Written by: Erin Wigginton
“Aw…he’s adorable! Can I pet him?”, a stranger approaches you as you are out on a leisurely walk with your shy dog.
You answer politely, “No, thank you, he’s pretty shy and doesn’t really like…”
“Oh, but dogs love me…”, she says as she continues to reach toward your dog who is now cowering, licking his lips and retreating from the persistent and terrifying figure.
I have lived through this scenario more times than I’d like to remember. When I find myself in this undesirable situation, I place myself between the stranger and the dog and very clearly say, “I need you to stop right now and back up. He is very shy and I don’t want him to bite you because he’s scared.” When you have a shy or reactive dog it is more important to keep the dog (and ridiculously persistent strangers) safe than to maintain “polite” conversation. If I need to be rude (or risk being perceived as rude) to someone in order to prevent them from being bitten by a dog, I will be rude. In my opinion, it is rude of them to ignore my initial answer of “No, thank you” but it is still my primary responsibility to keep them (and the dog) safe.
It is so important for people to recognize that those of us who own or work with shy or reactive dogs aren’t telling you “no” to insult or disregard your genuine affection for dogs. It is because we know this particular dog well enough to understand that HE doesn’t WANT you to pet him. He is uncomfortable, insecure and/or frightened. You shouldn’t want to pet him either. I am trying to keep you safe and my dog comfortable. Please respect that.
Never assume that just because you love dogs and most stable dogs like you that EVERY dog will like you and want you to pet it. That is a dangerous assumption and one that is likely to eventually result in you being bitten. I love dogs and most dogs like me, but not all dogs trust me initially. Whether their hesitation is due to lack of early socialization or bad experiences with people, I have to prove to them that I am trustworthy and I certainly can’t accomplish that if, in my first interaction with the dog, I back them into a corner and put my hands on them without permission. It is absolutely vital that I respect the dog’s body language and what the owner is telling me. If I don’t, I may as well ask to be bitten. It’s that simple.
There are initiatives which are growing in popularity that are aimed at preventing situations like the one above. The Yellow Dog
Project is one of the most widely recognized. If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon on its collar or leash, it signifies that this particular dog prefers its personal space and is not interested in being petted by strangers.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Ian Dunbar is “Putting your hands on a dog is a privilege, not a right.” It would behoove us all to remember that. So, the next time you’re out for a walk and come across a dog wearing a yellow ribbon or you ask to pet a cute dog and the owner answers, “No…” be respectful, smile and reply, “I understand. He’s lovely.” and keep walking.
You can learn more about how to properly greet a dog (when it is appropriate to do so) on Dr. Sophia Yin’s website by clicking here.