You’re enjoying your walk – the air is crisp but not cold, the sun is shining, and your dog is relaxed. As you round a corner, a dog charges at you, saliva flying as it bares its teeth at you and your dog. You look around for a way to keep this aggressive dog away and realize you’re empty-handed.
I’ve been there. So now, whenever I go for a run or walk my dog in a sketchy neighborhood, I carry dog deterrent spray.
While it’s certainly no fun to pepper spray another person’s dog, sometimes it’s necessary to keep yourself, your child, or your dog safe.
- #1 Pick: PetSafe Spray Shield Citronella Spray
- Best Air Horn: Safety Sport Personal 911
- Best Dog Pepper Spray: Halt Dog Deterrent
- Strongest Aggressive Dog Repellent: SABRE Spray
What is Dog Pepper Spray? What Other Dog Deterrent Sprays Exist?
Pepper spray uses capsaicinoids to deter oncoming dogs (or people). Generally, dog pepper spray is less strong than human MACE or human pepper spray because dogs are so much more sensitive to smell.
That’s not always the case, though. SABRE is a leading pepper spray manufacturer. On their product page for their SABRE dog spray, they advertise “Maximum Strength Allowed by the EPA.” They’re not kidding around with that stuff!
Pepper spray is extremely spicy – it’s about 2 million to 5 million on the Scoville Scale of spiciness (for comparison, a habanero pepper scores just 150 thousand). It burns eyes and mucous membranes like the nose and mouth. The effects generally last about 30 to 45 minutes and, while extremely painful, pepper spray is harmless in the long term.
All of that said, I actually don’t carry pepper spray for dogs.
I carry a different product altogether: citronella spray. Other trainers that I work with also recommend air horns.
I carry citronella spray instead of pepper spray because citronella spray does not make the dog miserable for as long afterward. The effects of pepper spray for dogs may last upwards of 30-45 minutes.
Pepper spray is really intense.
Dog Pepper Spray Vs Citronella Spray: My Experience
I’ve sprayed dogs with pepper spray when being chased by street dogs in Mexico. The effect on the dogs was instantaneous and intense.
The dogs were clearly miserable, and though they backed off, they actually seemed more upset than before. Reflecting back, I worry that they’ll now be more aggressive towards other joggers.
As for myself, I got a bit of blow-back on myself, causing me to cough for the rest of the run. Residue from the canister also got onto my hands and clothes, making my whole body burn until well after my jog had ended.
Additionally, the pepper spray only sprayed about 5 feet, meaning I couldn’t keep the dog at a distance that felt comfortable.
It was pretty terrible, especially the realization that spraying a dog with pepper spray got me a worse result (as far as my own pain and the pain for the dog) when citronella spray probably would have done the trick.
When I’ve used citronella spray, the dogs generally stop short and look scared, but they don’t have the intense pain reaction.
While pepper spray might be warranted in some scenarios, I have never had a dog keep coming after me after being sprayed with citronella spray – and I’ve sprayed a lot of dogs between my thousands of miles of walking and jogging and my years working with aggressive dogs.
In my experience, citronella spray has:
- better aim
- less risk for blow-back
- doesn’t hurt the dog as much
Now that I’ve convinced you on the merits of citronella spray over pepper spray, let’s talk about product recommendations!
Best Dog Repellent Sprays: Our Top Picks
After speaking with many other dog trainers who specialize in working with aggressive dogs, it seems that the consensus is that you probably don’t need pepper spray.
As we said, pepper spray is really awful for the dog, it often doesn’t spray far enough, and it’s risky for you and your dog.
Instead, citronella spray is the way to go!
Pick #1: Spray Shield Citronella Spray
About: Spray Shield is a citronella dog repellent spray from PetSafe.
Citronella is an oil that comes from several different species of plant. It is used in oils, mosquito-repellant candles, bug spray, and dog spray.
Citronella tastes and smells terrible to dogs, but it doesn’t burn as badly or as long as pepper spray.
This Spray Shield Citronella Spray easily clips onto a belt or waist leash, or fits nicely in the palm of your hand.
