I run marathons – and my dog Barley joins me on nearly every single training run. While I spent 2018/19 traveling through 18 states and 8 countries, running with Barley was my main form of exercise (and my main hobby).
Suffice it to say, we’ve been charged by a lot of off-leash dogs.
I’ve learned a lot through all of these encounters, putting to practice things that I’ve learned as a professional dog trainer. Let’s run through some scenarios to see what your options are when you and your dog are charged by a dog.
Step One is Always The Same: Assess the Situation (Fast!)
The first thing to do in any of these scenarios is to assess the situation: is the dog tied down or behind a fence? Is there an owner running haplessly behind calling out that he’s friendly?
Even more importantly, assess the dogs’ body language. Most charging dogs fall into one of three categories.
- The Bouncy Over-Greeter. A loose, wiggly, bouncy dog probably just wants to say hi and isn’t a real threat to you (though your dog might disagree and find his approach rude, upsetting, or terrifying). These dogs want to say hi – and might be overly rude about it. They’re not likely to be truly dangerous to your dog.
- The Blustery Bluffer. Barky, blustery charges by a dog who’s hackles are up and weight is shifted back is probably a bluff charge. These dogs often stop 5-10 feet from you, barking and growling – they often follow as you retreat but don’t fully approach (though they might nip at your heels as you move away). They want you GONE but are generally more bark than bite.
- The Confident Guarder. A direct, confident, silent approach by a dog who’s got a high-held tail and forward-pricked ears can be a very bad sign. That dog is potentially quite serious about protecting his turf. These dogs might also bark, but it’s often a deeper, less staccato bark than the Blustery Bluffer. I have seen very few of these dogs in my life, but they can be truly scary.
Thanks to my chosen profession, I’m somewhat of an expert in dog body language.
No, I haven’t written a book on the subject – but I’ve educated countless of owners on the topic and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit studying dogs in shelters, in classes, in books, in video, and in person.
You probably don’t have my experience with body language, so use the barking and bounciness as two signs to look for.
Again, in general, rapid-fire, staccato barking is coming from a dog who just wants you AWAY, but doesn’t really want a fight.
A silent, direct approach is quite serious. A bouncy, goofy approach is downright rude – but probably not a direct threat to you and your dog.
Once you have an idea of what the dog’s intentions may be, it’s also important to keep your own dog in mind.
My dog Barley isn’t super friendly to other dogs, but he’s also certainly not aggressive. He’s been in several scuffles and arguments with other dogs, but he’s never been the instigator and he’s never even torn another dog’s ear.
I know this about him, so I know that even a rude, bouncy approach or a bluff charge isn’t likely to be a big deal. I still will take steps to protect Barley (so he doesn’t feel the need to step in on his own), but it’s not likely that he’s going to be the problem here.
You might have a different dog at the other end of your leash. Your dog might be terrified of other dogs, in which case that bouncy teenager barreling up to say hi might as well be Godzilla. Or your dog might be seriously aggressive to other dogs, in which case that bluff charge might as well be a declaration of war.
If your dog isn’t copasetic with other dogs, your steps to handle each situation may differ from how someone with a basically friendly dog may proceed. I’ll cover your options below.
In all scenarios, if you can simply cross the street, duck behind a gate, or double back the way you came, do so.
What to Do if You’re Unprepared and A Dog Charges You
Let’s be honest, this is probably the most common scenario: you and your dog are walking or jogging and are charged by a dog. You have your leash, your phone, and… not much else.
Some solutions rely on you having treats, so consider treats part of your bare-bones dog-walking kit (like poop bags and a leash). I walk with my treat pouch, and I tuck Marsh Dog treats into my running belt.
If your dog is aggressive or highly fearful of other dogs, consider muzzling your dog and carrying some of the tools described below.
