May I Pet Your Dog?

Thankfully, that phrase is fast becoming a regular part of our civic language as parents continue to educate their kids (and themselves) about safe dog interaction protocols. For too long, too many incidences ranging from the annoying to the tragic have occurred due to parents allowing kids to wander up to dogs in homes, parks and playgrounds and initiate contact in an unsafe and inappropriate manner.

While there is still much work to be done about this issue, safe greetings (or avoidances) are on the rise and progress is being made thanks to an ongoing and persistent effort to educate parents and kids.

I just returned from my morning walk with Jasmine and Sadie, and our path today took us by a popular neighborhood playground full of toddlers and young preschoolers. As we filled up the dog bowl at the park water fountain (it's almost 80 degrees here today!), two very young girls approached and asked that all-important question:  "May I pet your dogs?"

Since Jasmine was pretty wired after having been in a particularly engaged squirrel-chasing mode immediately prior to this encounter, I replied that they certainly could pet the larger brown dog, Sadie, but that I'd prefer they not touch little Jasmine.  Jasmine is our work in progress and can still be somewhat reactive in certain situations after a hellish start to life, while Sadie is our bombproof, child-loving, wannabe therapy dog in situations like this.

Problem is, the little girls were predictably both enamored of darling little Jasmine (no bigger than a large ferret), and kept insisting that they should pet her, too.  It took some serious leash wrangling and persistent maneuvering to keep them from crowding Jasmine - something that wouldn't have been good for any party involved - but they eventually got the message and focused on loving Sadie before returning to their rock climbing wall.

This brief episode highlights a crucially important point:  just because someone starts the process correctly by asking the question, 'May I pet your dog' doesn't mean that they will follow through with good results or even listen to the answer.  I think it's vital that we not only teach our kids to ask first before petting (and then only if they know the dog handler, ensure that it isn't a stranger, and still have the parent/guardian nearby), but also that we encourage them to listen to and respect the answer that the dog's owner provides.

So next time you're working with your kids on dog safety and etiquette, be sure they know how to make the entire encounter a safe one, and not just pay lip service to what they think we want them to say.



36 Comments

  1. Wendy Dowrey

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent point. I was leaving our local pet store after a training class with my ChiX, who also had a dubious start in life, when a 4 year old walked right up to me, asked me if he could pet my puppy. I said I'm sorry honey but she's not a puppy and she's not very friendly with children so she can't be petted right now. The child said, Okay! Thank you! And walked back to his Mom. I complimented her as she escorted her son and very well behaved Great Dane into the store.

  2. Emma

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    May I ask where you got little Jasmine? Sounds like she is from a shelter - I'm so happy about that! You are a great role model in that respect too! I keep telling people to adopt, adopt, adopt instead of buying...:)

  3. D

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I ALWAYS ask first - keeps the dog calm with the owner so I don't get bit. I love dogs, and have never been bitten - and it's probably because I follow this rule. ALWAYS ASK FIRST!! No matter how well you think you get along with dogs - it only takes ONE time before you find out that you are wrong.

  4. Katrin

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Oh, wish this would happen here. The country I live in now do not think very highly of dogs. Most dogs are tied up outside a dog house or on roofs (yes, it is true!!!!). So when I come walking with my dog I am happy if people just bark or make kitty noises, I get very upset when they throw stones and sticks at/on my dog. Thank god my dog is stable and not a nervous one!

  5. Ravana

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I've been in the same situation. My dog is a large black straight haired mutt who is very friendly and loves to be pet. My brother's dog, whom I occasionally care for, is not quite knee high, black and white and mop haired. She dislikes strangers, especially young children, but strangers are always drawn to her. When I am walking the two together children (and adults) will come and ask to pet the dogs. I always put her behind me and say, "You can pet the big dog; he likes it, but you may not go near the smaller one, she does not like meeting new people." Then I watch them like a hawk. If they start to creep toward her I will body block them and say, "Remember, don't go near the smaller dog." If they do it again I say, "Well, they need to walk. Thanks for petting the big dog." and we leave abruptly.

  6. Sarah Reid

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I think its good that they asked but there are so many kids out there that dont.
    The other day my partner and i were walking our dogs a whippet and a greyhound they are both
    rescued Molly the greyhound was trained to chase small things so we dont know how she would do with small children and Sandy our whippet we know is ok around children. anyway while in the park we had kids running up trying to pet the dogs and one boy we told not to touch the doggies and he just went a head and touched them i had to yell that this boy not to touch the dogs. Our dogs are friendly around us but i cant tell you that they WONT BITE just that they haven't. Its a 50/50 thing kids shouldnt be afraid of dogs but they should just run up to a dog they dont know. there was a 17month kid killed by a rotty who was tide up in his garden, maybe the kid would be still alive if parents taught their kids not play with other peoples dogs who knows.......

