Petting Dogs: why consent is important

“Come give Sara a hug goodbye,” my friend tells her 3-year-old son. His eyes get big, and he stands behind his mother, hugging her legs. It’s an uncomfortable moment. My friend is embarrassed that her son clearly doesn’t want to hug me. She wants to teach him manners, and worries how his reaction reflects on her parenting. It’s been so long since we last saw each other that her son barely remembers me, and he’s very uncomfortable with the idea of such an intimate goodbye. I’m also not a fan of the idea, since I don’t want to touch anyone, no matter the age, without his or her express consent, even for something as minor as a brief embrace.

“Do you want to wave goodbye instead?” I ask my friend’s son. He nods and smiles shyly, waving bye-bye. The tension in the room relaxes, and I hug my friend goodbye while her son stands in the background, relief palpable in his demeanor as he waves. I hope that I’ve given both him and his mother the tools to deal with similar situations gracefully in the future. It’s okay if he doesn’t want someone to touch him, and he can always offer an alternate suggestion that he feels more comfortable with.

It’s not okay to touch others without their consent. As grabby primates, this can be a hard rule for us to follow. It’s not okay to rub a stranger’s pregnant belly, or to ruffle a child’s curly hair without her permission. If someone doesn’t want to shake hands or hug, waving or giving a fist bump may be more appropriate. We learn as young children to keep our hands to ourselves, and it’s something that we need to remember our entire lives. It’s also something we need to remember when we interact with dogs.

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Not every dog likes to be touched. Sure, most dogs enjoy petting and scratching, especially in those hard-to-reach areas such as under their collar and along their spine. However, just like us, every dog has a different level of tolerance for physical affection. Some dogs, just like some people, can’t get enough of touch. They’re happiest when they can lean against you, skin-on-skin, and feel your hand caressing them. Other dogs, just like other people, prefer not to be touched except by a handful of those they know and trust, and even then, only at certain times and in certain places.

You wouldn’t run up and hug a stranger who was walking in the park just because you liked the color of his or her eyes, and it’s just as inappropriate to hug or pick up a dog you don’t know just because you think it’s cute. If a stranger approaches your dog and wants to pet him or her, and your dog doesn’t seem comfortable with the idea, it’s absolutely alright to tell that person no. Just as you would stand up for a child or a vulnerable adult who was unable to tell the stranger no, it’s okay to stand up for your dog. Dogs are not public property, and no one has the right to pet your dog unless you and your dog are both okay with them doing so.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t teach your dog to accept petting and to greet people appropriately. Dogs have to live in a world where people will reach out for them without asking first, so give your dog the tools to cope with this gracefully by socializing him appropriately.

If you want to pet a dog, whether it’s your own pet or a dog you just met, make sure that you ask first. Asking the owner is important, but even more importantly, I want you to ask the dog. Ask the dog if he or she wants to be touched, and then respect the answer you’re given.

How do you ask a dog whether she wants to be petted? Dogs aren’t verbal, so they can’t verbally express what they want. However, they do have a complex and nuanced language of their own, and we can watch their body language to determine whether they want to be touched or not.

Start by crouching down a few feet away from the dog you’d like to pet, talking to him or her softly. If the dog approaches, that’s a good sign that she’s interested in interacting with you. If she maintains her distance, that’s an equally good sign that she’s not currently comfortable interacting and that you should give her some space.

Once the dog approaches you, gently pet her under her chin, on her chest, or along her side for 1-2 seconds. Pause and see what she does. If she moves closer to you, leans in, nudges at your hand, or otherwise interacts further with you in a social way, she is telling you that she enjoyed being touched and would like to be petted more. Go ahead and oblige. If she stiffens up, moves away, or does not show any social body language, stop touching her. You do not have her consent to continue putting your hands on her body. This should go without saying, but if the dog shows warning signs such as whale eye, growling, snarling, snapping, or biting at you, stop what you’re doing immediately and give her some space.

