Dear Inquisitive Canine:

Our dog, despite being fearful of new things, does pretty well when she passes dogs that are on leash. However, when a dog runs up to her that is off leash, she gets scared and acts in such a way that often causes the dog to want to attack. She’s never been seriously bitten, but on four occasions she has been “jumped,” resulting in a lot of squealing.

Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho

Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho

We don’t want her to get to the point where she decides to be aggressive to the other dog. So far she hasn’t. What should we do? Unless we know the dog is friendly (or at least not pushy) should we just pick her up for a minute? She is not a small dog (45 pounds) but we can pick her up fairly easily.

–– Brenda

Dear Brenda …

It’s stressful when our “kids” get picked on, isn’t it? Not fun for us or our dogs. And it’s even more frustrating if we’re in an area where leashes are mandatory, and we’re the only ones paying attention to the laws. Click here for Poncho’s blog on the topic.

As a dog mom and professional dog trainer, I can recommend a couple different approaches when it comes to these off-leash situations. There is “management,” meaning preventing (as much as humanly possible) these scenarios from happening in the first place, (or at the very least, making them less likely to occur), and then there is “training.”

For those times when you choose to manage your situation, you might want to consider the following:

» Since it’s “new things” she is fearful of, walk your dog in familiar places where leashes are mandatory and leash-laws are more likely to be followed. Although not everyone follows the rules, at least there might be less of a chance for off-leash encounters.

» Avoid places where you risk encountering off-leash dogs.

» Ask other dog guardians to abide by the laws if you should happen upon an off-leash dog in a leash-required area.

As far as some training tips, I have a few recommendations based on your general question of: “What do we do when an unfamiliar off leash dog approaches our leashed dog?” Depending on the situation, you’ll have to use your own best judgment for deciding which one(s) to follow.

» Drop the leash and allow your dog to communicate in normal doggy body language. Leashes can create tension in many situations. Not just in the dog, but in whomever is holding it. Your dog reads your body language as “Uh, oh, mom is tense, so I’ll tense up, too!” Plus, the leash itself can thwart your dog’s freedom of movement. Dogs express themselves primarily with body language; leashes tend to get in the way of this communication. So, if it’s safe, drop the leash, or loosen up on it so she doesn’t feel a “pulling” and therefore tense, sensation.

» Give your dog something else to do. This would be good for loose dogs that might come nearby, but don’t actually stop to say “hi.’’ You can play the “Find it!” game: toss treats while saying “Find it!” to your dog, all while keeping the pace moving forward. As long as she is staying focused on you, and still eating, this shows she’s not stressed out about the other dog. She’ll also start to associate other dogs with good things for her!

» Provide some encouraging “happy talk” while you move it along: “Yippee! Look, there’s another doggy!” Your dog will start to associate other dogs with you being happy and in a good mood, instead of giving you that panicked look you want to avoid.

» Set up “play-date” walks with friends and their dogs. (If this is something you and your friends, and your dogs enjoy doing). Sometimes there is “safety in numbers.” Another dog might be less likely to approach multiple dogs.

» Toss high value treats at the other dog! This will hopefully distract the other dog, and motivate them to want to look for yummy treats, versus mingle with your dog.

» Avoid making your dog do anything that involves remaining stationary! For instance, don’t ask her to “sit” or “down” or “stay” while the other dog moves around her. Again, allow her to communicate in her innate doggy language.

» You can also add in the bonus of rewarding your dog with yummy treats every time another dog passes by, even if it’s on leash, and not paying attention to your dog. This will help your dog build positive associations toward other dogs: “Yippee! Another dog! Woo-hoo!” In time her confidence should build, and the stress level toward novel dogs should decrease.

As for “picking her up,” in my opinion this is usually not the best choice, even though in our human minds it sounds reasonable. (Sometimes for those tiny dogs it can help, such as if they’re about to be “lunch,” but rarely does it make the situation better).

Dogs communicate primarily with body language. Just like the tension and interference of the leash, the act of you picking her up causes her to lose all ability to communicate to the other dog. Think of it as you being tied up and not being able to talk or defend yourself. Your dog needs to communicate with this other dog in the best way she knows how, and not just say what she wants to say, but to respond to the message being sent by the other dog. Plus, you put yourself at risk, by either inadvertently luring the other dog to jump up on you and your dog, or risking back injury and not being able to get home.

Management of the situation, allowing your dog to communicate freely and taking the time to teach your dog that other dogs being around make good things happen for her, should help going for walks together pleasant and fun again. After all, isn’t that what going for walkies is all about?

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and founder of The Inquisitive Canine. She and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Joan offers training and behavior consulting services both in person and online, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, email and click here for more training tips. The opinions expressed are her own.