CAN I PET THAT DOG?
Picture this: you're out for a stroll on a sunny afternoon, happily enjoying your day, when all of a sudden you walk past a coffee shop and- egads! A person sitting outside the shop, reading a book and sipping their coffee, has a dog laying by their feet! It's your lucky day! By golly you're the biggest dog lover on this earth and it is your right- nay, your duty- to pet all the Good Boys & Girls you see. After all, "all dogs" love you, right? You don't think twice about walking up and saying hello, because obviously having a dog out in public is an open invitation for anyone to come right on over, have a chat, and pet the dog.
If you haven't detected the heavy sarcasm yet... There's a growing trend happening seemingly everywhere of dog owners getting accosted by the public while out with their dogs. I find myself more and more having to arm my clients with ways to keep the public at bay, from teaching emergency u-turns to flat out lies of "he's sick" or "she has fleas," because often a simple "no thank you" doesn't get the job done. Personally, I am growing tired of having to constantly explain to various members of the public that no, they cannot say hello to my dogs right now. And I know that I am not alone. So I thought why not come up with a helpful step-by-step guide on how to interact with dogs in public.
1) Is the dog a service dog or other obvious working dog?
This will probably be blatantly obvious, as many working dogs will be clearly marked with "do not disturb" or "working dog: do not pet" patches or vests. But it's important to note that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are not required to wear any special vests or identifying markers. However, many service dog handlers use these tools to help identify to the public that the dog is working and should not be disturbed. If the dog you have spotted is clearly a service or other working dog, then the answer should be obvious: no you cannot pet that dog. Do not even ask. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And definitely do not be this lady. However, if the dog is not a service or other working dog, then you may proceed to Step 2.
2) Did the dog approach you first?
I know what you're thinking. "But if a dog is on a leash, then it can't approach me first!" Yup. That's the point. If a dog is on a leash, they don't have any choice in how much, if any, interaction they have with you. If you come walking up to them, they have nowhere to go, and you have no idea whether or not that dog (or their owner) wants to have an interaction with a stranger. There are plenty of dogs (and people) out there who have absolutely zero desire to have any interaction with strangers and that's fully in their right. They have just as much of a right to be in public spaces undisturbed as you do. Even if you're in an off leash dog park, it pays to remember this step well. If a dog hasn't approached you, then they obviously don't care about saying hello to you. Yes, even dogs in off leash parks might not be particularly sociable with strange people. That's fine. Confused? I'll give you a couple examples: 1) A person is walking past you on the sidewalk with their dog on a leash. As the dog passes by it doesn't so much as look at you, it continues sniffing the flowers as they pass. Can you pet that dog? No. 2) You're in line at the pet store. The person in front of you has a dog on a leash. The dog has walked up and looked at you. Can you pet that dog? Yes... potentially. Proceed to Step 3.
3) Does the owner want you to pet the dog?
This should be a very obvious step, but it unfortunately goes unasked... and frequently. Back to our example in the pet store. The dog is not a service dog or working dog, the dog approached you first, so the next thing you should do before you even THINK about paying attention to that dog is politely ask the owner if you can say hi. Did they say no? Perfect. They owe you no explanation as to why. Simply smile, tell them, "no problem," and go on with your day. No one has died because they didn't get to a pet a dog. You'll survive. Did they say yes? Great! Proceed to Step 4.
4) Does the dog want you to pet them?
This is equally as important as whether or not the owner wants you to say hello. But how do you know whether or not the dog wants you to pet them? You can probably answer this question a lot more intuitively than you think by simply looking at the dog's body language when they approached you. Were they enthusiastic, wagging their tail and eagerly coming up to you? Or were they slow, were their eyes wide, and did they cautiously stretch their noses towards you? Familiarize yourself with the body language signals below, and keep an eye out for any of these signs of stress the next time a dog approaches.
Dog body language can be subtle- just because a dog isn't barking or growling at you doesn't meant they want you any closer!
If a dog has cautiously approached you, or doesn't seem too enthusiastic about greeting you, don't push for any more interaction. It might be tempting to immediately stretch out your hand for them to sniff, but that might push a dog from cautious into a full blown panic. Just allow them to quietly check you out- and try not to stare them down! Direct eye contact can be scary for a nervous dog. But if the dog is enthusiastic about an interaction, proceed to Step 5.
5) Consent to Pet Test
Congratulations! You can pet this dog! But we want to make sure we do it right, otherwise we might find ourselves on the business end of some powerful teeth. And yes, there is a right and wrong way to pet a strange dog. The wrong way is to immediately bend over and rambunctiously pat them on the head. For most dogs, we are much bigger than them. Think about how scary it must be to have a creature MUCH larger than you are bending over top of you and reaching their giant hands out towards your head? Yikes! Many dogs find this scary, too. A Consent to Pet test seeks to answer a very simple question: if you stop the interaction, does the dog actively try to make it start again? A great way to begin an interaction with a dog is to simply hold your hands out near the dog. If they are keen on an interaction, they will move their body into your hands- and by doing so, they are telling you exactly where they want to be pet! A great place to pet a strange dog is right on their bum, where their tail meets their back. This is a spot that is non-threatening and cannot be reached by the dog themselves. In fact, I don't think I've ever met a dog that doesn't enjoy a good bum scratch! Have you ever seen a dog lean up against a person, swinging their hips into their lap? They're essentially telling the person, "Hey, pet my bum!" Give the dog a few good scritches, then stop and move your hands away. If the dog wants more attention, they will move towards your hands again. If they do not, they likely won't approach you. Don't call them or try to entice them back- by ceasing the interaction you asked the question, "Do you want more?" And the dog told you "no." Respect that and leave them be. This is a very helpful video on the Consent to Pet test. I'd suggest giving it a watch!
Hopefully this helpful guide will aid you in answering the question, "Can I pet that dog?" the next time you see a dog in public! All joking aside, ensuring that dogs have safe, consensual interactions with strangers is key in preventing dog bites. So the next time you reach out to pet a strange dog, hopefully you will do so with these key points in mind!
All photos provided courtesy of Dog Star Photography @dogstar.photo on Instagram