I’ve mapped out your options based on the different combinations of your dog’s and the oncoming dog’s personalities.
|Bouncy Over-Greeter||Blustery Bluffer||Confident Guarder|
|Your dog is friendly||Un-clip your dog’s leash if safe and let the dogs greet on their own. If it’s not safe, step towards the dogs to help keep the tension out of your dog’s leash. Circle with them as needed, then call your dog away and carry on after 5-10 seconds of greeting. If the dog follows you, call the number on their tag.||Attempt to toss treats towards the dog, if you have them. If not, proceed on. Option A: Ask your dog to stay put and turn to face the other dog head-on, stepping into the charging dog’s space. This direct approach stops the vast majority of charging bluffers in their tracks (note: if you’re not sure the dog is bluffing, default to option B). Option B: Cross the street, move behind parked cars, happy-baby-talk to your dog, and just keep on going. The other dog might bark and follow briefly, but he’s likely to give up once you’re past his property line.||If the dog looks deadly serious, consider throwing treats, rocks, or sticks to deter the oncoming dog. Look for escape – a truck bed to hop into, a hedge to step behind, a gate to close between you and the oncoming dog. Crossing the street or doubling back (chop chop, no time to waste here) can stop these dogs, but not always. If a fight does break out, refer to this article on how to break up a dog fight.|
|Your dog is fearful||Start stuffing treats into your dog’s mouth and throw treats at the oncoming dog. If your dog can stay put on cue, corral the other dog and move him/her away. I’ve looped my dog’s leash over something and then taken the other dog home to keep them separate.||Plant yourself firmly between your dog and the other dog, stepping into the other dog’s space as described above. Try to feed your dog treats while this happens and get out of dodge quickly. Get out as fast as you can – your dog can’t take this sort of stress! In a pinch, I’ve also had success planting my dog behind me and spinning my leash like a windmill in front of me to get the other dog to back up (used with marauding stray dogs on the Nicaragua/Honduras border).||Same strategies as above.|
|Your dog is aggressive||Same strategy as above, or as “Confident Guarder.”||Same strategy as above, or as “Confident Guarder.”||Same strategies as above.|
How to Prepare Yourself and Your Dog for a Charging Dog
Let’s face it: some of us have rotten luck with charging dogs, and others of us live in areas where it seems that no one has heard of a leash or real fence (underground fences just don’t count).
Obviously, if you know there’s a problem area, just avoid it. No, it’s not fair that your shy dog can’t enjoy the same walking path as the other dogs.
But using the trail when charging dogs constantly stress out your dog isn’t helping anyone.
If you know that there’s a possibility of being charged by dogs and you can’t just avoid the area, it’s smart to put together a little go-kit for yourself. This doesn’t have to be much, but it can make a big difference.
Unlike most pepper sprays, citronella spray comes out in a concentrated stream (which means it’s easy to aim). It’s cheaper than pepper spray and is far less painful or harmful for the oncoming dog – but nonetheless very effective.
I hate to admit it, but I’ve used citronella spray on dozens and dozens of dogs – mostly strays in Latin America.
I’m yet to have a dogfight break out after using citronella spray. If you’re familiar with bear spray, you’ll find citronella spray quite similar in technique.
I use Spray Shield. I either clip it to my treat pouch for walks, or use a hairband to attach it to my waist leash for jogs.
A few tips for using citronella spray to deter charging dogs:
- Practice first. Make sure you can unholster it quickly and smoothly, that you know how to operate it, and that you can aim. Practice with one hand. Practice with your non-dominant hand. Practice while holding your dog’s leash. You get the picture.
- Spray earlier rather than later. Spray shield has a pretty good range up to about 10 feet. As soon as you can spray accurately to the dog, do it. Most dogs will stop dead when they hit it. If they don’t, you should still have plenty left in the can to hit ‘em again. Most dogs are so startled by the spray that I’m not even sure if it’s the citronella that stops them or just the surprise of something different coming at them.
- Aim well if the dog doesn’t stop. If that initial spray into the dirt doesn’t stop the dog, get a bit more serious. Aim the citronella for the dog’s mouth and nose (easy if the dog is barking). This usually does the trick.
I’ve used my fair share of other techniques to stop charging dogs, but I’ve found citronella spray is my favorite tool by far.
In Latin America, you can usually scatter stray dogs by simply bending down as if you’re going to pick up a rock. That was useful – but not likely to work in most of the United States.
