You are out enjoying a day at the park with your family. Suddenly, a stranger runs up and asks if they can touch your child. Your response would obviously be no. So why is the answer different when it comes to our dogs?
There is a notion that all dogs enjoy being pet and loved on, but the reality is that the majority of the time while out in public dogs do not want to be touched, especially by strangers. Just because a dog is “friendly” does not mean that they want to interact with every person they meet. Dogs investigate the world through their nose, so in order to collect information on a stranger they will need to sniff them. While this can be done at a distance, often dogs will walk up to a stranger and smell them to get a closer “look”. Does this now mean they want to be pet? It doesn’t. Reaching down to greet a dog as they are attempting to collect information on you can throw off their process and lead to them feeling threatened.
So how do I know when it is okay to pet a dog?
First, approach the dog and owner slowly in a relaxed manner. Next, talk to the owner. Ask for permission to interact with the dog. Dog owners are responsible for advocating for their pets safety. If someone tells you not to approach their dog, there is a reason and the matter should not be pushed farther. Admire the dog from a safe distance, thank the owner for their time, and leave the dog alone. Even if you think “all dogs love me!” or “I have owned 10 of this breed!” You haven’t met every dog ever. It is important to respect the boundaries set by the owner because they know their dog best. Remember: dogs are not public property.
If the owner gives you the go ahead, approach the dog in the following manner:
- Approach the dog sideways and look using your peripheral vision (direct eye contact is threatening to dogs)
- You can squat down to be closer to the dogs level, but stay just outside of the dog’s space and present your side to them.
- Let the dog approach at their own rate. Do not reach out to them, do not stare at them.
- If the dog is relaxed and is soliciting your attention, rubbing against you, then go ahead and pet them.
How do I know if they are relaxed? Great question! Check out a couple of body language charts we love!
How long should I interact with the dog?
Consent is a continuous thing. When interacting with a new dog, only pet them for about 3 seconds. Then stop, and look for signs the dog would like you to continue. Are they continuing to rub against you? Go ahead and pet again. Are they taking a step back? This is a sign you should wait. Are they doing nothing at all? This is also a sign you should wait. Just because the dog is near you does not mean it wants to continue the interaction. Watch their body language, keep interactions short and positive, and remember that consent needs to be given continuously throughout the interactions.
The importance of consent and how to be a better advocate for your dog:
If you allow a dog to give consent you are providing choice. If you are providing choice you are protecting the dog’s ability to control their environment and control is a primary reinforcer. This will boost your dog’s confidence and strengthen your relationship.
Do not be afraid to tell people that your dog needs some space. Do not be afraid to tell people no, you cannot approach my dog at all. Your dog doesn’t owe them anything. The average human is not a dog body language expert, but you are the expert on your dog. Speak up for them and I promise they will thank you for it.