Don’t Worry, He’s Friendly! Training for Off-Leash Dog Encounters
“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” If you spend any time out on the trails or in the parks, you’ve heard this shouted your way… a lot. It’s most often yelled as a dog is barreling down on you and your dog, the owner is far away and has no idea about dog behavior or training. The off-hand “Don’t worry, he’s friendly” comment is their attempt at diffusing a situation that can go south rather quickly. These owners often have no control or have a strong relationship with their dog. Yes, they love the dog, but when a dog pays little attention to his owner, this signals a lack of guidance and direction.
What’s even worse is when the dog isn’t even friendly, although his human believes differently. The owner is often too far away to hear him growling. They may have no knowledge of the body language their dog is displaying: stiff legged, stalking, eyes locked – this denotes anything but friendly.
And there you are, your own dog is leashed, the other owner is far off, if visible at all. It’s an on-leash area, and you are following the rules. Your mind races, your heart beats faster, adrenalin pumps through your body. It’s fight or flight – the safety of your dog and yourself is now at risk. What do you do? Here’s what usually happens:
- If you’re polite, you call out: “Please leash your dog”. Your well-mannered approach is an attempt to keep the situation calm, but most times, the inconsiderate owner either can’t or won’t leash their dog. Asking them politely can be a moot point, but you’re the bigger person, so kill them with kindness before taking it up a notch.
- Come up with a catch phrase of your own. The next time you hear “Don’t worry, he’s friendly,” you respond with: “Mine isn’t!” It sure is fun to watch them scramble! But again, they have no idea how to get their dog back on a leash, assuming they are even carrying one. Mama always said “You can’t fix Stupid.” And it turns out, you can’t fix Stupid’s dog.
This person is clearly ignoring dog etiquette that’s put into place to keep us and our dogs safe. No amount of well-meaning blog posts I write are going to fix this. You can’t expect them to understand explanations that this behavior is akin to circling and sniffing strangers in the shopping mall. They won’t get the message because they’re not reading this post – but you are!
Like I said, you can’t fix Stupid, and you can’t fix Stupid’s dog. But you can train your own dog. In this situation, that’s really all you do. Take control over what you can: Your emotions. Your dog. Keep calm and train your dog!
Remember in Kindergarten when your teacher told you to ignore the person who was pestering you? You know what? It works for dogs, too! If your dog is too busy to even give the time of day to a rude, off-leash dog, nothing is going to escalate. The other dog will quickly lose interest and leave. If your dog is looking at you, wanting the treats he knows you offer up when a strange dog runs up to him, he won’t react to the other off leash dog. You have built a strong relationship with your dog, and that other rude dog doesn’t even matter!
Start training in a low distraction environment, with high value treats, and work on keeping your dog’s focus. Teach him to make eye contact with you and reward success. Practice this routine every day. Once you have a reliable eye contact from your dog, take it to the streets. My favorite place to train is at the entrance to a grocery store. There are plenty of great smells to distract your pooch, along with lots of people coming and going. If my dog can sit and focus on me in this situation, I am good to hit the trails.
Out on the trails, my dogs’ are under my control and if we see an off leash dog, I ask for my dogs’ attention, and step off to the side of the trail. For some people, stepping off the trail and holding your dog’s attention is enough of a cue for them to leas their own dogs and walk on by. I keep a conversation going with my dog, calming telling them they are a good dog, and rewarding slowly with treats. If I do my job well, like a human vending machine, my dog barely even notices that another dog is there – and that is the key!
While you may be upset that Stupid and his dog have barrelled down the trail at you in the past, keep in mind that some of this problem is also your responsibility.
Yes, that’s right.
While you were being stalked or charged, it’s likely that you and your dog reacted in a way that might have set you both off, or made that other dog more excited or more aggressive. I hear you – they started it! But that’s not the point. I’m trying to get you and your dog out of there safely and without any stress.
If you’re in an area that is marked as on-leash and you are approached by an off-leash dog, report it. If you’re threatened by an out of control dog’s behavior, tell the authorities. It doesn’t matter if a fine is ever levied or they even catch the perpetrator; it matters that they people are blatantly flouting the law, and putting everyone’s safety at risk. These people are also putting access to trails at parks at risk for all dog owners. It is up to the local authorities who manage the space to enforce these laws, and if they don’t hear there is a problem, they won’t be out enforcing the rules. Even if you can’t fix Stupid, you can still report them to the authorities.
Safety is everyone’s responsibility. People who flaunt the law due to ignorance or laziness will start to change the culture. Rude dogs and stupid people will start to become the norm. Set a good example and be diligent when enforcing the issue.
Kevin Roberts lives for adventure. Together with his pack of rescue dogs and his husband, he spends as much time outdoors as possible. Kevin lives by the motto: "Get outside and play with your dogs!
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