- ADDED SAFETY: Carry SprayShield Animal Deterrent Spray with you when you and your dog go on walks...
- CITRONELLA SCENT: When using this product, a burst of citronella spray is released that surprises...
- COMPACT DESIGN: This small-sized can has an added belt clip so you can easily carry it with you...
- QUALITY PROMISE: PetSafe brand has been a trusted global leader in pet behavior, containment and...
- Safety lock to prevent accidentally spraying the citronella
- Belt clip allows you to easily attach to clothing or belt
- Sprays up to 10 feet
While the product officially clocks in at 10ft, I’ve found that Spray Shield can hit a dog with accuracy from about 15 feet away. It can and will stop all but the most determined dog, even at a distance. Moreover, it’s easier to aim than pepper spray.
My cans of Spray Shield have lasted much longer than the pepper sprays I’ve owned. It’s less likely to hurt you or your dog because it’s a directed stream. If you get pepper spray on your hands, you can get it into your eyes – OUCH. Citronella isn’t quite as risky for the user.
Finally, it’s effective against big dogs and is less aggressive than pepper spray if you need to stop small dogs.
A truly determined dog may keep coming through this product. I have found reports of people using Spray Shield in an attempt to break up an active dogfight without effect – so it might not work if a dog is worked up enough.
Also keep in mind that owners often get really upset when you spray their dogs – although this is true for any deterrent spray.
MY PERSONAL FAVORITE: This dog repellent spray is my go-to (and the go-to of Michael Shikashio, aggressive dog guru). I have used it personally to stop oncoming aggressive dogs of all sizes and break up dogfights.
2. Solo Walker/Runner’s Go-To: Air Horns
About: Safety Sport Personal 911 Airhorn is a small, compact airhorn that can easily be taken on walks or jogs. This one functions as a great dog repellant for runners.
Air horns are mega-loud and fit nicely into pockets, purses, or even the palm of your hand.
Loud sounds are generally pretty scary to dogs – and a loud enough sound will stop most oncoming dogs in their tracks. This air horn has a surprisingly long shelf life and can be used multiple times.
- Easy to use push button activation. PERSONAL 911
- 2 sounds, converts to whistle alarm by removing trumpet piece.
- Small in size carry in purse, gym bag or other.
- Perfect for: Personal Safety , Marine, Sports, Parties and More...
- Easy push button to activate
- Can be converted to whistling sound by removing trumpet piece
One of the biggest benefits of air horns is that you don’t have to aim! You can use it at a far distance, and it will also alert nearby people that you need help. An air horn will stop most oncoming dogs or dogfights quite easily.
Owners are also less likely to be upset if you’re quick on the draw with an air horn than if you’re over-zealous with pepper spray.
An air horn can really scare your own dog. It can also be upsetting for neighbors if you’re out at odd hours, though this might be a good thing in the event of a dog attack.
Since air horns aren’t physically painful, they might be less effective for an oncoming dog – though it’s hard to know for sure without doing some rather cruel tests on dogs.
MY TAKE: I don’t recommend using an air horn as your go-to if your own dog is often with you, unless you spend a lot of time getting your pup accustomed to the sound ahead of time. Overall, this option is less risky for an oncoming dog but might be hard to use if you generally have your own canine companion with you.
3. The Post Service’s Pick: Halt Dog Repellent
About: Halt Dog Repellent uses Capsaicin, which makes it a true pepper spray.
While Capsaicin is a natural product, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. This pepper spray can really hurt – even if you just get a bit on your hands when you spray or blowing back in the wind.
Like the other tools on this list, this is a pretty straightforward point-and-shoot repellant spray. It’s small enough to fit in some pockets and comes with a belt clip.
- Irritating spray, produces 12' stream
- Ingredients: Capsaicin
- Recommended by the US Postal Service
- Accurate up to 10 ft
- Made from capsaicin
- Contains several “shots” per can
It’s hard to argue with a dog deterrent that works for the mailman. Made from Capsaicin, this is dog pepper spray basically promises to stop any dog in its tracks.
You can really upset a dog and an owner with a product this intense. Talking to other trainers, I was actually able to find multiple reports of Halt not stopping an ongoing dogfight or oncoming attack. You might be using something that’s extra-painful without being extra-effective.
