Last week, I was walking my two dogs when a little girl, about 4 years old, approached me, and asked if she could pet my dogs. I asked her where her parents were, and she pointed behind her house, where I could hear a lawnmower running. I told her if her parents said it was okay, she could say hello to “the brown dog” (my American Staffordshire Terrier, Lill) but the “gray dog” (my Australian Cattle Dog, Billie) was shy. She ran away and came back a moment later with her dad, who was elated his daughter had asked before petting the dogs. I was even happier.
Although Billie has never bitten a child, she often is anxious in new situations, and I feel that it is my responsibility to make sure she is not in a position to put anyone, or herself, in an uncomfortable situation. I told her dad it was truly commendable he had taught his daughter to ask before petting a dog and he beamed with pride. Then, without asking, he petted Billie. I gently told him she was a nervous dog, and he realized, while he had taught his daughter to ask before petting, that he didn’t think of it himself. She didn’t bite, or growl, or even look uncomfortable, and if she had, I would not have stopped in the first place, but it reminded me that her actions are always my responsibility, no matter how old the person is who pets her without asking first.
I thought back to when I used to bring Lill with me to work, and she wore a vest that said, “I’m friendly, please ask to pet me,” but more often than not, people would say to me, “If she is friendly, why should I ask before petting her?”
Well, because she’s a dog. And she’s a dog who you don’t know.
There are many reasons you would want to ask before petting or approaching a dog: They could be in training, or with a dog walker who doesn’t know how to control them. Or they might be afraid of someone of your gender, or of people wearing hats, and even when they are being walked with a canine companion, they may still have behavioral issues with other dogs. Or perhaps that wagging tail comes with hip dysplasia and as friendly as he looks, it’s painful when you give him a good scratch on the rump.
There are some great options out there for dog owners who want to help the public understand that their dog needs a little space. The Yellow Dog Project suggests tying a yellow ribbon to your dog’s leash to “identify that you have a dog in training for their space troubles and you are taking responsibility for your pet’s actions.” The Friendly Dog Company makes a variety of leashes and harnesses with different messages, including, “friendly,” “ blind,” and “nervous.”
And while owners can label their dogs in a dozen different ways, those labels are never a good substitute for just asking before petting or approaching. Dogs are animals first, and pets second. While we can do our very best to train and manage our dogs, we need to recognize every animal has something that makes them uncomfortable.
There are many things we try to teach our children, and we are getting better about teaching them to ask before greeting unfamiliar dogs. But sometimes, as adults, we need to be reminded of these things, too. There’s nothing wrong with asking people to give your dog space, and there is everything right about asking before petting, no matter how old you are.