This morning, while putting the trash out for collection, my nice neighbor felt the need to scare my dog. Ok, so he totally didn’t mean to scare my dog, he meant to make friends. But he went about it all the wrong way, and he’s not alone – lots of people try to say hi to dogs who are saying, “Please don’t.” So here I go, posting a public service announcement.
How to pet a shy dog: DON’T
Unless you are saving their life, you really don’t need to approach or reach out to a shy, timid, or fearful dog. If you approach and reach out to befriend a timid dog, you risk scaring them, being bitten, or worse. They will be much more comfortable and more likely to eventually befriend you if you completely ignore them, allow them their space, and give them time to sniff and warm up to you on their own.
– Danielle Haywood, CPDT- KA, CBCC-KA of D is for dog
There are times when a rescuer or a vet tech or someone might need to get ahold of a dog who isn’t comfortable with what’s happening, sure. The dog may have been hit by a car and those actions are saving them, but then the person usually understands that they may be bitten and they take precaution to rescue the dog in such a way that does not completely traumatize them.
If you are my friendly neighbor in your bathrobe, putting out the trash at quarter to eight in the morning – and my dog is perfectly healthy, not in any danger, just calmly standing in my driveway… That’s not one of those times. And if you approach to say hi and the dog cowers, STOP. Be respectful. Prove you are not a threat to them by stepping back or turning to the side. Do not continue to approach and reach for them. I told my neighbor, “Oh, she’s shy, please ignore her,” but maybe he didn’t understand what that meant? Ignore means ignore – pretend the dog’s not there. Don’t stare at them, don’t talk to them, don’t reach out to them. Leave them be. Pretty simple, but not so easy apparently.
I once prevented a friend from being bitten by a small dog outside a restaurant. When a large group of us left after brunch and the dog was alone, tethered at the edge of the parking lot. The dog hunkered down and put his ears back as we all came out the door. As we passed by about ten to fifteen feet away, looking at him, and “awww”-ing at the cute doggie, his eyes grew large and he bared his teeth in a low growl. He was uncomfortable with the large group of people, uncomfortable with our attention on him, maybe just scared of being left outside and obviously ready to defend himself against the perceived threat. My sweet, supportive friend, who is normally a smart person, felt an instinctual urge to comfort the dog with physical affection. She could’ve easily made a very bad judgement call in that moment, if I had not stopped her. She very likely would have been bitten and/or traumatized the poor dog. I know it comes from a good place, it’s just not the right way to comfort the dog.
Now, it’s not a good idea to leave a dog tethered outside a restaurant anyways, especially if they are timid or potentially aggressive. It’s best to train dogs, leave them home when you go to lunch, and muzzle them in public if necessary. But there’s also no excuse for a stranger to provoke a dog to bite them. Dogs are not public property – just because they are there and you can see them doesn’t mean they’re there for you. You don’t have to approach them. You don’t have to pet them. This goes for ALL dogs, but especially dogs who are working (service dogs for example) or dogs whose body language says, “Please leave me alone.” How can you be sure? Let’s look at that body language. To be clear, you are the scary monster feet in this graphic:
Want to pet a dog? Ask! Then wait for permission before reaching out. If the person says, “No,” don’t reach out to the dog at all. There are a number of reasons a person might say no, and that’s their right. The dog may be shy, may be potentially aggressive, might be sick or injured, or they might be in training. I sometimes say, “No, thanks,” when I’m working with a client dog (if I don’t know how they are with strangers and that’s not what we’re working on, I’m not going to put them in that situation.) Or I might be busy (even if they are known to be sociable with all kinds of people, we might be on a tight schedule.) Stopping to be petted might be distracting to our training, or it might require additional training or attention (rowdy children, for example, get an automatic “no,” because they are likely to not follow basic instructions or be respectful to the dog.) Sometimes, when people ask if they can pet my older dog, who loves everyone he meets, I say “No, thanks. But thanks for asking!” simply because I don’t want to reinforce the idea that everyone should be able to pet every dog ever.
Some dogs need you to respect their space so they can trust you. Some dogs might become comfortable with you, with strangers in general, or they might just not like being petted by people they don’t know. That’s ok too! I don’t hug everyone I meet.
Here’s great advice from John McGuigan, Glasgow Dog Trainer, on advocating for your dog’s safety and well-being:
To learn more, I highly recommend you check out Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS).
If you have a shy, anxious, or fearful dog, Fearfuldogs.com is great!
If you are working on socializing your dog or puppy to new/different/normal things, including people, I highly recommend the help of a positive, professional trainer. Make sure you read up a little on proper socialization: Don’t Socialize the Dog!
For a good resource on teaching kids to properly greet dogs, more from Dr. Yin: How Kids Should and Should Not Interact with Dogs
Questions? Concerns? Comment!