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.