This past weekend, I was on my own with the dog, so I wanted to make sure that she got plenty of attention and exercise. We went on a walk, taking a different route than our usual, and something must've been in the air, because every person we passed reached down to pet her. And not a single one of them asked for my permission before reaching down to touch her. She's tiny, and relatively non-threatening, but she can surprise a person by barking and lunging more fiercely than her fluffy ears might suggest. By the end of the walk, I was pulling out all my tricks to keep people from approaching my dog without my permission.
There isn't really an official code of ethics for how to ask dog owners if you can pet their dog, but we can all agree that touching a dog without even acknowledging the dog's human is at least rude and at worst dangerous. And if you have a dog that can become aggressive, what are you to do to prevent anything from happening? Here, I've put together a few of my preferred tactics for keeping strangers from petting my dog without my permission.
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Why is it important to give dogs space?
While I obviously love my dog and consider her my best friend and the sweetest little cuddle bug, she only behaves that way when she feels totally comfortable and safe. When she is at all uncomfortable, she can get loud and vicious-sounding. We've done a lot of dog training to make sure she doesn't actually try to bite anyone, but you never know. And there are plenty of dogs like her. Even a normally friendly dog can become reactive, scared, or defensive if a strange human approaches them, which can sometimes lead to aggressive or dangerous behaviors.
And even if your pooch isn't particularly reactive, there are plenty of other reasons that they might not want to be touched by strangers. Medical conditions or disabilities can make your dog skittish around strangers. Maybe your dog just doesn't like being around people he or she doesn't know. Or, like many of us humans, your dog may not feel like being social at any given moment. Whatever the reason, trust that there are plenty of good reasons why your dog may need space, and it's your job to recognize your dog's body language and help maintain that space.
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Strategy #1: Keep moving to avoid an encounter.
One of my favorite strategies to avoid strangers who want to pet your dog is best employed when you see them coming. If you can sense that someone seems interested in making contact, then I often try my best not to give them an opportunity. I pull my pup's leash close, look straight ahead with no eye contact, and march forward without pausing near enough to the stranger to incite an encounter. This strategy requires that you have the kind of dog that won't pull to get to the stranger, or that you can control enough to prevent it.
I know this strategy may seem antisocial and cold, but it really is the best way for pet owners to avoid an uncomfortable situation altogether. The other person doesn't know that you're avoiding them, you just seem to be in a hurry or determined to get your dog moving at a consistent pace.
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Strategy #2: Warn them.
If a stranger approaches your dog to pet them, one of the fastest ways to stop them is to warn them off. You don't need to scare them, but a clear indication that your dog might react will hopefully make them think twice. Or at least think about asking if they can pet the dog. Here are a few of the phrases I tend to use to keep people at a distance:
- "She gets a little skittish around strangers."
- "She sometimes barks at strangers."
- "She can be a little jumpy."
- "She gets nervous around new people."
With any luck, the potential for unexpected dog behavior will keep them away. But unfortunately, some people just will not be deterred. And then, you have to take a more straightforward approach.
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Strategy #3: Be polite, but direct.
When all else fails, say what's on your mind. If you're like me, this one becomes a little tough, but let us emphasize that you're 100% in the right. As the leader of your dog's pack, you have every right to tell another person how to behave around your own dog. When someone approaches your dog, tell the person exactly what you want. If you'd prefer that people ask you before petting your dog, then say that. If you'd rather they not pet your dog at all, then say that. Keep your tone polite, but be blunt. They are being rude for not asking in the first place, so don't feel bad with a little curtness.
And even if someone does ask to pet your dog, remember, you're under no obligation to say yes. You know your dog better than anyone else, so do whatever is best for them. Helping to keep your dog calmer and happier out in the world will only help your dog's temperament, and strengthen your bond. So go ahead and tell that stranger not to pet your pup!