My Dogs are Afraid of Your Off-Leash Dog

Amy & Rod Burkert Amy & Rod Burkert  |  09.24.2017

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.

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.

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.

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

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  1. Cynthia Posted on 10.03.2017

    I I would add that just because I have a dog doesn’t mean I love all other dogs. And certainly doesn’t mean I want some strange dog running up to me and jumping on me or licking me or behaving in a way that I find intimidating or uncomfortable. Even if my dog is social it will pick up on those cues from me and have a negative interaction with that off leash dog.

  2. debs Posted on 10.01.2017

    there is a scheme called yellow dog uk which sells various items which alert other dog owners to the fact that your dog needs space. this seems to work well & maybe should be used in all places not just the uk.

  3. dw Posted on 10.01.2017

    Great article, EXCEPT for the pass given to off-leash dogs in places where leashes are required. Leash laws are the law, and they apply to everyone.

    People go to leashes-required areas to specifically avoid off-leash dogs. For some dogs and people afraid of dogs, just seeing off-leash dog can instill great fear and/or anxiety. No one in a leashes-required area should ever be in a position where they need to ask someone to leash a dog (and many people are even afraid to ask, because some dog owners can be very confrontational).

    It’s just plain irresponsible and rude (and illegal) to let a dog off-leash in a leashes-required area, regardless of training.

  4. Kalia Posted on 09.30.2017

    Thank you very much for writing this. So important for others to read. I especially can relate to the sentiment that my dog is not aggressive; he’s just telling other dogs he doesn’t want to interact. My dog has a few doggie friends, but only a few, and it’s taken a long time for him to completely trust them. Interestingly, if an owner and their dog walk by and that dog is extremely calm and uninterested in us, then my dog doesn’t react at all. If that dog or owner reacts to us (dirty looks, attempting to get closer), my dog can get very upset. Lots and lots of positive reinforcement training has made him much more able to cope, but I sometimes wonder if it will ever be completely healed. Your words are encouraging and validating. Thank you.

  5. judy Posted on 09.30.2017

    Not mentioned is the fact the leash designates a feeling to protect the the leash holder.

  6. Heidi Posted on 09.30.2017

    We have a beautiful, wonderful Golden Retriever, rescued in Taiwan, who is very reactive to other dogs, especially those off leash. She is terrified of them. We have a yellow tag on the middle of her leash to indicate that she shouldn’t be approached without permission and care. While not everyone knows what it means, it has helped communicate that she has issues and has saved us all some fear and stress.

  7. Char Posted on 09.30.2017

    I have talked to obedience trainers who say that any dog who runs up to another dog and pushes his face into the other dog’s face is looking for trouble. Truly trained dogs do NOT do that – they approach slowly and sometimes not at all. The rude, un-trained dogs are the ones that run up and push into your leashed dog. Your dogs are not aggressive – mine are the same, they don’t want to be every dog’s friend and that is more normal than being pushy and in-your-face. Mine are small and I can always pick them up and leave the situation. Leashed areas mean just that – LEASHED.

  8. laura crain Posted on 09.30.2017

    Same goes for children. My dog doesn’t bark because he wants to hurt your child he barks to try to warn your child he doesn’t like them. Children move around squirmy, are at face level, and unpredictable. My dog although certified with all the certifications out there, does not like your dog or especially young child getting to close. He fears them. He doesn’t understand they just want to show affection so,please give us our space.

  9. MB Posted on 09.29.2017

    Thank you! My retriever/hound mix has some neurological issues and has some “autistic like” behaviors. SWEET dog…..but that whole interacting with strange dogs? She is not good at the whole meet and greet. If she is introduced slowly and the other dog is quiet, she is fine. But running up to her and getting in her face might get an unwanted response. I keep her on a leash when we are out, but that doesn’t help if others are off leash and as you said, not under voice control of their owners. Thank you for making me feel better about cringing when I see another dog off leash. My two dogs and I are leaving Monday for an extended road trip. I can’t wait! Thank you for all the good info! Have a great week-end.

  10. Tom the Awning Fixer Posted on 09.25.2017

    Truth in all of that. I also offer a few words for dog owners.
    – Your dog and my dog do not need to “say hello” or “be friends.” Keep your dog on a leash and at a distance.
    – Flexileads are not leashes.
    – Do not tell me “he’s friendly or he’s never bitten anyone.” He’s got teeth, doesn’t he? And it’s not me I’m concerned about, it’s my dog.
    – Neither my dog nor your dog needs to be in a restaurant, indoors or out.