  7. jane

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Have experienced this many times and always thank the individuals who asks to pet my dog. What really annoys me is when mums allow their children to run, screaming towards my dog and then have a go at me when i stop their children fussing my girl. She's a 16 month old cross breed, quite excitable and i always try to educate the parents to advise children to ask first and approach calmly. My dog is extremely friendly but when confronted with excitement reacts accordingly (she is going to classes to combat the reaction) My son is 9 and always asks before approaching a strangers dog, he is also being taught how to recognise when a dog may be unsure and if that happens to just walk away. I belive anyone wanting to pet an animal regardless of size or breed should always check first

  8. Troy A.

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I agree entirely to the situation. If either of my two labs are excited or "wired" from not enough play or ???, I insist on acknowledging the desire to socialize the animal, however will usually take the dogs for a quick Frisbee catch and chase session before introduction. Especially given the unpredictability of children, let alone our well mannered pets.

  9. Laurie

    March 14th, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Last week while I was walking my dog, two children were playing nearby. One child said to the other "I'm gonna go pet the doggy!" and the other one said "no, don't!" the first kid replied "But it's a nice doggy" and the second child said "But he doesn't know us". I was so proud of the other child for thinking this way. It's not about a dog being nice or not nice, it's about a dog knowing or not knowing you.

  10. Morgan

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Thats a problem we have with our dog. He doesn't mind people but as long is they do not go behind him and stroke him or swamp him (probably a result of several dog attacks on him as a puppy).A few months My mum was waiting at a crossing for a train to go past, and a girl at secondary school, asked if she could stroke him. Without waiting for a reply she was all over Rex, who got stressed out and tied to back away from the girl. My mum had nowhere to go as the gate onto the tracks was behind her with the train coming and the girl was blocking the exit. She told the girl to stop several times and even shouted at her to stop but she still didn't listen. As soon as the train had passed, the girl pushed past mum and Rex and crossed the line, but the encounter has left Rex wary of lots of teenagers now, which I have to now train him out of.

  11. Andyspal

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    A few weeks ago we were walking with our 2 dogs, our son, his wife and their dog. An older child approached me, asked if the dogs were friendly and I told her that Molly, the dog I was walking is a "scaredy dog", but that our cocker Andy and their beagle Sophia were friendly. The child went to the other dogs and greeted them I was glad that she respected my answer, and it is a credit to her parents that she did. Our Molly is afraid of strange people, not to mention bikes, baby strollers, garbage cans, sudden movements or noises, etc. so it is helpful when people respect her boundaries. I try to respect children's boundaries, also, because unfortunately some children are afraid of dogs, even if the dog isn't close to them.

  12. Mickey Kinzer

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I always teach children to ask, too, but I also teach owners how to answer if someone asks, "Does your dog bite?" I prefer that they say (as I always do) "I don't know. She never has bitten, but dogs sometimes surprise us." I may then proceed to "help" the child pet the dog, keeping the dog and the child out of harms way from one another.

  13. pamela

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    My view is caution is the best policy and no the best answer. It is excellent that some parents are having children ask.

  14. Denise

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    My biggest shock was when a parent asked if their child could pet my dog.. and the 6 year old decide to
    jump on my dog's back for a ride. Fortunately I have an excellently behaved German Shepherd (from the
    Dog shelter .. I might add) my dog looked confused but did not hurt the child. Now I when I say yes... I tell the child to stand back and let the dog come to him.
    As a long time dog owner... I still don't understand wanting to pet strange dogs.

  15. Kym Ohmacht

    March 14th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    What a great article and great point!

  16. Terry Golson

    March 14th, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I too have a reactive dog, one that I've worked may hours with. Recently, a jogger came up silently behind us (startling enough!) and then stopped to pet Lily. This happened so quickly, I barely knew what was happening. LIly spun around to meet what seemed to be an attacker, and leapt at her, but luckily without aggression. Still, since I can't control these sorts of situations, I bought the softest and best-fitting muzzle I could find. Lily wears it when walking. If people knew dog-manners, it'd be unnecessary, but I'd rather keep everyone safe. In the long run, even if the jogger is at fault, it's my responsibility. Meanwhile, I keep working on rewarding Lily for calm interactions.

  17. Joseli

    March 14th, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    This is especially important with service dogs as just walking up and petting them will distract them from the task they are supposed to be doing. I am glad that children are being taught to ask before petting pet dogs too though. When my dog was in training I would tell people that they could pet him as long as he kept all four feet on the ground, otherwise, stop petting until he stopped jumping.

