The Problem With, “May I Pet Your Dog?”

Let's ask the dog - not the handler - and learn when his body language truly is answering "Yes!"

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It used to be that if folks wanted to pet your dog, they just reached out and did it. Happily, in today’s more well-informed world, there’s usually a quick, “May I pet your dog?” first.  All too often, though, the moment that permission is granted, the stranger is moving in close and looming over the dog, swiftly thrusting a hand an inch from the dog’s nose. The dog – perhaps pushed forward a bit by the owner who sees how eagerly the other human wants this – might find an enthusiastic, two-handed ear jostle is next. 

For some dogs – the stereo-typical Golden Retriever, perhaps? – this is the moment they’ve been waiting for! That extra human attention may even be the highlight of their walk. If your family has only included extroverted canine ambassadors like this, the idea that a dog would not welcome an outstretched hand is incomprehensible. 

Yet, comprehend we must. Because, believe it or not, few dogs automatically love being trapped on a leash and touched by new people. As hard as it is for us to accept, that quiet dog being petted may well be hating every moment that the human is enjoying so much. While that’s important to understand when you’re the stranger in the scenario, it’s absolutely critical when you’re the one holding the leash.

DON’T ASSUME THAT DOGS WANT TO BE PETTED

man petting dog
Look for consent before the two-handed ear jostle! Photo Credits: Antoniodiaz / Dreamstime.com

Indeed, plenty of wonderful dogs are not eager to say hello to strangers. They may feel anything from uninterested, to wary, to terrified. In some cases, they have been specially bred – by humans – to feel what they’re feeling. 

Unfortunately, because we humans value petting dogs so much, we often ignore that pesky truth. We tend to believe that all good dogs should happily accept petting from anybody at any time. But dogs have plenty of reasons for choosing to say no:

  • Perhaps they’ve been bred to guard, so this forced interaction with strangers is deeply conflicting.
  • Perhaps they’re simply more introverted and don’t enjoy this kind of socialization.
  • Perhaps something in their background has made them less trusting of people.
  • Perhaps normally they’d be all in, but today their ear hurts, or they are very distracted by the big German Shepherd staring at them from across the street.

There are many reasons, all legitimate, that may make a dog prefer to skip this unnecessary interaction. 

DON’T GIVE CONSENT ON BEHALF OF YOUR DOG

Becoming conscious of just how deeply some dogs do not want to be randomly touched is the first step toward realizing that we really should be asking dogs, not their handlers, whether or not we can pet them. Ultimately, it’s the dog’s consent we need in order to safely pet them, not the human’s. 

Maybe the idea of giving our dogs the right to consent feels strange to you. For my part, it feels downright creepy to not give my dog the right to consent or decline to being touched by a stranger. It feels wrong that I have the power to decree, “Sure, absolutely, you go right ahead and put your hands all over this dog’s body. She’s so pretty, isn’t she? We all love to touch her.” Ew!  

Of course, dogs can’t verbally answer the “May I pet you?” question (when given the opportunity to do so), but they sure do answer with their body language. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the skills to read what can be very subtle signals, and as a result, many dogs are routinely subjected to handling that makes them uncomfortable. Worse, this often happens while they’re restrained by a leash with their owner allowing it. 

That experience can make dogs even less enamored of strangers, and – the saddest part – less trusting of their owners, who did not step up to help them through that moment. 

TIPS FOR MAKING FRIENDS WITH A DOG

I give my dogs agency when it comes to who touches them and when. If somebody asks, “May I pet your dog?” I smile at their interest and tell them I’d love for them to ask the dog. Then I show them how: 

  • Keep a little distance at first.
  • Turn a bit to the side, so you don’t appear confrontational.
  • Use your warm, friendly voice to continually reassure. 
  • Crouch down, so that you’re not looming in a scary way.
  • Keep your glances soft and light instead of giving a steady stare.
  • Offer your hand to sniff. But instead of the fist shoved unavoidably in the dog’s face (which is what society has been taught is the polite thing to do), simply move that hand ever so slightly toward the dog so she has a choice of whether to get closer to investigate. Look elsewhere as she does so, so she can have a little privacy as she sniffs.

Often, this approach gets us to a waggy “yes” from even a shy dog in 30 seconds! 

HOW TO TELL IF YOUR DOG IS GIVING CONSENT

If the dog pulls toward the stranger with a loose, relaxed, or wiggly body, the dog is saying yes. Great! The next step is to begin petting the dog in the spot she’s offering – likely her chest or rump. (A top-of-the-head pat is on many dogs’ list of “Top 10 Things I Hate About Humans.”)

