Not everyone knows how to approach an unfamiliar dog they want to meet. Children today are often taught in preschool or kindergarten to ask the sensible question, “May I pet your dog?” No one is more grateful for that than people like me. I am often walking dogs, my own or someone else’s. When I’m walking a client’s dog, I may not know how that dog will react to unfamiliar people. The well-meaning stranger and I may both learn something at the same time. Here are steps to keep everyone safe and happy.
Stand back about 5 or 6 feet. Ask the owner / walker, “May I pet your dog?” If the answer is “No”, accept that. Don’t assume you know better. Respect what the human knows about the dog.
If the answer is “Yes”, address the dog and get his permission. Other people may find you charming, but dogs make their own judgements based on their own standards and experiences. “Hi, Mr. Fourlegs. May I pet you?” Or you can say any nonsensical thing you wish, because the dog doesn’t understand English. He responds to a friendly tone. Slowly extend your hand, palm down and fingers curled slightly. Good signs from him are relaxed body movement and leaning forward to give your hand a sniff.
The dog is saying “No” if he shows no interest, backs away, looks away, or hides behind his human. Even stronger negative signs include barking and a lowered tail.
If you get “Yes” from both the dog and his human, the dog would probably enjoy a chest scratch or stroking along the side of his neck. Avoid petting on the top of his head and patting motions.
Keep the interaction brief. More than one person should not pet the dog at one time. He could become overwhelmed.
Many dogs are coming out of puppy mills, where their worn-out mothers may not have taught their puppies the most basic appropriate behaviors. Rescued dogs may also have socialization deficits or histories of unfortunate experiences with humans. Respect the dog – he’ll let you know what he needs or is willing to accept from you. Dogs will usually benefit from a brief, positive, respectful interaction. If all goes well, he’ll greet you with a wagging tail next time. Remember, animals don’t forget anything.