Dogs Are People Too
By Jimmy Maxwell
I used to train service dogs and one of my favorite things about that work was taking the dogs to public places where normal pets can’t go. Being able to spend the day training a service dog to exist in our world, though challenging, was very rewarding. Outside of getting the dog to exist and cooperate towards other humans, it was equally challenging getting other humans to interact appropriately with the dogs.
What we often forget is that dogs are people too. Well not really, but they share the same type of social anxieties, get nervous around strangers, and have personal space. Here are a few rules of etiquette that every person should follow when they see dogs in public.
1. Always ask before interacting with the dog.
It is essential for the mental and physical well-being that you ask permission before interacting with any dog. This includes making eye contact, calling him, petting him, or speaking to him. The best way to know whether an interaction will be successful is to ask the owner. If they decline, please respect the answer and assume nothing about the dog. They may be training the dog and don’t want to be distracted. Their dog may have a social anxiety with strangers, or the owner themselves may have a problem with strangers. Just say “okay” and move on. If they do give you permission…
2. Ask for guidance about how to interact with the dog.
Did you know that dogs generally don’t like people hovering over their heads? This includes petting the top of their head or looming over them. If you get permission to pet a dog, ask the owner how you should approach and where you should pet the dog. Just like people, dogs don’t like for strangers to suddenly invade their personal space no matter how friendly you are. Keep your body relaxed and calm while giving the dog an opportunity to approach you. Once the dog chooses to interact with you, make sure to pet the dog where the owner suggests. If they don’t provide you any guidance consider that dogs do better when you scratch or rub their chests, or stroke their back from the neck to the tail as long as you aren’t bending over them or reaching over their head. As long as the dog’s body is loose and welcoming of the contact, you can continue with the interaction. However…
3. If the dog shies away or looks nervous, don’t keep trying.
We don’t speak dog, but they will tell us how they feel with their body language. Even if the owner says the dog is friendly and loves people, there could be several reasons why your presence would make them nervous. If this happens, don’t take it personally. No matter how much you think you are a “dog person” do not use these moments to try and show off how much you can get dogs to like you. If the dog does not approach you, looks away, starts panting heavily, tucks their tail, hides behind their owner, shakes, growls, or bares their teeth, then respect the dogs wishes and move on. Thank the owner for letting you try and walk away. These cues from the dog are appropriate ways for him to communicate that he is not comfortable with you. This body language is the dog’s way of saying saying, “Please back away, you are frightening me.” If the dog gives you these signals…
4. Don’t think that presenting your hand for them to sniff will help.
Because it won’t. There is this myth that you should let a dog smell you so he can get comfortable with you. Dog’s noses can be up to 6,000,000 times better than our own. They can literally map their environment the same way we do with our eyes. They can smell you already. You are not making them more comfortable by presenting your hand to them. What it looks like to them is the scary thing coming even closer. If you were afraid of spiders, do you think one coming towards your face makes them any less scary? If a dog is already nervous, and has no escape, you presenting your hand towards them gives them an easier target to bite in order to say “go away!”. If he feels that you are threatening his safety, and you present your hand, you are just making it easier for him to bite you. This is the last thing we want to happen, not to you even though it’s bad, but for the dog. Because…
Its a safety issue. It is far too easy for dog’s who communicate their anxiety appropriately to get pegged as aggressive, or vicious because we weren’t able to read the warning signs. If a dog’s last resort is to bite you to feel safe, he will do it. It’s not his fault that you wouldn’t listen, or didn’t know how to understand his communication. In these situations, if a dog ends up biting, it’s often the human’s fault. In our suit happy culture, it’s too easy for someone to press charges, call the police, or seek damages for something the dog did appropriately. This could lead to a dog being surrendered, unadoptable, and worse, euthanized.
Therefore, when in doubt, the best rule of thumb to follow, is to treat dogs like humans. If you wouldn’t treat a human the same way, then don’t do that to the dog. Everyone is just better off when they realize that dogs are people too.