MY TAKE: Pepper spray is going to hurt you (or the dog) if you get it in your eyes or mouth. Be sure that you’re confident using the spray. Even with the extra pain, some dogs will keep coming – this is not a force field. If you live in an area with extra-aggressive dogs, consider upping the ante with SABRE Dog Spray – a stronger pepper spray option.
Overall, the biggest thing that I look for when trying to purchase a dog repellant spray is the range of the spray. Ideally, I want a spray that can deter a dog long before he reaches me. That means a range of at least 10 feet. It’s no use to me if the spray only works when the dog is within a foot or two of me!
In the next section, we’ll talk about when it’s time to pull out the pepper spray – and how to use it properly.
When to Use Dog Repellent Spray
While even the most severe pepper spray is generally safe for dogs, you don’t want to go around spraying every dog you see. How do you know when it’s time to pull out the pepper spray and when you’re fine without it?
Dog deterrent spray of any sort shouldn’t be used as a training tool. Even air horns can cause serious phobias or redirected aggression in the dog. If you’re trying to stop your dog from doing something that you don’t like, reward your dog for something else instead. Click and treat for good behavior rather than try to punish bad behavior.
Problems That Arise From Spraying Dogs
You want to exercise caution when spraying someone else’s dog. Plenty of things can go wrong, even with the perfect dog deterrent spray:
- You might get in trouble with the owner (I’ve actually been more afraid of an owner after I sprayed a dog than I originally was of the dog).
- The dog may learn that you’re dangerous and be more aggressive with the next jogger or stranger they encounter.
- The dog might get a huge surge of adrenaline when he’s sprayed, making him more upset and more aggressive.
- You may spray yourself or your own dog accidentally.
When I Use Dog Deterrent Spray
I will use dog repellant spray on dogs only if several things line up just right (or wrong):
- The dog is off-leash and out of the owner’s control. The owner might be absent, ignoring the dog, or being ignored by the dog.
- The dog is coming right at me. I won’t spray an off-leash dog that’s minding its own business!
- The dog does not appear friendly. If a dog comes trotting over with loose, sweeping tail wags and an open-mouthed grin, I probably won’t spray him (unless #4 is true). But if the dog is barking, lunging, charging, or moving quickly and silently with stiff body postures, you bet I’m gonna keep him away. A high tail wag does not mean the dog is friendly – I’m more concerned about how stiff his movements are and how forward his posture is (the stiffer and more forward, the worse).
- I’m handling a dog that needs space. No matter how nice the oncoming Golden Retriever is, I might spray him if I’m handling a fearful, anxious, reactive, or aggressive dog.
- My first-line defense didn’t work. I almost always try another response (yelling, waving arms, throwing treats) before spraying the dog – unless the body language from #3 tells me that there isn’t time to play around. There’s no point in pepper spraying a dog when tossing treats at him would do!
Dog Deterrent Spray Alternatives: What Else to Try
Here are six quick options for stopping an oncoming dog if you don’t have your dog deterrent spray with you:
- Get Out of There. If you see an off-leash dog that’s giving you the stink eye, turn around and get out of there. Often just crossing the street will do the trick. Try not to run away since that might entice the dog to give chase. Just turn around and get out of there.
- Throw Treats. Many dogs will stop cold if you chuck chicken at them. This trick has the bonus effect of making the dogs like you more, potentially smoothing over future relationships. I’ve used the treat-tossing method to get my neighbor’s pit bulls to stop charging me with great success! You can listen to Sarah Stremming discussing this method in her podcast here (also make sure to check out our guide to dog training podcasts if you’re big into podcasts)!
- Yell. It’s surprising how often you can stop an oncoming dog with some yelling and arm-waving. Keep in mind that this approach is most likely to upset your own dog. If your dog learns that other dogs coming at you makes you freak out, he’s more likely to join in – creating the icky problem of leash reactivity. Use with caution!
- Throw Rocks. In Mexico, I only have to bend over as if I’m getting a rock for street dogs to scatter. This approach may not work as well in the U.S., but a well-aimed rock will make many dogs think twice.
