In the event that two people and two dogs are present, each person should take hold of the back legs of one dog (preferably their own dog), and begin to back away by rotating their dogs in opposite directions and backing up. Continue to rotate the dogs until you’re well away from the fight and there’s a good distance between you. The reason you rotate the dog, so he’s forced to sidestep his own front feet, is so he doesn’t have the opportunity to reach around and bite you. Once your dog is safely removed from the fight and has a cooler head, you can grab the leash or reach for the collar.
Another option is to twist the collar to choke out the dog. While this involves reaching for the collar, if two dogs have a vice hold on one another and neither one is releasing, they likely won’t release to go after you either, and your best bet may be to choke them into unconsciousness in order to release the grip. For more information about breaking up a dog fight, especially if you’re alone, check out this article by Ed Frawley.
Get as Much Information as Possible
If your dog is involved in a fight with another person’s dog, it’s vital that you exchange information, just like if you were in a car accident. Get the person’s full name, phone numbers (cell, home, work), address, veterinarian, dog’s name, city license number, etc. Get as much verifiable information as you can. If they have a cell phone on them, tell them to call your cell phone so you can verify that you have their correct phone number. Ask to see their driver’s license. It’s entirely possible that if a person’s dog attacks you or your dog, they will give you the wrong information in an attempt to avoid taking responsibility (I learned this the hard way). If you have any doubts about the person’s sincerity, if they’re making excuses or trying to rush away from the scene, call 911, tell them that you were just the victim of a dog attack and the other person is uncooperative and attempting to leave without providing accurate information.
Unfortunately in many cities there’s a law enforcement gap for responding to dog attacks. 911 may not consider your situation an actual emergency so they may not send help, especially if the fight is not ongoing or a person is not injured. However, Animal Control (at least in Minneapolis) is underfunded and understaffed and they don’t have the ability to respond immediately to such a situation. You can go to jail or be fined for filing a FALSE 911 report–so if you call and tell them you were bitten in an effort to get law enforcement to respond so you can collect the other person’s information, YOU will likely be in trouble. Another option if you’re in a park is Park Police. The bottom line is don’t put yourself or your dog in further danger, but do absolutely everything in your power to obtain the correct information from the person before leaving the scene. I can’t emphasize enough how bad it feels to find out later on that the person provided a false name or phone number.
One Last Word…
You do not have the right to put anyone else at risk or make anyone else uncomfortable because you are in denial about your dog’s aggressive behavior or you don’t agree with a law. If someone asks you to control or leash your dog, it is your responsibility to do so immediately.
There are very few people out there that have 100% control of their dog off-leash. One of the dogs I was recently charged by was actually wearing a remote e-collar—meant to be able to control a dog at a distance, however, the owner either wasn’t using it or wasn’t prepared to react to her dog’s lightning quick leap off the front deck and subsequent charge to the sidewalk (she also appeared to be distracted by a cell phone or MP3 player she was handling). If your dog gets distracted by squirrels or rabbits, you have to repeat commands to get him to comply, or he doesn’t respond to you instantly even while at a dead run, you don’t have enough control to allow him to run off-leash and you will be putting your dog, other dogs and people at risk. For anyone to deny a person the peace of mind of feeling safe in a public park or on a city street is incredibly irresponsible, not to mention illegal. If you believe your dog NEEDS the space to roam free, move out of the city. Until then, leash and control your dog as a courtesy to the rest of us.