Cute dog, can i pat her?

Truth be told, one of the things I worry about most when out walking my dog (which is at least 30 minutes twice a day) is coming across an overly friendly human. There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong and well frankly it’s not something my dog has on her list of hobbies.  

My own dog, Mieke, who is managed for anxiety, mostly warms quickly to new people.  But occasionally, Mieks can be fearful or anxious when encountering new people.  This can be especially true for the first time, or if they happen to be wearing a hat, have a lot of tattoos or sometimes if they are just too enthusiastic.  

Mieks exhibits very clear body language about how she is feeling.  That is; she is feeling very unsure about the whole encounter and would rather be somewhere else.  Her ears are back, the whites of her eyes are showing, she averts her gaze, shies her head away and makes her body posture small.  This is clearly not the body language of a dog who is screaming out to be patted or make new friends. 

Unfortunately, there is an alarmingly high percentage of our general population who fail to read doggie body language correctly.  Many people automatically assume all dogs want a good pat, or tummy rub.  Some people may exclaim that they love dogs or are a dog person, and or that all dogs love them. 

I am always grateful when people ask prior to reaching out to pat my (or somebody else’s) dog.  Many people don’t ask, they simply assume that they can pat your dog and some owners even catch you off guard sometimes and try get in a sneaky pat.

There are many dogs who love meeting new people and greeting old friends.  But there are probably equally as many dogs who find this challenging or dam-right scary.  Many of these dogs may be given labels such as “aggressive”, “shy or timid”, “little-mans syndrome” etc.  Many of these dogs may have anxiety or other behavioural problems which make these encounters more difficult for them.

The biggest challenge for myself, as an owner of a dog who doesn’t handle all encounters well with other people, is that I have to be her voice.  I am her best-pal who has to read her body language and keep her feeling comfortable and safe, especially when other people fail to do so.

A typical encounter on a walk can go like this;

“Hey i like your dog, she’s cute.  Can I pat her?”

It has taken me a long time to get comfortable with saying this, but i now responds with; “Maybe not today, she isn’t too sure of new people.”

It’s short and sweet, to the point without too much detail.  It’s what works for me.  I used to find it hard to say no.  I used to feel ashamed or embarrassed, and at times perhaps I longed for her to be “normal”, or that she could simply like everybody.  But the good news is that responding with no gets easier with practice.  I also regularly remind myself I am being a voice for my girl who is getting lost in translation by people who misinterpret her shyness for needing a cuddle.

Some people may feel that have to explain in a bit more detail.

“You see, she is being treated for anxiety, and can at times be aggressive.”  But for me, I found this quite off-putting or tricky to say.  Well-meaning people will respond with a treatment suggestion or cure that they read on the internet, or they will simply ignore you.

A few good pointers:

+  A dog that wants to be patted will usually make that abundantly clear.  Don’t assume that just because a dog is wagging their tail that they wish to be patted.  Observe the body language as a whole.

+  Don’t hesitate to tell somebody that your dog is not comfortable being patted.  Find an easy response that works for you that you can call on when you.  With practise this becomes easier.  

+  Consider using a head-halter.  Many people who are not too dog savvy may misinterpret this for a muzzle and keep their distance.  A head halter, eg. Halti, can also provide you with extra safety incase you do need to direct your pet’s head way if you are concerned that something bad may happen.

+  Take tasty treats with you when you walk to reward good behaviour and make a positive experience for your pet.  We want our pets to associate people and new people with good experiences, and food can be a great way for food-motivated dogs to do this.

+  The Yellow Dog Project is an initiative for dogs who need space.  By using a yellow ribbon or leash or even a yellow “give me space” harness, it helps to convey to people that your dog needs space.  Please note there are other colour coded visual aids on the market to make people aware of a dog’s temperament etc.

+  If your dog is anxious or fearful or new people or other dogs, it is best to plan walking and exercise to minimise encounters.  Choose quieter walking path, avoid busy parks and or choose quieter times.  

+  If your dog has shown aggression towards people or other dogs, safety is paramount.  Avoid situations where your dog is showing aggression and use a basket muzzle if needed.  Most importantly, get help and speak to your veterinary behaviourist or veterinarian.

In summary, you are the voice for your pet.  As the caregiver, but also as a friend you owe it to your dog to keep them feeling safe and comfortable.  A dog who is showing anxious, shy or even aggressive body language is not asking to be patted.  Be their voice; don’t be afraid to tell a stranger, “No, sorry you can’t pat my dog today.”