person approaches to pet a dog but shouldn't because the dog is nervous

Why You Should Always Ask Before Petting Someone’s Dog


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If Shakespeare was alive today he’d probably be an avid internet user (and therefore lover of dog memes). No doubt he’d have written something along the lines of “to pet a dog or not to, that is the question?” And that’s a valuable question to be asking.

Because seriously, you should ALWAYS ask before you pet someone else’s dog. Even if you know the person. Even if the dog appears friendly.

We know dogs are social beings just as much if not more than us humans. But just like you or I, dogs don’t always want someone they don’t know being overly affectionate.

6 reasons to ask before you pet a dog

Dogs can’t say when they’re feeling shy or nervous or introspective. When a person (hopefully not you or I) comes up and pats them without checking in first it can be an invasion of space but they can’t verbalise that.

A dog’s way of letting you know how they feel is to show it. This may come in the form of a growl, nip or even bite. Putting a dog in that position isn’t fair on them or you. So here’s a quick motivational list of why you should ask first, and pet later:

1. Anxiety in pets is a real thing

adopted dogs might not feel safe if you pet them without permission from the owner

You may already know about separation anxiety in pets. Being out in public can cause anxiety too. Consider how sensory dogs are. They have exceptional hearing, smell and sight. When they’re out and about they’re virtually experiencing the world the way Spider Man would.

Consider how intense it would be if while you’re feeling the smells, sights and sounds someone suddenly puts their hand on your head. It would totally startle you. And it can just as easily startle dogs. That’s why no matter how nice you are, to touch a dog without asking their owner is a big no-no.

Telling their owner makes the dog aware of you. They have time to lock into how their owner feels and they won’t necessarily be alarmed when you pat them. Simple and safe for them and you.

2. An affectionate dog isn’t always a social butterfly

dog only wants to be petted by it's owner

While dogs are highly social animals, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be social with strangers. Even the dog’s relative the wolf sticks with close pack members that continuously reaffirm the pack’s bond. So yes, they’re social with one another, but that doesn’t mean they’re also social with other wolves or animals.

Likewise, just because a dog is affectionate with their owner won’t mean it will feel the same with another human. And on top of this, dogs aren’t always affectionate. This may be breed specific but is also down to the individual animal.

You’ve got friends that like to hug and others that prefer a simple ‘hi.’ It’s kind of like that.

The Rottweiler for example is fiercely loving and loyal to family members, but they don’t always let family pet them (let alone strangers). They often prefer just to be nearby. This is simply another reason not to pet a dog without getting the owner’s consent.

3. You might meet the wrong end of the dog’s guarding instinct

don't pet a dog breed with a strong guarding instinct unless you have permission from the owner

Just like the Rottweiler, dogs like the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd have very high guarding and watchdog drives. So if you happen to come near to pet them they may go into auto-drive to protect their person.

Picture a high security venue like the White House. It simply doesn’t make sense to breach its parameters without expressed permission. Not only is it impolite, it’s also dangerous. Approaching dogs with high guarding instincts is similar.. kind of.. you get the picture.

In fact with these breeds it may be safer to WhatsApp or call their owner to ask permission before you pet their dog. Jokes aside, simply ask from a respectful distance before charging in.

Remember these dogs are simply being protective of their human parents. It’s not you, it’s them. Unless you break their parameters that is – in which case it is you and not them. 😊

4. Dogs can be aggressive (even if they don’t want to)

Many dogs both big and small can have a tendency to be aggressive when they’re scared. These may stem from previous trauma such as abuse like dog chaining, abandonment or neglect. If they’re an adopted dog, it can take time for them to unlearn the pain they’ve suffered.

During this time they’re tender – but they’re also dogs and will react as such. So once again, if you walk up and pet a dog you might be met with a dangerous teeth baring situation. And the old saying about a ‘dog’s bark being bigger than its bite’ simply isn’t worth testing.

This is another reason we partnered with the Department of Conservation on the Lead the Way Auckland programme. This project is all about getting your dog a colour-coded lead to let passers-by know how the dog feels about being approached. And about protecting Kiwi coastlines at the same time!