Every so often as you’re petting the dog, stop and ask whether she’d like you to continue by watching her body language. Whenever you pet her in a new place on her body or in a new way (for example, ruffling up the fur above her tail instead of softly stroking her shoulder), stop after a few seconds and evaluate whether she enjoyed that. Many dogs have definite preferences about where they enjoy being touched the most, so ask for the dog’s feedback and watch her respond ecstatically as you scritch just the right spot.

If someone else is petting your dog, ask them to follow these same instructions. Watch your dog’s body language, and be ready to redirect the person if your dog becomes uncomfortable.

It’s a sad reflection of our society that I’m often accused of not liking my clients’ dogs upon first meeting them because I don’t immediately try to pet them. People seem hurt and confused that I don’t instantly reach out for their dogs, especially since I clearly love dogs so much. When I explain that I don’t pet dogs without the dog’s consent, it’s often very eye-opening for my clients, who were taught that anyone should be allowed to touch a dog whether the dog wants it or not. These same clients are often amazed that their dogs don’t show the same aggressive behavior towards me that they do towards most visitors to the home, or that their fearful dog warms up to me so quickly. This isn’t magic. It’s just respect. I respect each dog’s right to choose how closely he or she wants to interact with me, and dogs respond to this respect enthusiastically.

Where does your dog most like to be petted? Does he or she like physical affection from strangers or do they prefer to keep their distance? Do you make sure to get new dogs’ consent before you try to pet them? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

38 responses to “Petting Dogs: why consent is important

  1. This is excellent, and I wish everyone would read it. I love the comparison in the beginning.

  2. My dog is generally pretty friendly towards strangers, but I definitely check each time, because he gets nervous of certain people, and is uncomfortable around kids if they aren’t calm. Generally, I can say, “Who’s this?”, and he’ll look at whoever it is I’m introducing him to – then either head towards them or back off, depending on his mood of that day. He’s got a few tricks he’ll do in public too, so if he’s showing no interest in being pet by a kid, I’ll get him to do a trick for them instead. The average under-ten is way more excited by ‘play dead’ than a quick pat anyways.

  3. Great advice. I always ask Max “want to say hi?” and he usually moves toward people and enjoys being pet. Sometimes he doesn’t (maybe he’s uncomfortable with the person’s demeanor or he’s distracted by something) If he doesn’t move towards someone, I do not try to pull him and I just laugh and say “Sorry, he’s not interested in saying hi right now”. Most people seem ok with that but if they are offended, oh well.

  4. I have one dog, Carys, who will crawl into the lap of any stranger who happens to crouch in her presence, and another, Aster, who is very reserved, and only invites touch from a few people, and only at certain times. It works out fairly well in greeting situations; Aster can use eager-dog Carys as a barrier if she wants more time to evaluate the situation and doesn’t have to worry about grabby hands coming her way, and then can gauge whether or not she is alright with the person by watching how they are with Carys. The more they ignore Aster to focus on Carys, the faster Aster will come around.

  5. Great blog post! I just posted a short reminder re: tethering on my blog today, and one of the reasons I cited for not tethering dogs in public places is exactly what you describe above: people petting your dog unexpectedly or when he/she doesn’t want an interaction…

    http://ourgangpetservices.tumblr.com/post/84133315573/thoughts-on-tethering-in-a-public-place

  6. Great article. My rescue wheaten terrier, Keeva, has come a long way in two years, as have I! I now realize that it is OK to ask people NOT to pat her, or NOT to let their dogs…on extend-a-leads…approach to play. She is learning to enjoy attention from my husband and I, but she should not have to endure unwanted physical attention from strangers. I have learned to be her advocate. After a horrid five years in a puppy mill, she deserves her space!

  7. caninepawsabilities

    First, let me say I love the company name! And, I found your information very educational for those whom need it. As a behaviorist/trainer, I always inform my (human) clients that upon meeting them at the door, I will not acknowledge the dog. I want the dog to approach me and give them time to find out who I am. Good article!

