Keeping You and Your Family Safe From “Free Roaming” Dogs

Father and toddler feeding and walking with dogMany years ago, my sister had told me that while out walking her small young pup (A shih Tzu/Bichon mix) near my Mom’s house, a huge Mastiff came flying out of a house and ran straight for them. Her initial reaction was one that many of us would have…. Protect the one you love… so she grabbed Sylvi off the ground and used her own body to block the huge dog from getting to her.

I had not heard much more on this subject until recently…. but in the past few months, I have heard it quite a bit. My sister called me for advice on how to respond to some recent articles in her neighborhood newspaper about unleashed aggressive dogs in the neighborhood, that come flying out at people walking by with their dogs or kids. A friend of mine stepped in when a dog viciously went after her dog, and she ended up getting severely bitten in the process. And yet another instance where my friend’s 7 year old daughter was playing in her own front yard and a medium sized stray went after her. She only got a scratch, but that was because luckily, her Dad was right inside and chased the dog away… or it would have been much worse! But the most difficult part of this is that this little girl, who loved all animals, is now a bit fearful of dogs.

Let’s face it, having to be on guard the entire time is anything BUT relaxing!… so how do you handle it when a strange dog comes flying at you, your child, or your dog while you are just out for a nice relaxing stroll?

I have heard many different solutions to this problem… for example, some recommend carrying mace or pepper spray at all times. The problem I find with this is that for it to be effective, the dog has to be right up on you already.  At that point, the spray may lessen the damage they do, but is not going to thwart the attack. The other danger to this is that you are spraying a chemical while you are in a panicked state, not to mention to use this item, you have to remove the cap, point and aim correctly, and make sure the wind outside is in your favor. The chances of you spraying it and hitting your target are minimal at best, and if you accidently spray towards your own eyes, you are now rendered useless and cannot help you, your child or your dog.

Another method I have heard used often is a walking stick brought along on the walk. The stick could be used as a weapon against a stray dog coming at you. However, for the same reason I find the Pepper spray or Mace to not be a good idea, again with a stick, you have to wait until the dog is right up on you to use it effectively.

So what is your best option? To start, some things to do before your next walk:

  1. First off, the most important thing you can do is to remind yourself to stay calm. No one thinks clearly when they are panicked.
  2. With regards to your children, you need to have a safety word that lets them know NOT to scream or run at that moment. Because self preservation is present the minute we are born So instinctively, if a dog runs towards your child, their initial reaction will be to scream and run. This is absolutely the WORST thing that they can do at that moment. When an animal in the wild is actively being hunted or pursued, it shrieks and runs away. So when your child goes to do this, it sets off the chase/prey/hunt instinct even more. Whatever your word(s) may be, make sure your child understands it means to calmly and quietly step behind you, but not to grab your legs….which would restrict your movement.
  3. Another important piece of advice…. Kids are notorious for asking a million questions. This is not the time or place to answer them. I remember growing up my Dad always had one rule in his car that had to be obeyed… if he said, “DUCK” at any time; we were to do it first, ask questions later. Same rule applies to your safety word. Now is not the time for: “But why…??”
  4. Finally – get yourself a very loud air horn. You will find them very inexpensively at Walmart or Defense Devices or even at Party City . The advantage to these are they are lightweight, easy to use, no harmful chemicals are utilized, and best of all, it works!! Why does it work? When an animal has ‘locked on’ to a target, it is very hard to sway them from their mark. (We actually discuss this in detail in my post Recognize a Dog’s Body Language Before Your Child Get’s Bitten). Their 100% focus is on that target at the moment. However, a very loud and unexpected noise will break through and interrupt that brain wave that has them focused on you, your child, or your pet. Think of all the old movies you have ever seen that take place in the wilderness…. When the wild animal is about to attack, the human in the movie will shoot their gun into the air… and the animal takes off. Again, it is the loud unexpected noise that startles them and changes that brain wave.

