'Can I pet your dog?'

robertz6August 7, 2013

My answer to this question has changed over the years. The first eight or so years with my last dog was easy. 'Sure' or 'yes' was the answer. He was a herding dog mix, very calm and quietly friendly. Strangers could pet him on the head, even four people could pet him at the same time.

The last year and a half of his life the answer had to change. The decline of his vision and hearing made him a bit jumpy and more likely to bark once or twice at people who startled him or who had so-so dog skills. He did not like folks to pet him on the head or further back. He liked slow movements, and to be petted under the head. I note that many books suggest that dogs should not be petted on the head.

So during the last part of his life I said to those who asked, "He is friendly, but may bark once if he does not like the way you pet him'. And that worked out fairly well, He barked at about half the folks who tried to pet him. I explained to those people about his age and how he preferred to be petted. Many folks seemed to think they were doing him a favor by giving him ten seconds on their time. I pet dogs by stroking them below the head and on their back if they permit it for 30-60 seconds.

My current dog took a bit of trial and error. He is a high energy mix, he dances, twists, jumps, darts, etc. I did not raise him, but got him at around three or four years of age. He chews everything, and eats any food. Apples, cherry tomatoes, bananas, chips, etc. His dog relating skills are not the best. He will often go into his 'I want to play' routine, barks once, posture lowered, which many other dogs will see as a hostile gesture.

When someone asked if they can pet my current dog, I have a longer answer. I tell the person that the dog has no interest in being petted by strangers, but will accept a treat. At that time I offer a treat to the person. Pretty much any treat will do, liver training treat, dry dog biscuit, bacon flavored. Most of the time the person will take the treat and offer it to the dog. That has worked out well for the most part.

Sometime a second person will enter the picture. For example, yesterday as one person was offering the dog a treat from me, a second person passing by reached out to the dog. The dog barked once or twice at the second person, who expressed surprise.

I would be interested how others respond to the 'Can I pet your dog' question.

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Honestly, I don't think it's a big deal. If the dog is a nipper, or somehow would be fearful, of course I would keep him away and let them know not to. Other than a specific problem, dogs love attention and to be petted and people love to engage with them. As a big time animal lover, I wouldn't think anything of someone paying attention to my dog or other pet. I ask now because I've become aware how some people feel about it these days, but years ago, if someone saw a dog, they just walked up to say hi. That seemed to be the norm and it was simply a friendly thing to do. If I see a cat wandering about, I also stop to say hi.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 4:15PM
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spedigrees z4VT

All of my previous dogs were safe to pet. They were herding breed dogs (4 collies and a sheltie) that I owned from puppyhood or young adulthood, and they were all people friendly. My last collie became testy in his old age, like your dog, but petting him alone wouldn't set him off. You would have to do something he didn't like, such as poking or prodding him, so he was safe for people to pat. The sheltie was sometimes shy around strangers, but it just wasn't in her nature to growl or snap at a person.

After the loss of my old collie and my old sheltie, I adopted a small mixed breed rescue dog who has clearly suffered abuse from a former owner. (Brynn has told me exactly what his abuser looked like, a short stocky man, and he will snap and go wild if a person of this description approaches him.) He snapped at us several times early on, and we eventually won his trust by NOT petting him EVER, except when he invites us to, and then only scratching him under his chin, NEVER on top of his head. He gives little warning before he snaps, and or, bites. He has never broken the skin; he has learned apparently that a quick bite will make people back off.

This nasty person apparently must have waited until he was eating, to grab and abuse him. It took a long time before he trusted me enough to eat his dinner with me in the kitchen with him. Even now I am careful not to focus any attention on him while he eats, but to occupy myself washing dishes while he eats.

The problem with Brynn when out in public, is that he will try to approach strangers, and thus they assume he is friendly and inviting them to pet him. I warn people to please not pet him because he is an abused rescue dog who will snap, but his demeanor belies my warning. Most people heed my warning, but many just don't get it. It is amazing how many people who are familiar with dogs, even some who have been around rescue dogs and should know better, seem to take it as a sort of challenge, or a warning meant for "other" people.

I have also acquired another dog, another sheltie, who would never growl or bite, and who welcomes being petted anywhere *by those she knows.* Unfortunately she is more shy than my former sheltie and will hide behind me or circle frantically to avoid strangers, so it is not an option for me to tell people to "pet her instead."

I lead a reclusive life, so keeping Brynn away from strangers is not too hard. Around professionals, veterinarians, vet techs or assistants, dog boarding personnel, I don't worry much, as they are skilled professionals whom I trust. I warn them that he might snap and advise that he gives little warning, and they know how to handle him. Sometimes they muzzle him for a specific procedure, and I let them know that I am fine with them taking this precaution. Also I think that in his past life, Brynn had a good relationship with vets and groomers, and this helps.