  8. Absolutely excellent article. We have 5 dogs, 4 are scotties and they run the gamut from “I can’t get close enough to you” to “you don’t know me well enough to touch me.” All will accept the unthinking touch of strangers without problems. But, our fifth is a rescue scottie/poodle mix and she does not trust most people and definitely takes exception to people who reaching for her. We’re working with her, but it isn’t likely that she’ll ever love strangers touching her. That is her right. I’m proactive and assertive in telling those approaching that she is not friendly and does not like to be touched.

  9. Great article. I encourage people to use these principles if they have a therapy dog. We expect therapy dogs to accept all people all the time with all manner of handling. For the most part, my Wally is fine with everyone, but I watch him very closely for signs of discomfort. If he shows any, I either move on to the next person or, as mentioned above, offer to have him do some tricks. I think it’s especially important in the presence of a group of children–especially as Wally gets older–to be his advocate.

  10. very good advice….i have been training my k/9 friends for 35 years and never just walked up and pet a new clients k/9 and usually get the same reaction from the owners at first……once again good advice

  11. This all makes perfect sense.

    Unfortunately, what you can not legislate for is people (but especially children) touching your dog while they are off lead.

    The number of times that I have seen kids up ahead run their hands along my Border Collie’s back as he walks/trots past them is surprising.

    If my other Collie had that happen to them then there may well have been an injury due to his intolerance of contact from strangers, but why should he necessarily have been on lead constantly because of others.

    In the UK we have yellow ribbons (and hi-viz jackets) which signify that a dog needs it’s space, but I would not rely on that to keep people away as quite often ‘they know best’.

    His intolerance affected our life at home as well, and he is sadly no longer with us, but I would never have restricted his life outside because of others.

    In fairness, I always used to stroke dogs if they ‘looked friendly’ but now pay great attention to the signs given off by a dog, and check with the owner.

    Steve

  12. Love love love it as part of Space Dogs yellow ribbon campaign & Charity I am always banging on that like us, dogs should have the right to have their personal space respected, just coz it has 4 legs , a tail and is sweet or cute why should it have to meet and greet every random stranger, if we went round hugging every sweet/cute child we would soon get either a slap or arrested x

  13. Patricia Thomson

    Good to see this advice – hope people (especially those who don’t have dogs) will read and take note.One of my dogs is not reliable with children, because of an experience when he was a pup. A child rushed up to him, threw her arms around his neck and cuddled him quite tightly – he was terrified. Now I put him on lead when children appear and warn them to leave him alone.

  14. Sandy Atkinson

    My Bonnie does not enjoy touching. She is happy to see people, jumps like she wants to be petted, but backs away when you try. Also, no parent should tell a child to hug someone. If they are forced, the next adult predator that comes along, the child will feel he has to let the adult touch him.

  15. I love the article and advice, but I am confused by the picture of the dog you chose. Is this your dog? Is it a random picture you found?

  16. Fantastic article. It should also be stated that not every person wants to be approached or accosted by our animals. There was a lady I came across recently who allowed her dog to come at me when I opened my car door – he came right up and made like he was getting into my vehicle, with me in it. When I reacted, she was extremely offended and started screaming at me and calling me names. I’m sorry, but just as I need to respect others’ personal space, I believe we need to teach our animals not to rush at strangers as well. I always hold my dog back until I can determine if his advances are welcomed or not.

    • Oh dear… I’ve got a dog who tries to do this to people. She’s been rather car-obsessed ever since I sold mine. I try to keep an eye out, especially if she’s particularly car-focused that day, but sidewalks aren’t that big, and if someone catches me off guard opening their door near us as we’re walking down the street, she absolutely tries to climb in with them and it’s a race between her reflexes and mine. It’s horribly embarrassing, and I apologize on behalf of whoever it was who was less gracious about her dog’s pushy excitement.

