The big black Labrador meandered slowly up a Delmar street, much to the consternation of my client. She froze and clung to the leash, aware that her own dog would, at any moment, see the loose dog and go into a barking frenzy.
We backed away, turned and worked on maintaining confidence and purpose so that her dog would not react negatively. In the meantime, the Lab, oblivious to cars stopping to let it pass, wandered away.
A little Cairn Terrier stumbled down the busy street, stopping traffic in both directions on the main road leading out of Brunswick. Her collar had no tags to indicate where she lived, or even a phone number. Eventually, her owner was found after she was carried up and down the road, stopping at each house to ask if anyone recognized her.
Stray dogs – dogs that have been abandoned, are homeless or, as the above incident describes, dogs that are running loose without their owners – are a growing problem nationwide. By some reports, more than 500,000 dogs are lost or abandoned every month across the country, even more so during economic downturns. Some are reunited with their owners, others are picked up by animal control authorities, some are hit by cars and killed, and some become feral. All, however, can pose a threat to humans and to our on-leash family dogs.
On average annually, about 800,000 people are injured by dogs seriously enough to require medical attention. Broad estimates indicate that about 10 to 12 percent of dog bites involve strays. However, there are no statistics for the number of leashed dogs attacked, bitten or killed by loose dogs, and sadly, we read about these occurrences every day.
One client told me about walking her leashed Maltese on a suburban sidewalk. A loose Boxer mix ran to them, barking furiously, and snapping at her little dog. At one point, the bigger dog grabbed her dog’s ear. The owner screamed, trying to scoop up her dog. A passerby was able to grab the stray’s hind legs and pull him off, though her dog needed seven stitches in its ear, and both she and her dog have been traumatized by the incident.
We all know it is the responsibility of dog owners to care for, train, and look after their canine companions, but we also know this does not always happen. When I was growing up, it was commonplace to let our dogs out without accompanying them. No one had invisible fences. Leash laws and poop-scooping ordinances were relatively unknown. Times have changed, of course, but I suspect there are still many dog owners who recall the old days, and let their dogs roam at will.
So what should we do if we encounter a stray dog while out walking? Our attention to our surroundings and our intellect are our top defenses in avoiding an incident with a stray dog.
Never approach a stray dog. Strays are usually hungry, thirsty, sometimes injured – and almost always frightened. They could also carry disease. There are too many unknown factors with a stray dog; it’s simply not worth the risk. Even with your knowledge of or love for dogs, steer clear of a stray. A wagging tail does not mean that the dog is safe to pet. Your best bet is to call your local animal control officer and report the wandering dog to them.
Walk with awareness. Even in familiar surroundings, scan the area, near and far. This level of awareness doesn’t have to take away from the joy of your walk. You may see things you’ve not noticed before. It’s always best to know who and what is around you. Stray dogs can approach very quickly, often from behind garbage cans or from the woods. Also, for a variety of safety reasons, always bring a mobile phone along with you.
Seek a safe haven. If you see a stray dog approaching from a distance, look for a place that’s secure. Step inside a fenced area, enter a place of business, or knock on a neighbor’s door. It’s always better to be safe than risk a potentially dangerous encounter.
Carry food as a distraction. I disagree with those who believe that pepper spray (or some other non-lethal spray) is an appropriate defense measure. This doesn’t always work and can make the situation worse, especially in the hands of someone inexperienced. Carrying treats or a pocket full of kibbles along with you is a much better option. Because strays are almost always hungry, you can use the food to take the dog’s attention off you. Throw the food farther and farther away from you so the dog focuses on the food while you retreat to a place of safety. Kibbles work especially well as the dog will forage to find every morsel.
If the doing any of these things is not possible, or if a stray approaches you by surprise, follow these guidelines to protect yourself:
Don’t try to run. Stand still. Hold your arms close to your sides, and don’t move. Keep your eyes focused downward and watch the stray with your peripheral vision. Don’t stare at the dog. He could interpret this as a threat. Let the dog sniff you if he wants, but do not stick your hand out as this can be interpreted as a threat. When the dog leaves, do not turn your back on the dog. Back away slowly, so you can keep an eye on the dog.
If you have been knocked down by a dog – don’t get up and run. Roll into a ball. Cover your face and head with your arms, keep your legs together, and pull your knees up to chest. Don’t get up and don’t move until the dog has gone away.
Overcome your instinctual urge to run. More than 90% of the time that dogs exhibit aggressive behavior it is a reaction based on fear. Your goal is to eliminate a perceived threat or remove an opportunity to attack. If you run, there is a high probability that the dog will chase and attack you. If you stand still, he will most likely sniff you, and go on his way.
After the dog has gone, call the animal control authorities in your area. You are completely within your rights to do this. Don’t be reluctant for fear that your neighbor might resent your intervention. There are leash laws that requires all dogs to be leashed unless accompanied by, and under the full control of, either their owner or another person responsible for the dog’s actions.
Perhaps the dog got loose by mistake – and you know that you would want someone to alert you if it was your dog – to keep him out of harm’s way. By doing so, you will give the dog the best chance for survival by getting him off the streets into a safe place and, with luck, reuniting him with his owner.