I used pepper spray on a pack of stray dogs in Ensenada, Mexico once (I had run out of spray shield and chose to bring the pepper spray instead of going without anything). It stopped the dogs, alright.
But it also was clearly very painful for them, and I felt rotten about it. I haven’t noticed the intensity same pain-based responses in dogs I hit with citronella.
Worse, I also got some pepper spray onto my hand, which ultimately ended up on my brow when I mopped up some sweat, and into my eye. Huge mistake! You probably don’t need or want pepper spray. Citronella is more accurate to use and does the trick in my experience.
What NOT to Do When Charged by a Dog
- Don’t Run Away. This might stop a Blustery Bluffer, but it won’t stop the other two types of dog. In fact, running might actually give the Bluffer the confidence he needs to pursue with more vigor. If you’re already jogging, sometimes continuing on your track gets the other dog to leave. But often, I slow to a walk when Barley and I are navigating a charging dog – our forward motion might get us out of there, or it might heighten the tension. Not worth the risk.
- Don’t Scream and Kick and Make a Huge Fuss. Sure, yelling at the oncoming dog and essentially throwing a tantrum might stop the charging dog. I know it’s worked for me when I’m having a bad day and just can’t keep my cool. But it also teaches your dog that other dogs charging you is a Very Big Deal, and his reaction is likely to worsen. It might stop the oncoming dog, but it also might make your own dog much more nervous of others.
- Don’t Bother With the Owner. It’s almost never worth it to ask the owner to call their dog away, or to cuss them out, or whatever you’re tempted to do. If the owner is clearly trying to catch their dog, do what you can to help! Get between the dogs if your dog needs that, and help gather up the dog. I find that Bouncy Over-Greeters are most likely to have a human attached (somehow Blustery Bluffers almost never have humans with them), and really, giving that person a piece of your mind isn’t likely to help. If you’ve got the wherewithal, you can educate them (KINDLY) after the dogs are under control. If you need to citronella spray the dog to keep your dog safe, expect the other owner to be upset. There’s not much to be done about that.
My Go-To Tactics for Dealing With Charging Dogs
Last night, I had the opportunity to practice my two go-to techniques when I’m unprepared.
I headed out on a jog while traveling in Washington. My citronella spray lay in my drawer in Montana. If I’d had citronella, I certainly would have used it.
We were charged first by a little Mexican Hairless Terrier – clearly a Blustery Bluffer. The dog was terrified but followed us out into the street all the same. At first, I ignored and kept jogging, but Barley was clearly a bit worried (glancing over his shoulder, hackles up, ears pinned) and the little bugger was following us more than I’d like.
So I told Barley to “wait,” then turned and stepped quickly directly toward the dog. He backed up, ears pinned, and kept barking. I took a few more steps, and the dog turned tail and ran.
A few houses later, I heard some deep, booming barks. A Dutch shepherd streaked into the road, hackles up, standing on his tippy-toes.
I dropped Barley’s leash, recognizing that this dog wasn’t likely to stop 5-10 feet from us. I didn’t have a way to stop the dog from reaching us, so I figured it would be most fair for Barley to navigate this socially. I had his back!
I baby-talked the dogs while the Dutchie rudely put his neck over Barley’s back, his hackles up. Barley looked very tense, but I kept happy-baby-talking to him, telling him how good he was.
After a few seconds, I called Barley away and stepped towards the pair to split them up a bit. The Dutchie backed off and Barley came to me.
The owners called from their lawnchairs, “Is that dog a girl?”
I replied no, and they said, “Weird, he’s never that nice to boy dogs!”
As I said, don’t bother with the owners… I’m glad Barley and I were somehow able to diffuse the situation.
If it had escalated, I didn’t have much on me to break up a dog fight. I probably would have attempted to break up the fight with my voice first (I have quite a yell, and that’s worked for me with many minor fights).
I try everything I can to break up the fight quickly without getting my hands involved. See this article for more info on breaking up dog fights.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, as a private dog trainer, and with working detection K9s. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.