      • How about train the dog not to go into a car door until you say so with a command (‘up’ or ‘car’) ? Why are you ‘racing’ your dog ? Does the dog buy the food and house and vaccines ? Hire a trainer or go look in YouTube for a video to learn how to keep the dog at your side. It’s that simple.

  17. We can not say this enough. Well done! ;)

  18. Excellent advice! My 3-yr old English Mastiff has been leary of people within the last six months. I think it has to do with protective behaviors he is getting from my daughter’s Am. Bulldog. When people want to pet him, I always tell them to stay away from his face. He doesn’t like it when they get to close.

  19. I love this post. It applies to humans as well, too- that bit about not pushing or forcing a child to hug someone is so important.

    Along with the ways of “asking the dog” you mentioned, I like to ask the dog verbally. The dog may not understand, but something like this:

    “Oh, your dog is gorgeous! I love Poodles. What’s his name?”
    “Thank you! His name is Rufus.”
    “Rufus, do you want to say hi?”
    (Then, to owner: “Is it okay if I pet him?”)

    communicates something totally different than asking the owner “Can I pet your dog?” or even “Does Rufus want to say hello?”. It gives the owner the final say, but puts the dog in charge of making the choice first.

  20. I would be disturbed if I hired a trainer/behaviorist to come to the house and, upon arrival, he/she did not acknowledge my dog. I’d wonder if that trainer was one of those trainers who focus excessively on dominance, so-called alpha stuff. I doubt I’d ask that trainer back for a second visit or recommend him/her. I’m not saying a trainer has to reach for my dog immediately and go all gooey, touchy-all-over. But I would expect a trainer to acknowledge my dog right after acknowledging me. He/she could just say in a friendly voice “And this must be Buddha” and look at him. If a trainer didn’t do this right away, it would be like a social worker coming to my house to help me with my mother, saying hello to me, and totally ignoring my mother who is standing right there. That would give me a feeling of foreboding.

    • If your dog were uncomfortable with a stranger coming into your home, would you rather that stranger enhance that discomfort for the sake of your perceptions or help ease your dog into the situation by giving them time to accept a greeting? I would sincerely hope that a behaviorist/trainer encountering a shy, fearful, or unsure dog would do everything they could to put them at ease, even if it didn’t conform to my human ideas of courtesy.

      That said, I would expect a trainer or behaviorist working with my dogs to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it. And I don’t believe the point of this article was the one line about not always greeting clients’ dogs, but about being sure that you always have consent before physically interacting with anyone – dog or human or otherwise.

  21. An important point, and very well said.

  22. I tend to let pooches sniff the back of my hand before I touch them. Crouch and let them give a little sniff before trying to love on them~

  23. Perhaps the reason some people have an irrational fear of dogs and then also transferring that fear to their children is because these simple rules weren’t followed and something bad happened.

  24. YES!! I always feel so awkward when parents pretty much force their kids into physical affection when they clearly do not want it … it sends a very bad message, particularly to girls … that unwanted physical affection is perfectly acceptable so long as its in the guise of politeness … and the exact same thing goes for animals … more so with dogs who, when forced into physical touch, will respond in the way nature has prepared them to respond: by biting. I get so angry when I see dogs being punished or, God forbid euthanized, because some human felt they had a right to force them into something they clearly were not consenting to. No means no, no matter what species says it and no matter how its conveyed.

  25. It was a long while before Lila would let her own people pet her, she NEVER warms to strangers (and has snapped at “pushy” ones!). But she likes people, and listens to conversations (falling asleep to neighborhood gossip, wiggling all over if we talk about dogs). She’s taught me a lot, including that this article is spot-on!

  26. You are responsible for any damage your dog does and it is illegal to have your dog off leash in Richmond, Virginia. You don’t have to agree with it… it’s the law. It’s the law to protect people from being bitten or knocked over or their own pet attacked. YOU are your dog’s owner ande responsible for its safety. That means you keep people from grabbing your dog or even petting it unless you agree beforehand. What matters is your dog’s safety and freedom from fear of a stranger (any age). What matters even more is not being sued (and losing) and/or having your dog declared dangerous by a judge and then paying for facial surgery and counseling for a bitten child.

