Depending on where you live, this may be a common occurrence, sadly. I get calls on a weekly basis (and regular queries from my students) about how to handle it if a dog is approaching with intent. There is no one answer that works in every situation as the moment is unfolding; putting something between you and the dog is your best hope if you don't want to carry "doggy mace."
Once the incident is over, though (hopefully sans injuries, but take care of those first if they do happen), there is something important you simply must do. Call your local Animal Control (typically in your county or municipality) and report the incident, giving as much detail about the dog and the situation as you can. If you live in an area that is prone to this sort of unpleasantness, have Animal Control on speed dial so you won't forget to call them.
Many people have reservations about reporting loose dogs or inhumane circumstances with pets to Animal Control. Though no one appreciates being harassed by dangerous or potentially aggressive animals, and no one likes to see suffering, when told to “call Animal Control,” many people blanch at the thought. They don’t want to get their neighbors in trouble, and they worry about what will become of the animals that are picked up. But if you don’t call Animal Control, an agency that your tax dollars are funding to keep you and the animals in your community safe, then who will report the situation? Many people complain about roaming animals, and some are so worried that their own dog’s exercise needs suffer. They have been attacked or menaced before, and now can only walk their own dogs at certain times of day, if at all. Some wonder, “why doesn’t Animal Control do something?" Well, how will they know there is a problem if you don’t report it? Don't assume someone else has reported it. If they haven't, your call is vital. If it's already been reported, your call is more proof that Animal Control is needed urgently in that area.
What happens to the dog you report should not be more important to you than your own personal safety, the safety of your children and neighbors, and the safety of your own pets.
Dog owners are losing our rights on a daily basis, it seems. I see links to stories pretty frequently regarding breed bans, dangerous dog ordinances, crackdowns on leash laws (which are not necessarily a bad thing, but it's hard on dog owners when municipalities go from "no enforcement" to "strict enforcement"), and more. Many insurance companies have started dropping homeowners for simply owning a “suspect” breed, regardless of the dog’s temperament. Public places are not as open to dogs, even well-behaved ones. Law-abiding pet owners end up being demonized for doing nothing wrong because irresponsible people have given dog owners in general a bad name.
Reporting abuse and loose dogs to Animal Control is a civic duty. Pets that belong to irresponsible people are a hazard and a nuisance, and the owners need to be taken to task for it. One call might not get action, but 2, 3, or more calls will. How is it fair for irresponsible people to “get off the hook” when their actions jeopardize YOUR safety, and the safety of your pets? Animal Control has the police power to write citations and bring charges when needed. They are a valuable resource to the responsible pet owner. They are the ones who can go after the irresponsible pet owners in your area, and wth the right evidence, get convictions. You could provide that evidence.
(For those of you who will say that you regularly call A.C. and yet there are still dogs being abused and neglected in your area, I cannot defend this. I never said the agency works perfectly everywhere; it's often short-shrifted in budgets, unfortunately. What you need to know is this: in many places, without evidence, at least 2 witnesses, and a perpetrator, a case cannot be made for abuse. These safeguards exist to protect owners' legal rights, and that means you, too.
If an animal has access to shelter, food and water, even if you don't agree with its living conditions, A.C. may not be able to cite the owner or remove the animal. Check with your A.C. so that you know. And hold their feet to the fire if they are truly not doing their jobs.)
(Yeah, I know about the pit bull problem: in some places any dog picked up that even remotely resembles a pit bull is euthanized immediately, regardless of temperament. Pit bull lovers hate this, and I can't say I blame them. I'll address this in a future post.)
However, a dog that bites, scratches, or attacks people or other pets (breed is irrelevant here) is a danger to your community. You can bet that you are not the only responsible pet owner or neighbor affected by him. He needs to be caught (safely, by professionals). If he turns out to be a placeable, adoptable animal, then he probably has a chance at a new home.
Regardless, why are you allowing the well-being of an unknown, potentially sick, aggressive or potentially-aggressive dog to trump your right to a safe neighborhood? Putting his well-being above your own (and the humans and other pets in your neighborhood) is misguided. I know, I know—“it’s not his fault; he shouldn’t have to pay with his life because some idiot didn’t take care of him.” He shouldn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is very likely a danger.
Which of the problems at hand (free-roaming dog is menacing/attacking people but he'll be put down if I have him picked up) gets to trump the other? In my book, safety wins. What happens to the dog you report once Animal Control picks it up should not be more important to you than your own personal safety, the safety of your children and neighbors, and the safety of your own pets.
Do you think that, if you don't call them, the problem will go away on its own? Maybe the dog will be taken in by a kindly stranger and suddenly become a nice house pet? The likelihood that it will be hit by a car, poisoned, or starve to death is greater.
If you have a run-in with a loose dog or an irresponsible owner, or you see abuse or neglect, report it. (In some cities, you can do this anonymously.) Do it more than once if you have to. Don’t automatically assume the worst of Animal Control, especially if you've never dealt with them. Your taxes pay them to keep you safe.
Sometimes, it is truly the kindest call you can make.