5. Working dogs are doing an essential job; don’t distract them

never pet an assistance dog because they are working

One reason dogs make such good companions is because they love helping humans. A great example of this is assistance dogs that are trained to aid people with physical disabilities, among others. Assistance dogs can learn to press remote controls, open doors and so much more.

Although these dogs are also trained not to be distracted when they’re helping their human it can be hard when people walk right up to pat them. Consider this: a working dog is doing a unique job that takes it into public spaces like shops, restaurants and hospitals.

It’s essential they do their job well to keep their human safe, which is why you should not under any circumstances pat these dogs. Read why can’t I pat an assistance dog to find out more.

6. A dog may be in training

Lots of dogs that are out in public are busy being trained. It could be routine training with their owner to get them used to being in public and walking on a lead. It may also be part of rehabilitation with a dog behaviourist.

Whether they’re doing obedience training or something more complex (like training to be a working dog), going to pat them could be a major distraction.

What’s the right way to pet someone else’s dog?

petting someone's dog

A longstanding hand-me-down story is that the best way to pet a dog is to stretch out your hand, as it gives them a chance to know you first. However, this method could just as easily backfire.

An outstretched hand may mean something different to the dog than to you. Who’s to say they got the same memo. Or that they’d agree if they had. To them, an outstretched hand may just as easily be interpreted as a threat. It could lead to growling, barking or biting.

Hopefully it never gets to that point in the first place. So now that we’ve dispelled some myth, here’s how to pet a dog the right way.

How to pet someone else’s dog safely
1.Ask the owner For all the reasons you’ve read about above, always ask the dog owner’s permission to pet their dog.
2.Take the right postureWhen you ask, stand straight and keep your arms and hands at your side.
3.Let the dog decide As you’re asking the owner the dog can decide to show interest if they want to. They might do this by tail-wagging, hand-bunting or sniffing at you.
4.Avoid eye-contact Make eye contact with its human, not the dog. In the world of dog speak, eye contact can indicate a threat or even a challenge. For more canine lingo, learn how to speak dog.
5. Read dog body languageIf the dog is scared it may react physically and aggressively. Learn to read the signs – something that’s also helpful for your dog if you’re a pup parent. Read is my dog scared for tips on how.
6.Wait for the OKIf the pet parent thinks it’s all good they’ll give you the go-ahead. Don’t reach over the dog’s head. Approach your hand from the below and scratch under their chin or from the side and gently pat the dog on their back.
7.Keep it short and sweetKeep the interaction short. If the dog wants to interact more it will tell you so (refer to point 3).

Note: It’s the dog owner’s prerogative to say no. Even if their fluff ball is so cute you almost can’t resist, do. Respecting a dog’s space and its owner’s wishes is a cornerstone of the mutual bond we humans share with canines.

puppy is scared of a stranger touching it

Dogs take their cue from their owners

Remember, dogs are faithful and loyal creatures. They’re constantly watching and reading their pet parent’s stance and emotional state. This is why it’s important to follow this routine and start by asking the pet owner’s permission.

Once you have the go-ahead the dog will undoubtedly already have sensed or smelled or felt their owner’s consent. And if you want to pet a dog then it’s only fair to show it this level of respect before carefully doing so.

If you have kids and are hoping to add a furry family member read about kids and dogs to set the ground rules. Also read about how to choose the best family pet to suit your household.

Get your foursome pawsome a pet plan

As a dog owner or pet parent-to-be, you won’t need your furry best friend’s permission to get them a pet insurance plan. However, even though they can’t sign the dotted line they’d surely respond positively if they knew what it meant.

Dogs are friends for life. They love and trust us and they know when we’re worried or anxious. By getting a pet care plan early on in your pet’s life you’ll be ensuring you can afford to get them medical care when they need it. This gives you peace of mind and if you’re calmer so is your pooch.

Each of our three dog insurance plans offers you a broad range of exceptional cover. From non-routine vet visits and treatment for accidents through to dental and much, much more. Click below to get a quote today.

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