It’s amazing the amount of social pressure pet owners can feel in public. The pressure to be friendly, and to “say hi.” Both to other dogs, and people. This may not be ideal for every dog, or for every person.
I was outside working with one of my Malinois and ran into a neighbor I’ve met previously, and her daughter, age 3-4. She said “Oh, Missy loooooves dogs, can she pet your dog?” She’s holding her child back by the arms and the child is screeching “Dogeeee!” My dog is just sitting calmly at heel. I do give the woman credit for asking, but I said “No.” She gave me a quizzical look. “She’s a trained protection dog,” I continued. This is true in a way, and I felt that was a sufficient response to shut that down, because for some reason, I did feel obligated to explain further than just “no.” But she just stared at me like she couldn’t believe I just said no. Have I committed a social faux pas in not happily sharing my dogs petability with the world? Are dogs public or societal property now, and I am just a curmudgeon who didn’t get the memo? Now, I know my dog is safe to be pet by children, she’ll even take orders from little kids, I just don’t feel like it at the moment, and that is my prerogative. I just don’t feel like a strange kid touching my dog with her grimy little mitts or doing weird stuff to my dog who will feel mildly uncomfortable but forced to tolerate it, just so a kid can touch a random dog. It has zero benefit for me, for my dog, or for my training to allow random people to pet her. That’s why I said no. So the woman says to her daughter in a saccharine tone, “I’m soooorrrry Missy, you can’t pet that dog.” The kid immediately bursts out in frustrated tears. Then she curtly says, “Well I gotta go, she has a meltdown if she can’t pet a dog, bye.” I realized I made a little girl cry. People need to get used to hearing “no” once in a while.
Oftentimes I do let people pet my dogs, but sometimes, the conflict that develops for a trainers dog is when they try to touch them while they’re working, and now they get him in trouble and I have to correct them. I have to deal with my dogs looking at other people as a source of reward. But if you want to pet people’s dogs, use common sense:
Rules for petting dogs
- Always ask permission before petting a dog, sticking your hand out to a dog, or distracting a dog.
- If the person seems the least bit hesitant, the answer is no.
- If the person says “He’s in training,” the answer is no.
- If the dog is showing body language of fear, uncertainty, aggression, or suspicion… the answer is no.
- If the dog is over-excited, jumping, and pulling towards you, clearly his answer is “yes,” but he is not yet obedient enough to be approaching people, and you should not reinforce his over-exited behavior.
- Do not approach dogs who are tied up, in a yard, or otherwise not with their owner
- If the answer is “yes,” and the dog seems sociable and under control, allow the dog to take a few steps to approach you, do not force yourself into their personal space. If a dog wants you to pet them, they will approach you willingly. You can’t force a dog to like you.
Here are just a few signs of uncertainty:
- Hiding behind their owner or an object
- Lip licking
- Backing up
- Stiff body posture or stiff tail
- Hard eye contact or staring
- Darting eyes
- Growling or showing teeth
Some tips to keep in mind when petting someone elses dog:
- Do not reinforce jumping by petting a dog who is jumping up on you. Allow the handler to get the dog calm first.
- Do not hug dogs. They can find it smothering and even threatening to be grabbed around the neck.
- A simple rule: pet with one hand at a time.
- Stick to petting the dogs head, some dogs are uncomfortable about having their lower bodies, including paws, touched by strangers.
- Keep your face out of the dogs face. This is common sense for safety, because some dogs find vis-a-vis contact threatening.
If you own a dog who is threatening towards people, is shy or fearful, or could benefit from better socialization, visit the dog trainers search at: International Association of Canine Professionals to search for a trainer in your area.