I'm not sure that offering people the alternative option of feeding a treat would work for me. It's just so natural for many people who are used to "normal" nonaggressive dogs to follow up giving a treat with a pat on the head, that I fear they would automatically try to do so. It took "retraining" for both of us to refrain from reaching over to pet Brynn while he sleeps next to us on the couch or bed, as we've done with all our other dogs over the past half century. He looks so cute and trusting, but his traumatic stress syndrome reaction is hard-wired into his brain, so we go with the "let sleeping dogs lie" philosophy and out of this a mutual trust has flourished.

I certainly empathize with your problem, and I'm glad you have found a solution that works for you and your dog. For me, I guess, I don't really have an alternate solution when confronted with well-meaning strangers. My strategy is just to try to keep my dog out of the path of well-meaning strangers and free from stress for the remainder of his life. He is an older dog, so this seems like the best plan to me for his remaining years. He is very happy with his routine with us and a joy to have around. We live out in the country and have very few visitors, and have wooded walking paths on our own property, so it is fairly easy for us to provide him with a good life while keeping him out of the reach of "scary" people.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 4:46PM
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murraysmom Zone 6 OH

That is a complicated question you put out there. My former dog was a collie mix and he loved having people pet him. I taught many of the kids in my neighborhood the proper way to approach a dog. No running, screaming toward the dog. If they had sticks, guns, swords, toys like that, I asked them to drop them before approaching my dog. I also asked them to ask before petting him. This is good practice when approaching any dog. I also had them pet him on his back, gently, and not on the head. Dogs don't like someone standing over the top of them.

He's gone now and I have a mini schnauzer that thinks all people were put on this earth just for him. He is very friendly, although he doesn't like being spoken to gruffly or harshly. I do ask that they pet him on the back, lightly. My other dog is a Havanese and she is much more standoffish. I don't force her to come to people if she doesn't want to. She is incredibly cute, so people often want to pet her. Sometimes she will come forward, most other times not.

I don't think I would want my dogs accepting any food from anybody - even if I gave it to the person. You never know what could happen doing that.

Anyway, after seeing others' replies, it seems that it just depends on the dog. I generally don't try to pet other people's dogs unless I already know them. Now, if a friendly dog comes up and clearly wants attention that is different, but I don't try to pet dogs I don't know.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 6:14PM
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First I say "thank you very much for asking". And then I say "yes, you may."

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 7:04PM
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A good option if you want to avoid this is to walk your dog after it gets dark (assuming you live in a safe area).

That is what we used to do with our large dog because she would go nuts if she saw another dog. This minimized the likelihood that we would bump into one (or another person).

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 8:02PM
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I could not trust my last dog and he was so cute it happened often that people would approach. He had a very short fuse, and was unpredictable, especially around children and possibly because they made him nervous with unexpected shrieking or movements. He was just built like that, was a pure bred mini-schnauzer and we just had to be very careful and act in a responsible manner and that was just that. I would warn them he was unpredictable, but warnings don't phase some folks and if he tolerated a pat, they'd get their faces right down to his. Some people didn't even ask, .they'd just invade his personal space without an invitation. It just got to the point, I would not let strangers approach him. So yes, it depends on the dog. My current dog is a shelter rescue, and basically a good little guy, but is not lain back either nor good with cats. I will just automatically consider him a small, nervous dog because of his breed and I continue to exercise caution with children or strangers. I can't believe at the vets how some folks will just let their dogs 'come visit' other dogs without asking. I pulled my dog up onto my lap the last time that happened and the other party took offense. She said her dog was 'gentle' and friendly. I told her I'm sure it was, but I can't vouch for mine. I love all dogs, but don't invade their space because their teeth are their weapons. Period. I ask if I wish to approach or touch them..........and I'm not offended if the owner expresses concerns.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2013 at 11:13AM
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We were taught to always ask the dog, lol. To put out your hand slowly and cautiously so they could sniff and see if they were friendly, wanting some attention or not.

I see a lot of dogs mingling too. A doggy day care has a yard they all romp in. At the vet, they are usually glad to see each other. It's amazing to me because the dog we had growing up would act up when he saw other dogs. Maybe just males, I don't know, but he was not happy to see other dogs and go play, lol. He had a rough start in life. Maybe that was part of it, too. He needed to be watched around other kids but was always fine with us (previous family tortured him) and did not like anyone in a uniform. Dad straightened him out and he was a great dog in the end. Actually he was always a great dog. That' why we took him in. Just had to learn to behave better in some situations.

