“I can remember, I was about 9 or 10 years old when it happened. I mean, the touching had been going on for years, day in, day out… but this particular instance was when I was around 10 years old. I didn’t know him, but a man came up to me in the park, stroked my hair, fondled my face and ran his hand down towards my bottom. He whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t quite make out and then continued to touch me. I was used to my guardians letting this happen. It didn’t seem to matter who was looking after me when we went out or people came to the house, they never spoke up for me and I just had to accept it. I never liked it, but I felt that I had to stay quiet.
This time though, I must have been having a bad day, other things must have gotten on top of me, and I lashed out. I told him I didn’t like to be touched like that and shouted for him to get away from me. My guardian stared at me as though he didn’t recognise me or I’d grown a second head, and the man who had approached us shouted at him that I should be taught my place.”
If this had been the experience of a child, we would be mortified, disgusted, even enraged that this was allowed to happen, yet it happens to our dogs every single day and they are just expected to be okay with being approached and touched by people they’ve never met. Probably because some do actually like it, and of the ones who don’t like it, those who don’t tolerate it are in the minority.
Dogs can’t politely ask people to leave them alone, because when they do, most people miss the subtle signals they give. They don’t speak our language, and yet, despite us claiming to be the more intelligent species, so many of us don’t take the time to learn theirs. The majority of people live with dogs with whom they can’t communicate effectively!
Dogs may show they’re uncomfortable with something by showing ‘whale eye’ (the whites of the eyes show more than usual), looking away from the thing/person they’re not comfortable with, lip licking, yawning or panting. Obviously if you’ve just fed them treats, your dog could just be licking his lips, or he could be panting because it’s a hot day, so you need to look at the overall picture. What are his ears saying, is his body posture relaxed and forward or is he lowered or putting his weight to the back as though ready to move away? I’ve added some useful pictures for you to take a look at, and if you want to download these, just drop me an email and I can send you the file.
When these signs are ignored, and a dog is still approached, he may growl or lunge to request space. Many people see growling as an aggressive behaviour, but it is communication and I am always grateful to a dog for giving me that warning rather than attempting to snap or bite first.
So how do you ensure your dog is happy to be fussed by a stranger? Ask him! If someone asks me if they can pet my dogs, I always first check my dogs, if they seem happy with the person’s presence, I ask them to ‘ask the dog’ by putting their hands out, palms out, whilst remaining about a meter away from my dogs. If any of my dogs approach, then they want the fuss, if they don’t, then no, you may not pet them.
It’s important to note that if my dogs don’t seem comfortable I will just thank the person for asking but tell them that right now is not good, and maybe another time. I also ask people not to call my dogs over to them or coax them, as this would put them under pressure to comply. The hands out and lack of approach gives them the option to say no.
It’s not my place to say that people can pet my dogs, that is my dogs’ choice, however, it is my place to protect my dogs from unsolicited attention and say no for them.
Finally, it’s vital that people learn to ask before petting dogs. If someone asks me if they can pet my dogs, I make a point of thanking them for asking. If people approach without asking, particularly children, I explain to them that they should always ask first. By spreading this message, we can hopefully make life less stressful for our dogs and safer for people – especially children who are usually the recipients of dog bites through lack of understanding.
Thank you to Emma Judson, from Canine Consultant for the use of the flowchart!