- Pick Up a Big Stick. If the oncoming dog isn’t a fetch maniac, swinging a big stick at him (or even just brandishing one) may give him pause.
- Aim a Kick. If nothing else is working, a kick towards the dog may give you enough time and space to get out of there. This approach, like yelling, can make your own dog quite nervous. I’ve used this approach to stop oncoming ankle-biting Chihuahuas, but wouldn’t recommend it with a truly aggressive large dog – you’re just putting your leg in harm’s way!
If none of the approaches above work, it’s time to pull out the spray.
How to Use Dog Repellent Spray
Using deterrent spray seems straightforward, but I actually highly recommend practicing with your spray first before hitting the road. You want to know that you can use the spray quickly and under stress!
Some sprays have pins, need to be rotated, or otherwise are a bit less easy to use than just aiming and squeezing a trigger.
For best results with dog deterrent spray, be sure to:
- Aim away from you. It’s shockingly easy to spray some of these canisters the wrong way.
- Aim downwind. If you spray into the wind, the pepper spray, in particular, is likely to end up on you. That hurts! This is less risky with citronella spray, but still no fun.
- Aim for the dog’s face, mouth, and nose. Both pepper spray and citronella spray work best on mucus membranes.
- Use earlier if possible. While you want to be somewhat conservative using sprays, you don’t want to try to spray a dog that’s already just 6 inches away from you! Try to spray the dog when he’s still several feet away.
I practice by spraying telephone poles in abandoned lots. Be sure that you’re comfortable unholstering the spray from wherever you keep it, especially while you’re moving and your hands are full!
If the dog doesn’t stop when he’s already been sprayed, you might want to go back to some of the first steps (get out of there, throw rocks, etc).
Situations can get very nasty very quickly with an aggressive, enraged, half-blind dog. Keep in mind that determined dogs may keep coming after encountering any sort of deterrent spray – even the strongest pepper spray is not a force field.
What to Do if Your Dog is Sprayed
The good news is that pepper spray is temporary and harmless. The bad news is that pepper spray really, really hurts. A dog sprayed with citronella or an air horn might be upset, but won’t need any care.
A dog sprayed with pepper spray will benefit from some basic help. The most helpful thing that you can do if your dog gets pepper sprayed is to wash your dog’s face with tons of water.
The problem is that your dog is likely really agitated, and wrestling him into the bathtub right now is probably a good way to get bitten. There are no medications to reverse the effects of dog pepper spray, although some special ointments may help your dog’s eyes feel better.
If your dog has been sprayed, try to keep him calm and wait it out – the effects should dissipate in under an hour. You may want to speak to the spray-er to see what happened, but your best bet is probably to avoid having your dog off-leash and out of control.
Have you had to spray an oncoming dog? What worked and what didn’t? We’re interested to hear your experiences in the comments below!
May 8, 2023
I strongly discourage kicking. It puts you off balance and there is a fair chance it will fire a dog up more. My 5kg dog who will pass someone and mind her own business and can also be quite friendly will respond to anything that looks remotely like a kick with her highest level of defensiveness so fast it’ll make your head spin.
I have been trialling an ultrasonic deterrent and liking the results. It’s not going to stop a dog charging, but it seems to encourage an approaching dog to think again without sending them running. Also silent so owners don’t know you’re doing anything. I don’t want to scare other dogs. Just need them to not crowd my little running companion who has had some scary experiences with big dogs. I also carry a small towel so I have something to either hide my dog or feed a dog that wants to bite something. Tossing treats is not something I like to do around my dogs due to the likelihood they will suddenly stand their ground and go for the treats themselves.
May 8, 2023
Glad the ultrasonic deterrent seems to be working for you, Melissa. I’ve always been skeptical of them, but it’s nice to hear they’re working for you.
April 10, 2023
Tried the “make yourself big” method on 2 labs today, they backed off & came back. Tried speaking forcefully & “in control”, they backed off & came back. Then I did that kicking your (hind legs) back on some loose gravel–very noisome–& those 2 dogs took off.
