First off, we all need to agree that animals are sentient beings. That is we should "think of animals as conscious beings with whom we have relationships" as postulated by Kristin Andrews in her new book, "How to Study Animal Minds." I don't think anyone I know would argue that our dogs aren't aware of the relationships they have with us, and like us, manipulate those relationships to further personal goals. So, what does this have to do with the two dogs who didn't want to be petted by strangers?
As conscious beings, dogs should be allowed to consent to being approached and petted by people. This permission must be given whether the person petting is the owner, another family member, or a well-meaning stranger. Dogs most certainly can be petted when they ask for it, as many dogs do, but if they don't ask for and are avoiding the contact, humans must back off and refrain from pushing themselves onto the dog. While many a dog puts up with unwanted contact in the form of ear ruffling, hard head patting, fur being rubbed the wrong way, etc., many draw the line at hugs and kisses. Dogs are descended from wolves, and like all other canids, do not engage in touchy contact with anyone they don't know. In fact, a hug is much like an assertion of dominance from a dog's point of view; much as one dog puts its neck across the neck of another dog, a hug limits a dog's options for response. While many of our dogs may at first appear to be consenting to this kind of attention, they often are not. The dog turns its head away, leans away, licks its lips, or yawns. All signs the dog is anxious about the unwanted contact but has learned to self-soothe to get through the experience. So, rather than viewing my clients' dogs' behavior as abnormal, I tried to get them to view it as normal and informative. Their dogs did not give those strangers permission to pet them; they did not approach those people. Instead, strangers came right at them, uninvited. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I might have done the exact same thing as these dogs if someone I didn't know came right at me!
Rather than thinking we need to change how our dogs react to strangers, how about if we change how strangers treat our dogs? When people ask, "May I pet your dog?" say "Sure, if he wants to." Then wait and see if your dog approaches that person. No outstretched hand for the dog to sniff. Just stand there, or crouch down and see if the dog approaches you to sniff. If they sniff and stay, then you can offer a brief chest rub in greeting. If they sniff and move away, they've told you all you need to know. They don't consent to any further interaction. Even with our own dogs, consent is important. Call the dog to you for attention, or wait for them to come to you. Don't shove yourself onto them when they aren't interested. Trust me. They aren't playing hard to get. They aren't in the mood. And while some dogs learn to accept kissing and hugging as the price to be paid for living with humans, not all do. Respect that. Just because your previous dog "loved being hugged," doesn't mean your current one will. Teach these rules of respect and consent to your kids as well. If they call the dog over so they can pay attention to him, that's fine. If he doesn't come to them or walks away, they must respect that. They can try getting a toy or a treat to see if that changes the dog's mind, but permission must be given. And dogs must respect people's rights to give consent as well. Don't let your dogs run up to people, jumping up, licking hands or faces, sniffing crotches, etc. Some people don't like dogs, are afraid of dogs, or simply don't like dogs they don't know. Dogs need to be taught to respect that as well. A good relationship means both parties are interested in the interaction!
Because I've had clients ask me why I ignore their dogs when we meet, I now tell people before our appointments that they shouldn't be alarmed by my behavior and that it is for their dog's benefit. Interestingly enough, my ignoring their dogs results in calmer owner behavior. And, not surprisingly, less stressed out dogs. If a dog approaches me for attention, I am more than happy to pursue that relationship. If they don't approach, my feelings aren't hurt one bit. Frankly, anyone who says they are a "dog person" and that "dogs always love me" then proceeds to push their way into an unfamiliar dog's space is no dog person. I truly feel that people need to make themselves worthy of dogs.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Ozzie chose to jump up behind me on the couch as I sat on the floor writing this blog post. He chose this position, I never moved. I always feel grateful that he does stuff like this as he isn't a particularly touchy-feely dog. You know when you've been accepted by Ozzie as he'll lay near you, offer his butt for scratches, and occasionally lick your nose or sniff your eyelashes. The face of consent indeed.