For over a century, we have taught our children to extend their hands out, so the dog can smell them before they pet. Only in this current parental generation have parents really been teaching kids to ask before petting.
This is a big issue for me, because I specialize in aggressive behavior problems. I have seen so many dog bite situations that were more the fault of the person who was bitten than the dog’s.
First rule to remember with a dog is, don’t assume all dogs are friendly!
I have several rescue dogs that I work with and, due to the behavior of humans who have treated these poor pups badly via abuse, neglect and abandonment, they were taught to distrust humans.
To turn things around, these dogs need to go out in public and be ignored. It’s the best way to prove to the dog that we can be trusted.
And, surprisingly, animal lovers sometimes can be the worst offenders, because you love animals so much, you forget that not all dogs want to be petted and fussed over.
How can you help? If you would like to meet a dog, stand tall and direct all your attention to the human and not the dog. Ask the human if you can meet their dog; if the human says yes, then shift your body to a more diagonal stance (not square with the dog) and slowly move toward the dog, all while still standing tall. Is the dog backing up? If yes, then the dog is telling you they are not ready and you should stand there until the dog approaches to smell you. If the dog does not try to sniff you and remains back, then move on—this dog should not be greeted. It is clearly communicating that it does not want you to touch it. If the dog sniffs you then stands there and shows you it no longer seems to feel concerned through a relaxed body language (mouth open, panting calmly, body is not stiff, ears are back and tail is neutral or lower but not tucked), then you can reach down without hovering over the dog and pet under the chin briefly, not on the head or over the head. When you stop does the dog step toward you as to ask for more, or does the dog move away? If the dog asks for more, then give more—but not the same affection you would give your own dog … use a calmer, lighter touch. My motto is “always leave them wanting more.”
The other reason you should always check in with the person handling the dog is that they may be training, and you may inadvertently reinforce behavior the handler may not want reinforced. Jumping, for example. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a person say it’s okay that a dog jumps on them: “It’s okay, I love dogs.” It may be okay for you, but it’s not okay for the dog to jump on the owner’s 85-year-old grandparent or their 5-year-old nephew. Another behavior they may be working on is greeting people calmly. If the dog is a puppy or just a happy dog, it will come up to you with excited tail in neutral position (even with the body or a little lower than the body). Follow directions from the handler— if you don’t get any instructions, then approach the dog standing tall, do not use an excited voice when speaking to the dog. Keep your voice calm and happy while you’re petting the dog, and ensure that it has all four feet on the ground. Stop petting when the excitement starts winding up again. You must always set the tone for energy even if it’s somebody else’s dog—maybe especially if it is. If you go in excited, the dog will match your energy, then end up surpassing your energy. You’re not doing the pet owner any favors when you get their dog all riled up. My other motto is, “Calm gets you what you want; excited energy does not.”
In closing, next time you run into a strange dog, first ask if you can pet the dog, then follow directions if given by the handler, and if not, stay calm and listen to what the dog is telling you through its body language. Let’s help our pups and our neighbors’ pups be calm, controlled and relaxed canine citizens!
Valerie Masi, owner of Best Paw Forward, can be reached at 760-885-9450 or visit www.bestpawforwarddogtraining.com.