Of course it can’t work every time, & I can’t expect it to work… God forbid…next time, but the “think/act like the alpha of the pack” framework has its merits.
April 11, 2023
Glad everything worked out, Francoise!
December 18, 2021
This is really helpful, Kayla, thank you. I did want to make one small note: your use of the phrase “sketchy neighborhood” strikes me as unnecessary. There can be aggressive dogs or just off-leash friendly dogs (when you are walking your reactive dog, so this is still a problem) in ANY neighborhood, even the richest and fanciest neighborhoods.
January 24, 2023
While I agree that aggressive off leash dogs can be anywhere, They are certainly more common in “Sketchy” neighborhoods. I believe Kayla was correct in giving people a heads up 🙂
September 12, 2021
Next door neighbor/utterly irresponsible pet owner/but unfortunately also my landlord, just got another aggressive schnauzer. Neighbor’s previous dog was hyperaggressive likely due to being mistreated by the neighbor’s bullying kid, that dog finally bit so many people it was euthanized. Now they have another, same breed, kid is grown and gone but the new step kids are mean to the new dog AND they are careless and letting it run over to my house; it barks growls and charges at me even without my own dog in tow. I have an elderly (age 12) terrier mix who is going blind, she only goes out on leash never loose. Plus I’m getting up there in years myself and cannot move fast enough to pick up my dog and skedaddle if that dog comes with intent to harm. And anyway, on my retirement income would have a very hard time with vet bills from a dog fight. I read the blog post with much interest. I’m guessing that the citronella spray would be the best for my situation. If I tried the air horn I think I’d get evicted. Well spraying the landlord’s dog even with non-harming spray would probably get me evicted too but at least my own dog would have a chance of surviving. Thank you for providing information on aggressive dog deterrent tactics.
September 13, 2021
Hey there, Sarahkate.
Sorry to hear about your situation. The landlord angle definitely complicates things.
Honestly, I’d be inclined to contact the relevant authorities in your area (perhaps anonymously, if that’s an option). We obviously love dogs around here, but dogs who pose a legitimate safety risk must be handled sensibly.
For that matter, preventing bites and other altercations may very well save the dog’s life in the long run.
We wish you the best of luck with the citronella spray, but encourage you to consider other avenues as well.
June 6, 2021
My 40-lb dog was attacked by a huge German shepherd last night. I was walking her on leash around my neighborhood and this huge dog came around a corner and just lunged and started attacking with no provocation. The other dog’s handler (not the owner) was injured and down on the ground from being dragged by the huge dog. I had nothing with me as I live in a “nice” neighborhood and never imagined I would experience anything like this. Thankfully I was able to grab the dog by its harness and hold it up in the air until another neighbor could come take my dog away. It all happened so fast and I’m just trying to think of what I could have done or had with me that would help if I am ever in this situation again. The dog was absolutely trying to kill my dog and thankfully I got it off her in time. She has three large wounds but she is going to be OK, thank God!
June 7, 2021
Yikes! That’s pretty scary, Erin.
Glad you and your pooch escaped in (mostly) one piece!
March 20, 2021
Got rushed by a big bad dog while on a walk with mine this week. I sprayed pepper spray and it DID NOT WORK. He kept chomping and dragging her.
My dog and me both got hit with it as well, as I wasn’t able to unholster before he was in close range.
I was just thinking something that makes a noise instead would be useful and that’s what led me to your site.
February 29, 2020
if i use an ordinary citronella spray insect repellant would it still as effective?
March 2, 2020
Hey, Dilan. That is probably not a good idea, unless you’ve examined the other ingredients in the spray thoroughly and ensured none are harmful to dogs.
Plus, insect-repellent sprays aren’t designed to discharge as forcefully or for long distances.
Best of luck!
September 18, 2019
Last year I was attacked by 3 dogs while I was running in my neighborhood, and ended up in the hospital. The physical wounds have healed, but I now have a pretty extreme fear of dogs. I carry mace when I run now, but haven’t used it. I have a dog, a Golden retriever/Great Pyrenees mix, but don’t take her running with me. Do you really think the citronella spray would be effective with an aggressive dog?