My Dogs are Afraid of Your Off-Leash Dog

After more than seven years in the motorhome, Ty and Buster have acclimated to nearly every aspect of full-time travel. They love sniffing all the smells in each new campground, have a ball exploring the town and trails where we walk, and know that when we buckle them into their safety harnesses that we're off again on a new adventure.

The one thing that we haven't been able to help them overcome is their fear of other dogs. Ty was attacked at a dog park when he was 6 months old, and has not trusted other dogs since then. Buster found us as a stray when he was about a year old, and has been uncomfortable around other dogs right from the beginning. My hunch is that he spent the first year of his life in someone's backyard and didn't learn dog body language in those formative weeks of his puppyhood.

Training has helped the boys learn to tolerate other dogs from a distance, and that distance has declined (slowly) over the years. But this fear is not something that's easy to overcome, and it can make traveling with our dogs a bit more challenging.

Buster and Ty walking along dirt path through a field of grass.

One of our biggest irritations is when an off-leash dog runs up to Ty and Buster, because whether the other dog is friendly or not, he's terrifying to our dogs. So, in an effort to get the other dog to move away, Ty and Buster will bark and lunge -- not because they're spoiling for a fight, because they don't want to be forced to interact.

Now, lest you think this is turning into an article bashing off-leash dogs ... it's not. My life's purpose is to identify and tell others about pet-friendly places, and if those places allow dogs to play off-leash -- even better! Dog parks and leash-free beaches are great for pups who love to socialize with their own kind. And, if you're lucky enough to have one of those dogs who can take advantage of off-leash trails for hiking, I'm truly envious.

Profile of a small dog.

Even finding off-leash dogs in places where leashes are required doesn't get my hackles up, as long as those dogs are well-trained and respond to their owner's command the first time it is given. The problem arises when dogs -- even the friendly ones -- are off leash and not under the voice control of their owners.

Seeing a dog charging toward you with the owner running behind calling, "Don't worry, he's friendly!" is not a comfortable feeling for a human being or dog! And for dogs who are trying hard to trust their people to keep them safe from unwanted canine advances, it's devastating.

What's worse is that we've been told that we shouldn't have our "aggressive" dogs out in public if they can't tolerate being approached by other dogs. These people seem to think their dogs are "just being dogs," and are not concerned how their rude behavior impacts anyone else.

Close up of Ty and Buster's faces.

So, what can you do if your dog is fearful like ours? We have a few suggestions:

1. Avoid places where pets are known to gather off-leash, like dog parks and off-leash beaches.
2. Work at desensitizing your dog to the presence of other dogs through training.
3. Carry treats to help distract your dog when other dogs are closer than they'd prefer.
4. You are your dog's best advocate. Don't be afraid to ask people to leash their dog while you pass, or decline a request to have another dog meet yours.
5. Remember that your dog's behavior shouldn't embarrass you. Reactivity is an especially difficult behavioral challenge to overcome. Some dogs may never be comfortable in the company of other dogs, so celebrate small improvements, and don't beat yourself up if your dog's progress is slow.

And, to those people blessed with dogs without these challenges, I know my dog's behavior is not your problem, but with a little compassion, you could be part of the solution!

Here are some ways we could really use your help:

1. Only let your dog off-leash when in public in designated "leash-free" areas, or if they are under voice control. (This means they are never out of your sight and respond immediately when given a command such as "leave it" or "come.")
2. If you meet a leashed dog when yours is not leashed, ask your dog to come to you and wait quietly while the other dog passes.
3. Understand that reactive dogs are not aggressive -- they just want their space.
4. Keep in mind that the challenges some dogs and their owners face are beyond your imagination. They're working to overcome those circumstances, and a smile or word of encouragement goes a long way.

If you'd like more information about our pet friendly travels with Ty and Buster, visit us at GoPetFriendly.com.

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