If my dog does not give a quick or easy “yes,” I may try backing us up a bit and making conversation, because many dogs warm up after having a few minutes at a safe distance to size up a new human. I might feed my dog a few treats while talking to the stranger, or give him some treats to toss near my dog. If she then relaxes and leans into the experience, great! 

If not, we just call it a day and move along. That is also – and this is critically important – great! No harm, no foul. No need to apologize if our dogs say, “No thanks.” We can simply and cheerily head on our way. 

19 COMMENTS

  1. My lovely American Bully, aka pitbull, was thrilled with anyone coming to greet him and had exceedingly high tolerance even for small children who wanted to poke and pull. He did love to give them a slobbery kiss though – I always warned the parents of this first. This is what made him an outstanding therapy dog. Sadly, I’ve seen even other therapy dogs who didn’t always display a welcoming attitude to every encounter. Perhaps they were just tired and their handler didn’t pay attention. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a number of therapy dogs who were forced in to the role due to the owner’s desire rather than their own. Just had to give my contribution to the discussion by saying that pitbull-type dogs are also vastly prone to adore humans, of course once given the opportunity by those who will look past the unfortunate stigma.

    • Yes! I too had an American (Pit) Bull Terrier and he was the goofiest, most silly clown of a dog who LOVED all people including children (RIP sweet boy). Today I have a rescue from the Humane Society who is half American Bulldog mixed with Rotty and Boxer. She is polar opposite. Totally on guard with strangers, does not care to say hello to most people on walks unless they are really dog savvy and know the proper way to greet a dog. Like us, dogs have their personalities, I assume based on a mix of their breeds and life experiences. I wish more people understood not every dog enjoys being touched or petted by a stranger and that it’s okay for the dog to feel this way.

      • Thank you for calling your dog an American Bull Terrier. I correct people whenever someone calls my dog a “Pit Bull” The negativity with “pit” does great injustice to a loving, funny. breed!

  2. What an EXCELLENT article! Thanks so much. Such an easy approach. My 11 yr old has started saying “please stop touching me” to well meaning people that ‘massage’ him too hard. He is older now & just like me has achy days sometimes worse than others. With COVID I continue to just step off the sidewalk.

  3. What an EXCELLENT article! Thanks so much. Such an easy approach. My 11 yr old has started saying “please stop touching me” to well meaning people that ‘massage’ him too hard. He is older now & just like me has achy days sometimes worse than others. With COVID I continue to just step off the sidewalk.

  4. I made the mistake of missing the signs of my dog one time. He had always been ok to sit and be petted. One time he sat and the person waited and then when the person went to pet him, my dog attacked. The teenager needed stitches. I apologized up and down and paid for his medical expenses. I also had to quarantine my dog at home for 10 days and I never ever let anyone pet my dogs again. I missed the signs and now I just tell people that my dogs are not good with any strangers. That dog is long since passed but I will never make the mistake again and risk someone (and my dog too because it could have gone the other way and they told me to put my dog down instead).

  5. Great article. I have polar opposites with my 2 dogs. One is extremely nervous of people being an ex-street dog from Romania. She wears yellow coats stating she is nervous and most people are really good about giving her space. I have had some horrible encounters with people who think they have the right to touch any dog.
    My other dog is extremely people-friendly and craves human touch/interaction with anyone! He was a therapy dog and is a very easy to dog to read with the signals he gives when wanting to meet people.

  6. Common sense and manners go a long way. I raised a Guide dog puppy and my neighbor insisted on trying to pet him after I explained he was an extremely excited puppy. She proceeded to reach out to pet him and wound up with a bloody hand after he mouthed her in his excitement.

  7. We have enjoyed training and showing dogs for forty years. I worked as a vet tech & obedience instructor for many years. One of our dogs is a large male GSD. One day we were walking in a business area of a cute little town. A young girl (~9 years or so) politely asked if she may pet our dog. Our dog is well trained and accepting of people. I put our dog on a sit stay. The girl pet our dog. However… before I realized what she was doing the girl hugged our dog!!! Her face right up to his face!! I quickly (trying to remain calm) pulled out a treat, gave the “watch me” as I see the “whale eye” from our dog. It was a quick hug and our dog held it together even though he was uncomfortable. I mentioned to the girl and her mom that hugging should not be done to a strange dog – I may shake a stranger’s hand in greeting but I would never hug a stranger. It was this incident that forever changed my view on allowing people to pet my dogs. From now on it’s a No!

