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Friday, April 29, 2016

Ask to Pet

"May I pet your dog?"

It's so simple, courteous, and commonsense that you'd think everyone would be doing it, but most people compulsively approach and pet dogs without asking.

This isn't another post about reactive dogs. It's about a common human behaviour that's downright rude and potentially dangerous.

Aipa takes a break from demo dog duties.
Those of us who have trained and handled pet visitation therapy animals know that asking even the friendliest of dogs to be unconditionally affectionate with hoards of strangers for even an hour or two can be both rewarding and stressful. Both the dog and handler need breaks! Imagine a well-trained but non-therapy dog accompanying her owner to a full eight-hour work day and receiving that kind of attention from the public. It simply isn't reasonable to expect both dog and handler to serve double duty as a pet visitation team. Aipa's role while I'm instructing classes at Petco is to serve as a model for Canine Good Citizenship. While she is capable of immense self-control, it is incredibly taxing for any dog, let alone an aloof one with stringent behaviour standards. Almost daily, she is asked to heel for long periods or stay while I chat with the owner of a dog who is thrashing about wildly to get at her. Many times each day, she is expected to ignore people cooing, beckoning, and petting because I require loose-leash manners and composure from both a demo dog and an off-duty working dog. Think of a dog's tolerance level as being fluid. Training can help build a higher tolerance level while unwanted social interaction or simply too much social interaction erodes it. When a kid runs up to Aipa and lifts her tail, I expect no reaction from her, but I also expect it to erode her tolerance level, making it necessary for me to spend hours of my personal time arranging tolerance-building exercises with children all over again. When an adult approaches and pets her without asking, it erodes my tolerance level!

There are so many other reasons why a handler may or may not want his dog to be petted at a particular time: perhaps the dog or handler is ill or in pain; perhaps the dog is experiencing vision or hearing loss; perhaps the dog has been recently adopted; perhaps the handler has specific behaviour standards he wants to instill or maintain in his working or pet dog; perhaps the dog or handler simply doesn't want social interaction in the same way that you might not welcome a hug from every single stranger you encounter. Thankfully, there's a super simple rule that will never fail you: ask to pet, and don't probe indignantly if the handler smiles, "no, thank you for asking".

Lucy's owner insists upon non-consensual greetings
The concept of asking for permission extends to dog greetings as well. When we visit Falls Lake, we regularly encounter a loose dog whose owner responds to requests for space with "she's friendly". During our first encounter with Lucy, Aipa was on a short lead, and I did not feel comfortable being charged by an unknown dog with an unknown vaccination and behaviour status. Moreover, it was a negative experience for Aipa either way because had I allowed her to play, she might have hit the end of her leash in gleeful zoomies after a play bow, so I instead made her exercise great self-control by heeling beside me with a strange dog's nose glued to her rear until we got off of the main road and onto a trailhead where I could let her off leash to frolic through the woods and into the water. Lucy may be friendly to most people and dogs, but she has disrupted search and rescue training exercises, caused drivers to slam on their brakes, and frightened many a pet owner with her rapid approach and cheerful rumble. I hate to think what might happen if a vision-impaired hiker crosses that section of the MST with his guide dog!

Please just ask to pet, to interact, or to let your own dogs interact with someone else's. Many - not all - dogs have plenty of love to go around, but that doesn't make you entitled to it. No one should need Do Not Pet patches, yellow ribbons, or Give Me Space shirts. No one should need to back up and beg for a stranger to stop running toward him and grabbing his dog. There is a way to solve this, and it isn't about the dogs or their owners: please just ask to pet!

About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.