Over the past few weeks I have had some experiences that got me thinking and I would like to share them with you.
I am always in a constant struggle to find a balance in public between not allowing people to touch the dogs I am working, and giving the dogs a well-rounded experience through touching and interaction, thus creating a good perception with the public. First off I already know that there will be people who will assume things (usually incorrectly) based on what owners do or don’t do. This is where I feel more public education needs to take place. Somewhere along the way, the public has forgotten that dogs are animals with sharp teeth and use them to get their point across if other attempts to communicate are ignored. THIS is where the problem comes! Too many people in the public, and owner/handlers, do not have the knowledge base to properly read dogs. I am not saying that everybody needs to go out and start studying dog body language in great detail. I just want to give some advice and pose some scenarios that might give the handler and the public a better knowledge base with which to hopefully make more informed decisions when it comes to dogs in public places.
The intent of this article is not to teach body language, but I do need to talk about one…the tail wag. The tail wag is one of the most misunderstood body postures of a dog that I know of. I ask all potential clients, “what does it mean when a dog’s tail is wagging?” and more than 50% of the time people say, “the dog is happy!” The dog MIGHT be happy, but that is like saying everybody who smiles at you is happy to see you. You would never assume this about a stranger without taking into account other cues, so why do we assume this about strange dogs? In its simplest form, a wagging tail means that the dog wants to ENGAGE with whatever it is looking at. That could mean it is happy and wants to be pet, or it could mean it wants to smell, or even to bite after it already gave a bunch of signals you didn’t recognize. There are so many people out there who have said they had no idea they were going to be bitten because the dog’s tail was wagging so they just assumed all was good. A whole host of other factors need to be looked at in conjunction with the wagging to determine the ultimate intent of the dog.
There is a very simple technique I tell people about when dealing with dogs in public that gives them the very best chance to not misinterpret what somebody else’s dog is saying. Very simply, don’t assume anything and ASK the handler before you interact at all with their dog. It’s that simple! Your best chance at not putting yourself or the dog in a bad situation is to ask the owner if it is ok to approach or pet their dog if you want to do so. I talk about it a lot, “there is no substitute for an owner knowing their dog!” Every dog has their quirks like us so even if you looked at a dog’s body language and saw a text book sign of xyz, you still could misread that dog. Hopefully the owner knows their dog good enough to give you the right answer of yes or no to engage or not with their dog.
“Well the dog is in public so it must be nice and doesn’t bite!” This definitely is not the case! There are many people out there whose dog will bite or have bitten in public and they still are out with their dogs. The reason for this is many, but a few could be; they are in denial (this is a bigger problem than you think), they are trying to do the right thing and are working on the problem (granted a muzzle might be a good option here), or the dog is skittish and has had a few close calls, but never has actually landed a bite so… All of these reasons I have seen firsthand.
I see posters and pamphlets all the time that educate people on the “proper” etiquette for service dogs, but never for dogs in general. So I decided to create my own list of PEOPLE MANNERS for the everyday dog in public.
1: Always speak to the person first. This does a couple of things. First it lets the handler know that you have some understanding of dogs and that you want to show both the handler and the dog respect. This also lessens the chance that you will misinterpret the dog’s body language or even provoke something unintentionally by basically ignoring the dog at this point. This also helps to reinforce the leadership role with the dog and handler whether the handler is aware of it or not.
2: Do not touch the dog without asking for, and then WAIT to receive permission. Now the biggest thing to remember here is the WAIT part. I see a lot of people ask permission, but they either fail to actually wait for an answer or ask as they are reaching for the dog. You need to wait for an answer because believe it or not, the answer might be NO. Here is where people start to make assumptions. Just because I told you that you couldn’t pet my dog doesn’t mean they are dangerous, will bite, or that I won’t let someone else pet them. There are a lot of reasons for not giving permission and people shouldn’t get offended. I could be in a training session, the dog could be learning self-control because it always wants pets from people, or the dog could bite. Who knows, maybe this dog has issues with blue jackets and you’re wearing one. There is no substitute for knowing the dog you are handling! Why take a chance if you know something is questionable? I see too many handlers give in to peer pressure and our societal expectations and let people touch their dogs when they don’t really want to because of what people will think if they say no. Please don’t do this! If you don’t feel comfortable with it, then your dog won’t feel comfortable with it and it turns into a recipe for disaster. I would rather have somebody be offended or get upset with me instead of putting my dog in a situation I knew might not turn out well and possibly have my worst nightmare happen and I am forced to put my dog down. All because you put your dog in a situation you could have prevented. No matter how trained your dog is, when put in new or uncomfortable situations, a dog will default to being a dog out of instinct if the person they looked to for leadership lets them down.