    • Your tone indicates you disagree with the message of the article, but I’m not really sure how. You’re right. As an owner, you are responsible for the safety and well being of your dog, and for any damage they cause. But that doesn’t mean that strangers, or even friends and family, have a right to touch your dog whenever they want. I don’t think anyone here would advocate that owners shouldn’t be taking an active role in anyone’s interactions with their dog, but you don’t always have that control. People do reach out of nowhere to pet your dogs. People sometimes don’t listen when you ask them not to. And people sometimes take permission to pet as permission to grab, poke, or otherwise approach very threateningly. I’ve even had strangers at the dog park see me lift my dog, who trusts me absolutely, up by her 4 feet like she’s hog-tied, then call her over and try it themselves without asking me. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had snapped at them.

      Just because it is technically someone else’s fault if you get yourself bitten doesn’t mean that you were morally in the right when you tried to touch an unwilling dog, even if the owner has said it’s alright. Ultimately, the dog is the one who makes the call. Hopefully most owners can read their dog well enough to know what they are comfortable with, but even if the owner has given approval, we should all be asking the dog. Everyone’s lives become a lot easier if the general public becomes as aware of safe and polite canine-human etiquette: the dogs, the owners, and everyone interacting with them.

  27. Thankfully my puppy has NO issue with people touching him. I’m normally trying to teach him about other people’s right to not be touched (or turned into makeshift beds).
    Although he does seem to pick random people to be affraid of and won’t go near them without wetting himself.
    Anyone have any advice on how to get him to calm down in those situations?

  28. This is a really good article and certainly is food got thought. We have a four year old male rescue Lurcher. Like most Lurchers he is a total cuddle bum and loves to be touched by those he trusts. He reacts very well to positive encouragement in terms of discipline and I routinely pat / stroke / praise him for every little positive in his behaviour. He is getting better about the approach of strangers and I always tell people he is shy if he is wary. The reason I feel this article is so good as I have only now realised that my dog only tolerates me patting him on his head; can’t believe it never dawned on me before. Because he loves being touched and looks to touch for reassurance I had never realised till now that a pat on the head is tolerated but not really wanted. Thanks for opening my eyes.

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  32. Ah, I wish everyone knew this, I’ve stopped taking my dog to the local pet store because one of the employees really invades my dog’s personal space without permission, even though she is clearly not comfortable with it. And a pet store should be the kind of place where employees know how to behave with a dog!

    I’m always checking with my dog to see if she is enjoying being pet, but her behaviour can be a bit funny, maybe you can clarify?

    1. She will often come up and lean on me. I will rub her neck or face and she’ll close her eyes and seem to enjoy it. If I stop, she won’t do anything though, just keep leaning.

    2. Sometimes the opposite is true – I’ll be petting her and she’ll be licking her lips and yawning and I’m like, “Ok she’s not enjoying this…” but when I stop she’ll nudge my hand, like she wants me to continue. Very very confusing…

  33. Crouching lower to a dog you have never seen before is asking for it. If the dog lunges, your face is available to tear up and the nose or lips are most likely to be damaged. Ask yourself a sober question : ” Why do I need to pet a strange dog? ” Is it not enough to talk to the owner and ignore the dog, which is what professional handlers do? All dog professionals know that a dog should EARN affection of the pack leader. The person who tries to cajole a dog is telling a dog by action and voice and smell that the person is intimidated and working from weakness. Some dogs will respond with aggression toward a weaker animal (you!). A dog is a lower animal, compatible with humans like no other on earth. Respect and understand a dog and don’t try to be his buddy. Be his protector and leader…. that is what dogs need from people, not baby talk and awkward petting.

  34. Reblogged this on Wag it! and commented:
    “Dogs are not public property, and no one has the right to pet your dog unless you and your dog are both okay with them doing so.”
    Yes! Always ask for dog’s consent.

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