When is it safe to pet a dog ?
Well that is a very loaded question ? Your parents probably gave you lessons about never approaching a strange dog, asking its handler for permission before petting, let sleeping dogs lie etc.
One of the most well intentioned but poorly taught lessons for kids is “let them sniff you first”. Excellent advice if accompanied by a physical demonstration of standing still and outlining that the dog comes to you to sniff.
We have a caregiver at the Dog Hotel who had that lesson drilled into her whilst growing up…in part. Let me first preface this story by saying she is now an experienced, accomplished and intuitive care giver and in fact a qualified Veterinary Technician. She had to learn the hard way that there is a technique to letting them “sniff you”. And the hard way was getting bitten, and as we all know, the key to truly learning something is repetition. Yes, she was bitten more than once in relatively similiar circumstances. Fearful dog, retreating and very clearly trying to say I am scared and I need my space. Her instincts, well honed from a childhood filled with reminders, was to slowly offer her hand as a non threatening peice of her – for the proverbial sniff.
Unfortunately the dog is seeing an aggressive, and extremely rude gesture. He clearly said I’m sacred and now this person is thrusting themselves toward him. Backed into a corner, or on a leash, there is no other recourse but to bite.
Had she been a dog, she would have offered her side for inspection and the sniff. Adopting the neutral and vulnerable side stance would have signaled to the dog that she desperately wanted him to trust her. Approaching face on is aggressive, offering the hand is merely choosing which bit you would like to be bitten. The alternative of turning your back and offering your backside is offensive in a disdainful way, almost saying you aren’t a threat to me. Remember if a dog is scared it is because he feels intimidated, do they have a fight or flight responce. The scared flight dog may see the back and think “great, now I can escape”, but if there is no escape, they could see that as the only time they may have an advantage. The only time to send a message (that they truly don’t believe, but really hope you’ll fall for) that they are tough and you don’t want to take them on.
There are many situations where it can be difficult to read the dogs messages, usually because they are trying to hide them because of that very situation. Here are a few rules of thumb:
- Confined dog, ie you are at the vets and your dog needs to be restrained for examination. If your Vet requests your assistance by all means do so, but ask them first exactly what they would like you to do. Distract or hold. You may know your dog best in regular circumstances, but if your clinic has more than one staff member available – let them do the restraining. Also remember when a dog is okay with hugs, they are tolerating it for the sake of their people – a hug equals confinement.
- In arms – usually the small dog. We all think chihuahua’s. It’s not particular to them, it’s just that we are almost always introduced to them from their parents arms. Mom or dad should give you an indication if it’s safe to pet, but always try to go in under the chin or even better, stand beside and let mom/dad create an opportunity for the little one to sniff a part of you. Remember the first time a dog bites someone, the most surprised person will be the pet parent. Okay second. At the Dog Hotel we will ask if we can hold them and have them passed to us rear first. This is an experienced move and we wouldn’t advise you to try that one.
- On leash – similiar to being in arms, dogs on leash have a very different reaction to situations than when they are loose and in control of their own destiny. A leash is a barrier to their normal response. Leash Behaviour is an entire chapter if not book on its own. The basic rule of thumb is a dog can be fearful and indeed have that magnified whilst on leash because their normal flight response is not available. Add to that, their fear can be double because they are concerned for their pack leader. Their person is at the end of that lead and if they are fearful for themselves, they assume you’ll try the same thing with their people. The bravado and need to act first is heightened.
- Sleeping dogs – there is a whole lot of truth to the old saying, “let sleeping dogs lie”. You wake a child from a particularly deep sleep and the confusion will cause them to scream and lash out. Exactly the same for the dog, except they will use their mouth instead of hitting with a paw.
- While eating. Pure and simple, you are re trying to steel their food. That hand going in for the loving pat could just as easily be going to take their food away. I have heard many a pet parent insist that their dog is fine around their food. They regularly take it away from them mid meal as a training lesson, just to prove “who’s boss”. I’m not saying anything against that technique, just don’t rely on the results from those specific situations to dictate your handling of new situations. Many a time we will have a guest here at the Dog Hotel (dog boarding), who is described that way. We do definately need to hear about those that are known to be food aggressive, that’s why we ask the question, but we still assume that everybody could be when boarding at the hotel. Many factors can cause a momentary misinterpretation on the dogs part. New people, scent of another dog, however distant, on the wind, a sudden noise etc. Try to avoid feeding or feed in isolation when guests with children come to visit.