3: Do not offer food to the dog without permission (even then use your judgment). This one doesn’t really need too much explanation. Why do you feel the need to bribe a dog you don’t know? If you think you need food to get close to the dog to begin with, you probably should think again about interacting with that dog. From a handler point of view I would suggest using extreme caution here as well. You don’t know the people offering food and that can add another whole level of instinct and arousal to a dog. It could be something as simple as your dog gets over excited and nips the person’s hand as they take the food. Your dog does this to the wrong person and it can quickly turn into a “dog bite” and escalate to something really bad and before you know it you are in court fighting for your dog’s life all because you let a stranger feed your dog.
4: When you meet a person with a dog, keep in mind it could be in training or working. You do not know if the dog is indeed a service dog without a vest or harness on for whatever reason. The dog could be in a heel command and if it is still in the proofing stages of training, you acting all goofy trying to get the dog’s attention could possibly cause the dog to break the command and get a correction that you could have prevented. I look at all dogs in public as working at the time and show my respect by always communicating with the handler and respecting their wishes.
5: Do not try and give someone else’s dog a command. This is a big issue for me. I see too many people do the right thing and earn my respect by following the above rules to just throw it all away by trying to tell the dog to sit or some other command after I’ve said it’s ok to pet my dog. In my opinion this is one of the biggest acts of disrespect someone can show to an owner and their dog. This is like me coming into your house right after we met and then proceed to tell your children to go in the other room and sit on the couch. Once again, you have no idea how or what the dog is trained for. By somehow getting the dog to do the command, you may cause that dog to get a correction for something you could have prevented. I have one more thing to say about this. If you are a dog trainer and just came up and asked permission to pet the dog I was handling, why would you then proceed to give the dog a command??!! The only thing I can come up with is you do not feel confident in your abilities and need to show people you can “control” dogs whenever there is an opportunity. I know I’m going on a little bit of a personal rant here, but this just happened to me and I was at first in disbelief, and then bordered on anger that a “professional” dog trainer, at their place of work, would give someone else’s dog commands while they were on a leash held by the handler in public! They then proceeded to tell the people standing in the area how and why they were able to do this. To me this shows a huge lack in professionalism and respect on their part. They had no idea I was a dog trainer, but that should not matter. If they had tried this on one of my personal dogs, I know this person would have made a fool of themselves because I train my dogs in a very specific manner to not listen to this kind of command. At this point, I would probably ask the trainer to explain to the gathered audience why they felt it necessary to TRY and give my dog a command and ultimately couldn’t on something as simple as a sit command. There is no reason for a stranger to give somebody else’s dog a command when that dog is in a calm, respectful state, waiting for affection. NEVER! This idea of not “showing off” your skills on strange dogs leads to other discussions such as dog parks which I will save for another day. What I will say though, there are situations in which I would agree that using commands on a stranger’s dog would be warranted. These are very rare and extreme cases and even then I would suggest using a great deal of judgment because different people have very different expectations of their dogs and the expectations of other’s dogs and they don’t necessarily line up with yours or even make logical sense in your mind.
At the end of the day you need to be your dog’s leader which means you need to be that person they can rely on in all situations and won’t put them in a compromising one that may set them up for failure. If you are consistent as a handler in public combined with learning to read your dog’s body language, you will earn the trust and respect of your dog and they will begin to show you consistent behavior based on trusting you.
For all those people out there who love to see and interact with dogs in public, please at least think about the 5 rules I’ve suggested. At the end of the day you will show the handler and the dog respect and will help that dog succeed. Who knows, maybe because you followed these rules the first time, the handler will recognize and appreciate it and the next time they see you, they may allow you to interact with their dog. I can tell you honestly that I have allowed people to pet my dogs that when they were walking up to me I had no intention of doing so, but they surprised me and showed they were aware of what was going on and asked the right questions. In a matter of seconds I knew they had the dog’s best interest in mind and showed a great deal of respect for the situation. It only takes a little bit of knowledge and foresight to completely change a situation for the better.
I hope these 5 easy rules are something you will read and take to heart. I only want what is best for everyone’s dogs by setting them up for success instead of failure.