    • I had that happen with my first dog who was a 130 lb, rescued, working-line GSD. A small girl came running up to him in the pet store aisle yelling “Mommy! look at the wolf” at the top of her lungs and threw her arms around his neck as she ran into him for a hug before I could stop her. Thankfully Joker was one of those rare dogs who was ok with anything a child did, but wow was that a moment. I did explain to the mom way it would be smart teach the daughter not to do that.

  8. Very good article. Thank you.
    To all of you who doubt the wisdom of this article.
    Think…would you allow a stranger to grope your small child? Or get “friendly” with your wife or girlfriend? Why put your dog into this position?

    • For some reason a lot of people think “it’s just a domesticated animal it should let humans do anything to it they want”. They don’t realize dogs are feeling, living beings who just like people have a “personal bubble” and only let people in they trust, or strangers in depending on their mood and if they feel comfortable with the person.
      I’m a dog groomer and I had a friend get her dogs nails clipped by me and usually the dog is pretty good for it but this time she wasn’t having it. She was super embarrassed but I told her she didn’t need to be because I know dogs have days they don’t want to be touched or have things done when normally they would. Weeks later her dog passed from old age. I’m guessing when she got her nails done that day she just wasn’t feeling good because her life was coming to an end soon.
      I just wish more realized dogs have feelings and moods.

  9. Since two of my three dogs are not very friendly, most of the time I walk them in the early mornings before people are up and about. But on the VERY short break between winter and spring (I live in Houston, Texas so it’s more like fall and summer year round, TBH) I take advantage of the nice weather walk them in the early evening. That extra hour and a half of sleep is worth carefully planning out a walking route that avoids most people, especially kids. (One of my dogs is a husky, and they’re like MAGNETS for attention, too, so it gets tricky. But as this usually results in walks in wooded areas vs residential, the dogs like it just fine.) However, encounters still occur.
    When they do, I’m happy to say most of the time the people ask. And when they do, I’ll say “let my dog decide. Hold out your hand, please.” Most of the time my husky will sniff the hand and approach, but sometimes he doesn’t. My GSD, however, stays firmly behind me. He doesn’t like strangers, and he avoids kids like the plague. I tell people straight off that he’s not friendly.
    My daughter was with me one afternoon and as kids approached, asking if they could pet my dogs, I told my daughter to take Angus (my GSD) and keep going. The kids approached, introductions were made and since Fergus (my husky) loves kids, all were happy. One little boy asked about the “big black dog”. I told him that Angus was a rescue from people who let their kids be mean to him, so Angus didn’t like kids very much. The little boy asked me why he had to ask my dog if it was okay to pet him, and not me. I asked, “well, if I just walked up to you, petted your head, scratched you behind your ears, and rubbed your cheek, chin and neck, would you like it?” He laughed and said “No!” I sat there and smiled at him… you could see the *CLICK* and he said… “oooooh, I get it.”

  10. This was a wonderful article. I’m a guide dog handler and working with dog number six. My policy is no one pets my dog, in or out of harness unlesss and until I know them and I see that they can demonstrate being calm. If someone asks, the answer is always “no”, and I move on. I’m not interested in giving any explanation nor do I feel I need to apologize–like: “Oh I’m sorry, he’s working right now.”

    I’m NOT sorry at all, and I refuse to say things as social grease and that I don’t mean. No, it’s not because my dog is working, it’s because we don’t know you and your energy. Plus most likely you’re the fiftieth person who has asked me that day and I just want to be left alone to do my business like everyone else.

    When I do allow an in public introduction, I give the person specific instructions–turn slightly sideways, do not make eye contact, keep your hands low, etc. I then remove my dog’s harness and spend about five seconds giving him pets and praise—essentially saying: “Thank you. You’ve done a great job.” Removal of the harness tells him he’s off duty.

    I then gesture toward the person while asking my dog: “Go visit?”
    Translation: “This person wants to say hi; are you interested?”

    If after an initial sniff and he’s not interested, he turns away toward me. “No thanks.”

    Regardless, I’m closely monitoring the interaction the entire time. I don’t need sight to know when my dog’s body is stiff or relaxed, the position of his tail and how fast or slow it wags. I keep a hand lightly near his head to monitor movements and I’m quick to step in or end the interaction if the human violates boundaries. Same process and rules applied with my retired and pet dogs.

    This is just what works for me. If others have a problem with it and get offended, that’s not my business. Find another German Shepherd to pet–there’s lots of them around.

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