This post was edited by snookums2 on Fri, Aug 9, 13 at 15:47

    Bookmark   August 8, 2013 at 12:08PM
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My method of asking if I may pet a dog has changed. I used to ask if I could pet someones dog. But that did not really tell the dogs owner how good I was with dogs.

Now I do things differently.
1) I look at the dog and owner and assess them.
2) If the dogs behavior looks ok, and the person seems not too excitable, I
3) squat or kneel down, and offer a hand extended. I am always at least five to ten feet away when I do this.
4) I say 'the dog looks friendly' or something in a calm and slow voice.

At that point the person has the choice to let the dog approach me or to control the dog so that it does not reach me.

I note that the employees of the Petco nearest to me just reach down and pet dogs in their store. They usually do not ask, or 'go low' to pet the dog at the dogs level.

I avoid getting too close to dogs without a tail, and dogs that seem to have a wide face such as pit bulls, bull terriers, rots, dobermans, etc. The calmest breed that I have encountered is the greyhound, maybe because there is a rescue group near me. Small dogs that bark nonstop are also avoided.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2013 at 3:21PM
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I do appreciate that people ask me before they reach for my dog. My dog is a new rescue, and he does have some issues with strangers. (He is very cute, if I say so myself, and people often assume he is a puppy and want to pet him). I have found that he does much better with strangers if they completely ignore him--no staring, kneeling, hands out etc... This is hard to convey to people--they want to show him they are harmless, "good with dogs". If we just talk, go about our business, he is just fine. If they try to interact with him he will bark at them and raise his hackles. Very embarrassing.

I am going to be working on socializing him more so he is not so reactive with strangers. The method that Robertz uses--having them give him treats--is the preferred method for "behavioral adjustment" in this situation. Hopefully someday we can get to the point where he will not mind a pat on the head, but right now he really doesn't like it.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 12:09AM
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walking 2 great danes, i don't often have people approach us, especially people with kids tagging along. in fact, they usually go out of their way to avoid us...like crossing the street or giving us an extra wide berth. if they are interested, they usually stay at a distance and holler "can we pet your dogs?". if we happen to be in tighter quarters (like at the vet's office, for instance), i have had people give me questioning looks when i say my dogs are friendly. i dunno...i guess "big" equals "vicious" to many people.

about the only time i have ever had someone actually walk up to me to see the dogs has been when it was someone who was familiar with danes and knew that, for the most part, they are just big lugs who want nothing more than to be friends with everybody they see. :)

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 8:14AM
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spedigrees z4VT

Sarabera, your little rescue dog could be my dog's twin. The first paragraph of your post could have been written by me about my dog. My little guy has been with me over two years and, while he has come to trust us, it's apparent that the baggage he carries will be with him forever. We won his trust by NOT petting him at all.

It is indeed hard to convey to people that an outstretched hand, kneeling, even looking at him, make him feel threatened. He wants to sniff new people which is where the misunderstanding arises I think. If he would shrink away and hide behind me, I think people would believe me that he doesn't want attention. He just wants to sniff them without being petted, touched, or even looked at.

I wish there was a way to explain this to people, but it took us six months to learn the difference between a dog with post traumatic stress syndrome and a "normal" dog with no history of abuse, and we have been dog owners for more than 40 years.

It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to win the trust of this little creature, but this isn't something that can be accomplished by a stranger in 5 minutes or 5 days. For his first year with us he had nightmares and would howl in his sleep, waking up with a frightened, disorientated look. Those have stopped now, but I know he will always carry the scars from his past life.

I wish you luck with overcoming your dog's reactivity. If your dog is younger than mine, or not as badly abused, perhaps he may come around.

This post was edited by spedigrees on Sat, Aug 10, 13 at 12:14

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 12:09PM
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Spedigrees--I think this kind of behavior pattern is not that uncommon. I have met other people (before) that have asked me to please ignore their dog. No problem--the dog eventually comes around and gives me a sniff. I don't think my dog was abused in his former life. He is a very happy and playful dog when he gets to know you (right now we are tossing around a stuffed bear in between typing). I think it is very possible he did not meet people (or other dogs) much when he was young. I also think it is very possible that his experiences as a stray, and then at various shelters, have affected his outlook--strangers that took an interest in him, from dogcatcher to vets to shelter workers, were associated with a very stressful time. Someday I'd like to discuss this with a behaviorist. But as you say--it is sooo rewarding to win their trust, develop a bond, and make their lives as good as we can!

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 8:14PM
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murraysmom Zone 6 OH

Ninapearl, were/are your danes all dog friendly?

I've had two in my neighborhood (both black and owned by the same person). One was not friendly toward my dog. The other one was, but was so big and goofy, it scared my dog. :)

I find there really is a big difference between dogs that are friendly towards people and those that are friendly towards other dogs.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 11:01PM
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yes, my danes are dog friendly. i've had several dane meet-ups out here. at one of them, i had 10 danes and a pitty in my living room all at the same time. we had come inside after the dogs played all day. it was wall-to-wall sleeping dogs!