If you are with a pet or a child and a strange dog comes at you, don’t quickly bend and pick them up. This now makes you the obstacle they have to get through to get to their target, and they will have no qualms about attacking you to get to them. Add to this that if you panic and go to pick up your dog or your child, now you have to juggle them and the horn, making it that much harder for you to use the air horn effectively.

Again, the most important thing is for you not to panic…. The calmer you stay, the calmer your child or pet will be knowing that you have the situation under control.

So now lets walk through the steps of what to do if a strange dog is coming at you, your child, or your pet…..

  • If you are walking with your child….. Have the air horn in an easily accessible place… many of them come with belt clip-ons. You see an animal coming towards you, Remember to remain calm…. sudden movements may agitate the stray even more. Give your child the word that means stand behind you. Your child gets behind you and you have your body turned towards the approaching animal. Mother And Daughter Walking Along PathCalmly take the air horn, and now blast the air horn. (Hold the button down for a long continuous noise. You don’t want to keep hitting the button over and over again… remember, it is the loud sudden unexpected noise that startles and stops them… don’t give them a chance to ‘get used to ‘ the noise by repeatedly hitting the button It will lose its effectiveness.) While holding the button down, instruct your child to start slowly walking backwards with you. When the animal stops and/or runs away, be aware that your adrenaline is still pumping…. It is a scary moment…. But do not start running away with your child…. It may cause the animal that was retreating to want to chase you again. Keep calmly walking away until you know you and your child are safe. Now, remember to tell your child what a great job they did!!!! Let them know how proud you are of them, that your teamwork kept both of you safe!!!
  • If you are walking with your dog…. It is important to remember that your dog’s instinct is going to be either fight or flight….. which are both dangerous reactions in this scenario. If their instinct is flight…and they go to run, the aggressive dog is going to give chase. On the flip side, if their instinct is to protect you…and they go into fight mode, they are actually ‘challenging’ the other animal and things can get ugly very fast. So remember, before heading out for your walk, put the air horn in an easy-to-reach convenient place. If another animal comes towards you, immediately tighten up on the leash, or step on the leash as close to their collar as you can get. (One of the advantages of you stepping on the leash close to the collar, is that this unusual action will surprise your dog, and they will be more focused on this than the approaching threat. It will also keep them still and free up your hands.  Now blast that air horn!! Remember that it may startle your dog as well, so make sure you either have a firm grip on your leash, or that your foot holding the leash is firmly planted. The last thing you want is to have your foot on the leash, the air horn frightens your dog, and your dog tries to run, knocking you over in the process. Once the intruder has ran off, do not assume they are gone for good. Start backing away with your dog, keeping an eye on where the intruder went. You don’t want to turn your back on the intruder, thinking he is gone, bending over to pick up your dog and now you are attacked. Once you are sure they are gone, you can then pick up your dog or start walking away… but again, don’t run… it can attract the intruder’s attention and have him coming back for more.
  • If the other dog starts to head back in your direction, blast that horn again, long and loud.  It should stop them in their tracks.  At the very least, it should attract passerby attention and hopefully get you some assistance.

So to wrap this up, we’ll do a quick recap…. Before leaving for your walk, have the air-horn in an easily accessible place. If a strange dog starts to come towards you, remain calm and rational, have your child get behind you slowly, or hold your dog’s leash firmly to you. Do not run away or make any sudden movements. Give the air horn a long steady blast, not a bunch of quick bursts, then slowly back away, keeping an eye on where the intruder disappeared, and once you know you are safe, praise your child or pet your dog and reassure them (and yourself!) that you did a good job keeping every body safe!!

One last comment: as a professional trainer, I’m sorry to have to add that I can’t account for every possible dog’s reaction. I wish I could. But, for example, a dog that has been trained to be aggressive may not react the way the majority of animals would.  There are always exceptions to every rule – however in most cases, this will be the most effective way to keep you and your family safe.

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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