“It’s Okay! He’s Friendly!”

It’s a common scene. An owner is walking their dog through the park. They are careful to observe the rules. Poop bags? Check. Avoiding no dog areas? Check. Leash? Check. And suddenly, a rambunctious, off leash dog is headed their way.

If all goes well, the other owner collects their dog, apologizes, and is off on his or her way. But all too frequently, they yell from across the park, “It’s Okay! He’s Friendly!” Maybe they aren’t confident in their dog’s recall. Maybe they are embarrassed. Maybe they don’t believe in leashes. Whatever the reason, the responsible owner now finds themselves trying to control an interaction between their trained, leashed dog and an excited, overly friendly (hopefully) off  leash dog. What can we do?

1. Be proactive. It is important to be aware of your environment at all times. While we don’t want to nervously look around, seeing boogie dogs in every shadow, we still need to be aware of the potential interactions for our dog. Do you see the joggers coming up the path? Will your dog bark uncontrollably at the end of their leash, or are you ready to make this a training opportunity? Likewise, many times the excitable, off leash dog can be avoided by seeing them early and giving a bit of extra space or going the opposite direction.

2. Be your dog’s advocate. It is human nature to want to be polite. But it is important to understand that this off leash dog (and his owner) are not. Let’s say, for a moment, that you are having a cup of coffee with your friends outside your favorite cafe. How will you react if I suddenly run up to you, sit on your table, and grab your coffee to take a sniff? Am I being friendly? Or simply intrusive? This is how your dog likely views the random, unknown off leash dog. Even if your dog is the most friendly, playful dog in the world in an off leash setting, he may not enjoy having his play time with you interrupted so rudely.

And you know what?

It is okay to stand up for your dog.

Simply call out, “Leash your dog, please!” Or “Call your dog!” I have even gone so far as to remind the person that this is a leash only park. If you are lucky enough to have a dog without reactivity issues, you want to keep it that way. And if you have a previously reactive dog, one unpleasant interaction with a loose dog could ruin all your hard work.

3. Always keep treats handy. Yes, I never go to the park without treats. Here’s why. First of all, I understand that my dogs are always learning. I also understand that we all have off days. Remember those joggers? I would rather step to the side and take the opportunity to teach my dogs that those scary, fast moving strangers bring wonderful treats.

BUT, having those treats handy provides a second security blanket. Many times, when that off leash dog comes barreling over to say, “hi!” a handful of treats on the ground can provide a terrific distraction. I caution that if you have a food guarding dog, this may not be the best option. However, you will likely toss the treats and get out of dodge. And if that owner is concerned about what you just fed their dog, well, their dog shouldn’t have been loose to begin with.

There are plenty of other alternatives. For example, if your dog is friendly AND you know he has a rock solid recall, you might opt to drop his leash. Be cautious of your location and be certain of the other dog’s body language. Are you sure he really is friendly? When in doubt, don’t take the chance.

There are also an assortment of protection sprays, my favorite being Spray Shield. It is a citronella spray that startles the dog with a smelly burst, giving you just enough time to get away. I advise against using pepper spray as you could risk a wind shift that results in you or your dog receiving a dose of painful, burning spray. And this would make it much harder to get away from the oncoming dog.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that every dog owner will suddenly understand the importance of keeping their dog leashed any time in the immediate future. Although, the reasons are plentiful beyond manners. Increasingly busy streets, poor training and a lacking recall can result in a deadly combination. In any case, it is possible and necessary to consider your dog first whenever you are faced with an unleashed dog.

While we want to maintain a sense of courtesy and manners to other humans, at the end of the park trip, we are responsible to and go home with our dog.



One Response to ““It’s Okay! He’s Friendly!””

  1. August 5th, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Debi Davis says:

    Excellent article, Shelley. I would only add one thing: if you have a small dog and live in an area where you often encounter off-leash dogs who are not friendly, or dogs who jump over or break through back yard fences to attack your dog, it might be worth checking your state and local laws on carrying a non-lethal stun device. You mentioned that deterrent sprays can backfire if it’s windy, and that this is why you only advise the use of a citronella spray and not a pepper spray. I also agree with this reasoning.

    However, I no longer can put my toy breed dogs at risk by letting them enjoy walking on leash anywhere in our area, not even around the block. Two of mine were nearly killed by two large breed backyard dogs who broke through a fence and attacked my Papillons while they trotted nicely by my side on leash next to my wheelchair.

    There was absolutely nothing I could have done to protect them. Had it not been for courageous homeowners who came running to my rescue, beating off the dog who had my dogs pinned and bloody on the ground, while another homeowner banged on the door of the attacking dogs’ owner, my dogs both would have died that day.

    And on that day, I ordered a stun baton. It will not injure nor kill an animal, but it will stop any living thing it touches long enough for me to get my animals to safety and get out of Dodge.

    Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it. I’m a peaceful clicker trainer, and I will try any ruse – including tossing treats – to avoid conflict with other dogs. But these dogs had no interest in treats, and that handful of chicken and hot dog bits were ignored for the tastier treat of two small dogs, who must have seemed like rabbits or other prey to them.

    Stun devices – some small as a cell phone – are not legal in all states or communities (though guns are!), but for those who live in areas of great risk and have small dogs – or live with disabilities, – it can mean saving the life of your animals.