Loose dog running

It’s the scenario you fear the most: You’re on a walk with your pooch when an off-leash — and aggressive — dog approaches. Do you know what to do to prevent a confrontation and keep your dog (and yourself) safe?

An encounter with an off-leash dog can come about in a variety of ways: A dog dashes out an open front door or escapes from an otherwise-secure yard, for example. But trouble can also start when an off-leash dog darts away from a pet parent to greet another dog. The off-leash dog may not always act as friendly as his owner expects, and if an altercation starts, the owner is frequently too far away from her fast-moving canine to intervene. And it's not necessarily the off-leash dog who is the aggressor in this situation; the on-leash dog may react defensively, or even aggressively, even if the off-leash dog is friendly. Leash laws are in place to protect dogs and people, and off-leash freedom should be exercised only with reliable dogs in designated and protected areas.

With that said, most off-leash dog encounters will end well; a fight is unlikely to ensue and no damage will be done, although a dog’s anxiety about approaching dogs may increase after an incident.

How to (Hopefully) Prevent a Dogfight

Never get in the middle of a dogfight or attack; stepping or reaching between two overstimulated dogs can result in a serious bite. Instead, it is important to have the tools to prevent or break up an altercation without injury to yourself or your dog.

When an off-leash dog approaches your canine, odds are his interest is mainly in your dog, not you. If you can keep your dog calm, it increases the chance that the oncoming dog will also behave calmly. If your dog is barking, snarling or lunging, it is more likely that this behavior will increase the arousal level of the approaching dog, which also raises the likelihood of a fight.

If you see an off-leash dog approaching in a determined manner, stay calm and attempt to move your dog away. Hold a handful of treats in front of your dog’s nose; use the treats to keep his attention focused on you, rather than on the other dog. In this situation, you may be rewarding your dog every couple of steps. Move away from the other dog as quickly as possible, but avoid running or jogging, as this may cause the other dog to chase you. Cross the street, step behind a parked car or find any other method of creating distance or getting behind a barrier.

If the other dog follows you, or if there is not enough time to react and move away, control your dog’s movements and get ready to respond to the other dog. Keep your pet as still as possible; direct him into a stationary, calm position, like a sit or down stay, at your side or just behind you. Practice stay training to prepare your dog for situations like this. Reward your dog intermittently for staying.

Next, step in front of your dog and put yourself between him and the approaching off-leash dog. Using a loud, powerful voice, give the other dog a command he is likely to recognize, such as “down,” “sit” or “go home.” Put your hand out in a “stop” signal to further your message. The dog may not do as you ask, but the real goal is to take his focus off of your dog. If he stops even for a moment, distract him by tossing a handful of treats on the ground in front of him. If possible, make your escape with your dog while the other dog is focused on the treats.

If the off-leash dog is still in attack mode, it’s time to break out the serious tools. Air horns, compressed air cans, rape alarms and mini umbrellas can be carried in a backpack or treat pouch for emergency situations. A loud noise will startle an approaching dog, and opening an umbrella in front of him may scare him away — and can create a barrier to shield you and your dog. If all else fails, citronella spray can be used to deter an aggressive dog from attacking. This should be a last resort, though, and you should keep in mind that sprays don’t always work and are more likely to be effective when used before an altercation occurs. After deploying the spray, move away as fast as you can.

How to Break Up a Dogfight — Safely

If a fight starts and your dog is being attacked, do not reach in between the dogs to separate them. Instead, try to find someone else to help you. Each of you should grab a dog’s back legs, wheelbarrow-like, and lift up. The instant the dogs let go of each other, move the dog you are holding away from the other dog. If you are unable to find help quickly, wheelbarrow the back legs of the more aggressive dog and pull him away from the fight.

If all else fails, noise deterrents or sprays may be used as a last resort to break up the fight. And be aware: Many of the most commonly repeated strategies for breaking up a dogfight — like putting a finger up a dog’s anus or yelling to distract the dogs — often escalate the situation rather than calm the dogs down. Do not rely on these strategies.

After any altercation with an off-leash dog, immediately call the authorities to report the incident. Leash laws are in place for good reason and should be followed — by all pet owners. And it's a good idea to have your dog checked by a veterinarian, too. Bite wounds can be hard to find under fur, so even if you aren't sure whether your dog has been injured, it's better to be safe than sorry.


Does your dog tend to be the antagonistic one during canine interactions? Read "Living With Occasionally Aggressive Dogs."