I recently was enjoying a morning walk on the country roads when I heard a dog barking where no dog ought to have been – I was well surrounded by fields and woods and not a house in sight. Imagining someone decided to get rid of their dog by tying it to a fence, I turned toward the sound and found myself face to face with a pack of feral dogs. That was enough to get my heart rate from ‘pleasantly pumping’ to ‘panicked pounding’.
Which got me to thinking about my upstairs neighbor’s dog who got free one day and spent her afternoon chasing joggers up and down our street, and the german shepherd who lives in a yard with no fence, and the mastiff who, on seeing a person, is set on opening a mastiff-sized hole in his enclosure, and the little poodly mix who broke free from his handler one day to attack us and another day was walking off lead, and the hunting hound hanging around with his fishing buddies who were too occupied with their beer to notice their dog was menacing people and the husky who was ‘very playful’ but actually tracked us with his nose and on another day charged with an intent to bite. I could go on – so could you probably.
With all that in mind, today’s topic:
What to do when a dog approaches, charges, chases, follows or otherwise interrupts your exercise plan by causing you fear or harm.
Here’s an important disclaimer: I have no professional certifications, training, or credibility. What I do have is 3500 miles of walking a year and dozens of dog incidents worth of experience. I have not yet been bitten, but I am not naive enough to think that I never will be. If you have no idea what to do about a dog following you while you’re running, walking, or biking, this is a good place to start. I make no guarantees.
Keeping calm is important – because if you act afraid, you become a target or prey. Your body speaks for you – keep your head up, your shoulders back, your face relaxed, and your knees flexible. Don’t discount this because it sounds too simple. It has worked for me many times.
If the dog is secure – behind a fence or well controlled on a lead, the best thing to do is keep calm and carry on. It’s not a bad idea to keep your eyes open because a dog can be ‘under control’ one second and free like a bird the next.
A dog who is free and defending his territory has a simple goal in mind: to keep you away from it. He will approach you, then stop at a distance and bark. His tail will be up in the air – wagging or not doesn’t matter. You need to show him that a) you mean no harm, b) you aren’t looking for a fight and c) you are powerful and strong and calm. This is the technique I used on the pack of dogs. Stand facing him, like he is with you. Square your shoulders and do everything you can to seem calm. He may bark at you for several minutes, depending on the strength of his territorialism. Wait him out, I promise it will be worth it. Eventually, he will lower his tail, and soon after that, he will turn and walk away. He has given up the fight. You absolutely must wait until he walks away. The other thing he may do is decide that it’s worth the fight. At this point, he will come towards you again rather than turning and walking away.
If a dog approaches you and doesn’t stop at a distance, or stops but then continues the approach, you have to go to step B. You are already in your ‘calm, strong, ready’ stance. Now you must take a step forward. I know you don’t want to, everything is telling you to back up – but backing up will often backfire, telling the dog that continuing to approach you is working to get you to move away. This will lead to a closer, sometimes faster approach. I believe these things are best sorted at a distance. Take that step forward – put your hand or hands forward like a traffic cop signalling ‘stop’ and say something. ‘No’ or ‘Get back’ – it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you say it like you mean it – calm and firm, not scared and shouty. Like you’d tell your daughter to talk to a stranger on the street who gave her unwanted attention. I have used this with the brown dog who jumps the fence when he sees another dog. His owners were amazed that he stopped and went back. That dog speaks ‘French’ and I said it in English – proving that it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you mean it. If this works, the dog will lower his tail, and sometimes turn and walk away. Again, it is very important that you wait – stand your ground – until he walks away. If it doesn’t work he will continue and maybe even accelerate his approach; things are about to get physical. I’m sorry, but it does happen.
At the point where a dog ignores your body language and comes into your physical space, there is only one thing to do: defend yourself. Next I will cover defending yourself against a dog attack, as well as what to do when a dog attacks your dog while you’re walking.