If you have a dog with leash reactivity, anxiety, aggression concerns, or if you have a dog in training, telling people “no, you may not pet my dog” can be troubling. Today I want to talk about how to go about it.
A Common Occurrence
Over the years there have been more situations than I care to count when someone has come barrelling over to pet Jet.
It isn’t that I mind the sentiment behind their actions. I get it, I love dogs too.
I also understand the common misconception that all dogs like to be petted and the misunderstanding that all Labradors lust after attention like a mosquito lusts after my British blood in the Carolina summer.
What I do mind, however, is the unrestrained juggernauting directly towards my dog.
Why do I mind it? Because for any dog to have a stranger flapping wildly, squealing about “the cute puppy” and reaching for their head is terrifying. It is also an invitation for disaster. Even when it isn’t an invitation for disaster, as dog owners, we have the right to refuse a stranger’s affection for our dogs.
…but how do we, as responsible pet owners, voice ourselves without coming off as “the bad guy”?
Being Able to Say “No, You May Not Pet My Dog”
The first, and probably most important thing to remember, is that you ALWAYS have the right to say no to anyone wanting to pet your dog – even when you come across as being “mean” or “rude”. You can ALWAYS say “no, you may not pet my dog” and you don’t have to justify yourself (shocking, I know).
If you are like me, however, you may find it a little uncomfortable to be so brusque. Fortunately, there are some better ways to stop these dog crazies in their tracks.
In this type of interaction, your first instinct, particularly if your dog has behavioral concerns, may well be panic and it is often this panic that causes a brusque or confrontational response.
Rather than panic in this situation, try to train yourself to respond with two words- “Please stop!”
This is a good approach to use when someone is physically rushing towards your dog.
You can also simply shout “stop!” which causes more alarm and stops the person immediately almost every time.
By using this short “stop” sentence, you give yourself a moment to catch your breath, secure the situation, and then explain yourself with a little more composure. I generally follow with “My dog does not do well with strangers, I hope you understand.” We then turn and walk away.
Physical Intervention or the “Step In Front”
In this response, if you find yourself in a situation where someone is already almost within “petting distance” of your dog and you want to prevent that interaction, step between the approaching individual and your dog.
Please DO NOT EVER use this method of intervention in a situation where there is a possibility that your dog may behave aggressively. It may seem like the right thing do to, to protect a stranger from your dog biting them, but it will result in you being bitten and will still not diffuse the situation at hand. There are better ways to handle a dog with aggressive behavioral concerns.
Physical intervention can, however, be beneficial in a situation where the approaching stranger would make your dog mildly uncomfortable or when you simply want to prevent an interaction from taking place.
I find myself doing this more often with “runaway children” who come barreling towards Jet.
By blocking the child’s direct path to Jet, I get their attention and I am able to then ask in a way that they would comprehend, that they not approach us.
This generally goes something like this:
“Can you stop running, please?”
Most of the time the child stops running and this gives me a chance to explain to them that my dog is afraid of strangers. I usually follow this with an apology and let them know that they will not be able to pet my dog.
If the opportunity arises, I also take a moment to explain that perhaps there are other people with dogs that do like strangers. I then explain that they would like it much more if the child were to calmly approach and ask if they might pet the dog before reaching out to do so. This isn’t always met with the ideal response from an approaching parent, but as a one-time teacher, it’s important to me to give children the right approach to a situation when telling them that their approach is wrong. How else are they supposed to learn?
I use the term “beacon” to refer to any type of “red flag” that lets people know ahead of time that they should not approach your dog.
There are a few variations on this strategy – the bandana, the colored tie on the leash, the text printed leash and collar, and the harness.
The bandana – Bandanas around your dog’s neck with a warning printed on it lets approaching people know that your dog is “shy”, “not dog-friendly”, “needs space” etc. I don’t care for this option because bandanas get turned around easily. I also find that strangers have to be quite close to read the warning.
The colored tie on the leash – The most common colored tie on the leash is yellow. This is simply a piece of plastic or fabric tied to the leash. This tie lets educated dog people know that your dog should not be approached. Sometimes a red tie is used to warn of an aggressive dog. The problem with this is that in order to “read” these ties, someone has to know what they mean. Most people don’t.
The text printed collar and leash – Like the bandana, the text printed collar and leash presents the exact problem in easily understandable terms. Unfortunately, even when printed up and down a collar and leash, it can still be hard to read this text without getting close.
The harness – My favorite approach to warding off well-intentioned juggernauts is the printed harness. This option features larger print that is easier to read from a distance and most often has this text printed on the dog’s chest and on both sides so that it is visible from most angles.
In addition to doing your part to educate others about what you and your dog need from them, being a responsible dog owner also means taking responsibility for your dog.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that you should consult a behaviorist and work on problem behaviors, that you should consider using a comfortable muzzle on your dog if there is a chance of biting in public, and you should know when it is unsafe to take your dog out. Of course, all dogs need exercise and fresh air, but if your dog poses a threat to others due to their behavior, provide an alternate exercise solution for them. Exercise in your back yard, go hiking in an area with less traffic, visit areas during times when there is little to no exposure to others. Whether you like it or not, you are ultimately responsible for what your dog does in every interaction they have whether or not they chose that interaction themselves.
Do You Have to Be “Nice” When Telling Someone “No, You May Not Pet My Dog”?
There are some people for whom being short or even rude, isn’t a problem.
For these people, the fact that someone is uneducated about dogs or is being an inconvenience means that they are not worthy of politeness.
For me, I see two things and inconvenience is not one of them.
Firstly, I see someone who loves dogs. I love dogs. I may have more understanding of canine behavior and the protocol for interacting with a strange dog, but when it comes down to it, we both appreciate man’s best friend. This person is not an inconvenience, rather, they are someone who wants to share in my joy.
Secondly, I see someone who simply didn’t know better.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the last thing about mechanics.
If I were to walk into a car repair shop and was about to put my hand on a dangerous piece of machinery, I would certainly like someone to stop me (and to do so before I get injured.)
Would I like that same someone to ridicule me or make me feel like less of a person because I didn’t know anything about that piece of machinery? Of course not! I am a very intelligent woman in my own right. But, there are things I know and things that I don’t know. The vast majority of people on this planet are the same way.
Depriving someone of courtesy because they don’t know what you know? That, my friend, is ignorance.