    Bookmark   August 11, 2013 at 8:54AM
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spedigrees z4VT

Years ago there was a guy with two great Danes who lived on a farm a few miles up the mountain from my home. Sometimes, on horseback, I'd stop to talk with him. I often brought my Shetland pony along on rides as a pack pony, and my collie accompanied me always. These two Danes were extremely laid back and friendly to everyone, my dog, my horses, the animals at their farm, and people. I remember marveling at how the Danes were about the same size as my pony and how they dwarfed my collie!

They would amble out to see us with their owner and I would reach down from my horse to pet them; otherwise they would just watch us pass by. These were young dogs too.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2013 at 11:23AM
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I have two rescues, a GSD mix and a whippet(mix?).

Max is a guard dog(was once extremely uncontrollable) and most people hesitate to pet him just because of how he looks. Molly was so timid and submissive, she would not do much more than lay shivering. People love her looks.

The problem is when in public, Max is much more approachable than Molly by temperment. Molly with freeze and cower(she is getting better with time) sometimes with strangers in public. At home she is quite friendly and approachable(she has learned home is safe).

I seldom have people ask to pet them---again, Max is a great looking dog, but people naturally are averse to getting close.

But, when I do get requests, the looks I get when I tell them to pet Max instead of Molly are just hilarious.

I find many people don't want the story of why, they just want to pet a dog and continue on. Kind of like a walk by petting.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2013 at 12:16PM
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The post about walking dogs after dark I have to comment on. I live in a middle class suburb area with quite a few dogs and kids. But it is astonishing how many late walkers/dog walkers/bike riders/joggers do not show any common sense.

Less than 10% carry a flashlight or blinker light or wear a reflective vest! The street lights are spotty, and not all streets have sidewalks.

The man across the street from the pit bull that attacked two dogs and a person -- didn't even know they had a dog six months after the attack. Even though both parties had lived there for more than ten years.

Four years ago my dog and I met a teen age girl riding her bike on the sidewalk. It was very dark and I heard her bike only because my MP3 player battery went out. We moved off to the side and she rode her bike past (without a light or helmet). How luck for her that my battery went out I thought. My dog is calm and friendly, but he would have blocked her path and barked. And she would have gone off the sidewalk and crashed. The blinker light on the dogs collar did not affect her brain enough to walk the bike before she reached us.

GOOD Flashlight
Blinker / Strobe light
Reflective Vest

Common sense!

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 2:31PM
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People are crazy the way they walk along the roads at night too, without any precautions. I saw one just in time only because they were carrying a plastic shopping bag that picked up the light. At night, dark clothing, dark skinned.

Wouldn't have thought about it on sidewalks with dog walkers.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 3:10PM
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spedigrees z4VT

Very good advice, Robertz! I agree with you and Snookums that people are often completely unaware of how invisible they are to motorists after dark. (Bicycles should be equipped with lights.)

While I think that Stir_fryi's suggestion about walking after dark to avoid meeting people is an excellent one, it should be added that carrying a working flashlight and wearing reflective gear is highly advisable.

I used to, and still do occasionally, walk with my dogs in the wee hours. It's very peaceful then. I have a construction worker's vest that is highly reflective in a large size so that I can wear it over heavy winter clothing as well as summer clothing, and I have reflective vests for my dogs.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 4:27PM
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Fori is not pleased

My dog likes people so it's okay. Kids are more interested in petting him than adults for some reason. So I warn them about the potential of being stepped on and slimed. We often walk with folks with a beagle and a Boston terrier mix. People pet the other two dogs but not mine and he always seems disappointed.

Maybe it's the wide smile. Oh well. There are some situations where it's comforting to have a dog with a wide head, even if he does just use it for smiling.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 5:31PM
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" People pet the other two dogs but not mine and he always seems disappointed."

omg, that is so sad. What jerks. I hope you do the fussing for them, poor guy.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2013 at 10:37PM
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Fori is not pleased

It IS sad! And when we walk at a dog-filled park, people often have their dogs greet the other two and not mine. He sits there whimpering with anticipation and gets shut down. Poor fella.

It probably doesn't help that when he sees a dog he really wants to meet, he'll flop down in what I think he thinks is a submissive pose, but he just ends up looking like he's getting ready to pounce.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2013 at 2:59PM
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Oh man, that is SO sad. I wonder what they are thinking. I always make sure everyone gets attention! lol I hope you try to engage them with him anyway. And give him some treats!

    Bookmark   August 15, 2013 at 11:56PM
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