Dogs are not public property.

*this article was spawned by a majority view of people who take their dogs into public situations and complied over a number of years. It is not a “general statement” that only applies to rare exceptions, it is the thoughts and feelings of the majority of dog owners, so take that for what it’s worth.

As a nation of dog lovers we have been encouraged to “ask before petting” someone else’s dog when out in public. We teach our young ones to ask nicely and then offer the back of their hand for the dog to sniff before petting it, we typically do the same ourselves. We smile and approach while asking, often telling the dog owner how cute their dog is or how we used to have one just like it, or how our parents had “these dogs” when we were growing up.

Here’s an insiders tip on approaching and asking to pet other people’s dogs.

Most people don’t want you to.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Most people would prefer if you never asked and never petted their dogs when they are out in public situations.
Most are to polite or worried about confrontation to say no, and many of my clients ask me for suggestions on how to handle this; whether they should just respond with a simple “no” and keep moving or if they should explain why or if they should just suck it up and let these interfering do gooders (always full of helpful suggestions on how to train the dog!) but in reality, they’d prefer it if you’d just pass on by with a smile or brief comment and continue on your way and leave them to theirs.
Most people have their dogs with them for a purpose, whatever that may be, and it’s rarely if ever to give you something to pet (except in the case of a therapy dog who is there for just that purpose).

As a society we’ve become both intrusive and worried about offending others at the same time and that creates quite the conundrum for many; we don’t want people all up in our space, yet have been conditioned to believe it’s rude to tell someone to ‘step back’; but in the case of dogs the vast majority of people you come across would really prefer it if people didn’t approach and want to touch their dog and that’s a fact.

Dog’s are not public property; they are companions, family members and frankly, for most, they want nothing to do with random strangers coming up (some dashing up) and insisting on petting them. I say “insisting” because as a trainer I see a LOT of passive insisting! In a weeks time, without exaggeration, it’s not problem to recall the far to many people, often dozens and especially children, who after asking if they can pet your dog and are told “no” will then go on to ask “why?” Faced with this question many people don’t know how to respond, especially if the parent is reinforcing the behavior of the child by telling them some story about how “they did everything right but some dogs just aren’t friendly” (This seems to be the default comments I hear from most parents when explaining the “mean dog owners” refusal to allow little Jane or Johnny to maul their companion). In ALL cases with the companion dogs I work with, nothing is further from the truth, since I don’t take aggressive dogs and put them into such situations, they are not going to be at the local mall, hardware store or pet shop. The dogs I work with in public are FRIENDLY dogs. But that doesn’t mean they are a carnival ride or part of a walking petting zoo. They are someone else’s family member, just as your child is. If you do ask and are told ‘no’ there should be no further comments nor discussion on the matter, since in fact you aren’t owed an explaination as to why you can’t enter someone’s personal space and handle their family member.
Try, for a moment, to imagine every time you are out in public with your child you have stranger’s approaching you wanting to touch them, pat their head, touch their beautiful hair, or in other ways impost themselves on you and your child. How comfortable would you be with that? Would you welcome such behavior?
While I don’t like to compare animals with humans, even dogs, the feelings of family and ownership are the same in our society as those we feel towards our own children, and someone – anyone, approaching in such a manner is going to be considered weird at the least and a possible threat at the worst when talking about children; it should be no different when considering someone else’s dog. It’s not your dog, it’s not your family member, you’ve no place to impose yourself on them.

So if it helps those new to this concept of “it’s not your dog” not be defensive or offended by these facts, just imagine that dog is someone’s child and then ask yourself if you’d be so bold as to approach them and ask to touch them or encourage your children to do so, given that we’re all strangers in this situation.
Many people, not knowing how else to approach the situation, will say “yes” and ask you to wait until they have the dog seated and let you know he is to stay seated while being petted – where young, exuberant or not fully trained dogs are involved this usually results in the dog getting up tail all a wagging and the stranger telling the dog “no, sit” in a happy lilting voice while the owner struggles with pulling the dog off of the person it has just jumped on further confusing the dog and derailing it’s training.

Some people have dogs of their own or have read enough on the internet to stop petting the dog if it gets up, say nothing and allow the owner to tend to it – but even those well meaning folks are causing stress to the owner (which transfers to the dog) and not in the least bit “helping” with the dogs training, unless it’s to become a therapy dog and you’ve been asked to interact with it.

If you are given permission to pet a dog, there are right and wrong ways to go about this and in the case of a puppy or young dog, too much “wrong” will lead to a dog that is in fact anti-social and in the case of a mature dog may lead them to react in dog language to tell you themselves you are being rude; leaning over a dog is never a good approach, in canine language this is a display of dominance or bulling as is petting them on top of the head. By the same token, getting down to their level can lead to unacceptable behaviors because you’re body language is inviting contact and dogs, just as with humans, this means both ways – ‘you pet me, I jump on and lick you’. Dogs are a communal species just as we are and if someone comes up and gives you a hug, it is the default to hug them back. So we’re faced with another conundrum;

“How do I pet someone’s dog when it’s okay?”

Ideally, you don’t, but if you must, then bending at the knees (instead of the lower back) to get down closer is the best approach as it doesn’t put your body in a position of looming over them. Close your fingers and offer the dog your WRIST to smell, NOT the back of your hand. The key points of scent on humans are wrist, inside of elbow, back of the knees, arm pits, feet and of course ‘private parts’, so the wrist is the best way to introduce yourself. Following that introduction, you can open your fingers and gently begin scratch the dog on the front of it’s chest and by doing so are not having to move your hand much at all since it’s already there, so not triggering a ‘movement response’ from the dog. This chest area also evokes a calming response by releasing calming chemicals in the dogs brain and is not dominating or intimidating, but soothing.
Respect of their personal space and body parts is key as well as being the right thing to do. Just as you might shake hands with a stranger, but are not going to hug and kiss them!

But the point of this post is to hopefully open some eyes as to the reality of people and their dogs when they are out in public, and while I share fully my clients and fellow trainers feelings on the subject, this post was spurred on by the nearly 100% of my clients and I having this discussion at some point during our training (usually when we’re out in public for the first time); so many of them feel it’s required to allow it, even though they don’t want it, many others may not feel an obligation to allow this intrusion of their “family time” together, but don’t know how to broach the situation when it’s thrust in their faces. Additional and consistent input from fellow dog trainers and other canine professionals also contributed to my writing this post.
Basically what I’m saying here is; the general consensus is, most would prefer if you just didn’t pet their dog, nor ask to and went about your business with your family and allow them to go about theirs with their own!
If it helps, the next time you see a dog out and about that you’re drawn to, imagine it’s a child and behave accordingly. Smile and compliment the dog if you wish, but move on.
If you’re out and about and you do approach a dog and ask to pet it and are told “no”, please take no offense, please refrain from derogatory comments and try and understand the dog owners point of view – that dog is a large part (in some cases the only part) of their family, and try and put yourself in their position so as to not put them into a “position” at all.