  18. Stacy Braslau-Schneck

    March 14th, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Madeline Gabriel has some *excellent* cards you can buy; I hand them out whenever I meet dog-loving children (whether I'm with my own dog, or clients'). See http://www.dogsandbabieslearning.com/2011/05/16/ask-the-dog-part-1/

  19. Lorie

    March 14th, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    2 things -
    I was hopeful that you'd make the girls wait and allow the dogs to approach them, not the other way around, but I do understand how infrequently that happens. My daughter (away at college) is chronically fur-deficient and asks anyone with a dog if she may approach.

    Of my 2 dogs, the older, bigger friendlier dog is the one that no one wants to pet. She's a lab/grayhound mix that looks like a pitbull. They always want to go after the terminally cute though very fearful dachshund. Children, especially young ones, send him into a screaming panic. It's taken a little while to get the neighborhood children trained to let him approach. At the dog park, I'll have a ring of children sitting on the ground calmly offering him treats with open palms. He does finally settle down enough for them to pet his adorable little head. Seems to work well for all involved.

  20. Nancy

    March 14th, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    I totally agree! Teaching children AND adults to ask for permission BEFORE petting a dog is vital. I have a little Chihuahua mix (Beau) that is small and adorable AND he's very fearful. Everyone wants to pet him, and very few people ever ask if it's okay to do so. Of course, I have gotten in the habit of immediately requesting that people not touch him as he is a very fearful little pup, but sadly, that does not mean that they listen.

  21. Julie

    March 14th, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I've had experiences with both kinds of people with my German Shepherd...he is fine now but when he was younger he didn't like small kids. If kids asked I would explain that I'm sorry but he's not good with kids and most would leave him alone, but some kids never asked (or asked their parents, who said yes without saying a word to me) and tried to come right up to him. I had to block him off with my body a few times, and luckily he never hurt anybody although his barking definitely freaked a few kids out. To this day I can't understand what kind of parent would tell their child they can walk up to an unfamiliar 120 lb. dog, and don't stop them when the owner explicitly says he's not good with kids.

  22. Erica

    March 14th, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    I put an additional step between the kids I care for and dogs - they have to ask me before they even ask the dog's owner. I look at how much attention the owner is paying to the dog (rough guide on how well they know their dog), whether the dog looks calm or excited, is scared or confident, etc. If the dog passes *my* test, they're allowed to ask the owner. I was quite proud when, while walking through the woods, they completely ignored a dog (no staring/eye contact) until I asked its owners if it wanted to say hello.

    And adults need to ask as well - today an adult man walked up while I was walking the 220+ pound Mastiff I walk, and asked if he could say hello. Zeus is friendly, but it's still nice to have people ask first. :) The other dog can be very picky about who he will accept! (I also have to watch out for people who could be knocked down by his tendency to lean into whomever's petting him.)

  23. Wade

    March 14th, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    As a volunteer puppy raiser for an assistance dog organization, with dogs-in-training going nearly everywhere with me, I confront the "can I pet your dog" question nearly every day. At times when I'm working on specific skills and do not want the pups disturbed, one thing I sometimes have to remind myself of is to be very direct with both children and adults. Sometimes in today's "don't hurt anyone's feelings" world, it's tempting to start with explainartion for our reasons for not wanting the dog petted. However, I find with most children and adults alike, it's better to get straight to the point with a firm (not mean) "No" if I don't want them to pet my dog. I can then explain why if the person is willing to listen. If I don't stop them firmly from the start, many people go in for the pet while I'm trying to explain the why not.

  24. Ali

    March 14th, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    I find this post very interesting and not only relevant to children, but to some adults too. I have a pug and I was at a restaurant with him sitting on the floor under the table next to me. A man approached and without asking reached out both of his hands and grabbed my pugs face one hand on either side and shook him around a little bit (in what I think was a loving way?). I was shocked that someone would do that 1. without asking and 2. to a dog that they did not know. Luckily my pug loves people and has never reacted badly to anyone. However, some dogs do not enjoy having their faces touched or to be approached by a stranger. As quickly as I could respond to this man's actions I just said "good thing he doesn't mind having his faced touched by someone he doesn't know." I did not mean to be completely rude but I hope I made it clear in my tone that I was less than impressed. Had my dog reacted badly then it would have looked to have been the "dog's fault" or my own. I do not think it matters what breed, age, size etc the dog is I think it is so important to ALWAYS ask first. While I also think your post is relevant to some adults I love that you have written about how to educate children in dog safety and etiquette...I think it is very important to keep the dogs, children and the owners of the dog all safe and happy. Thank you for all that you do, your tv show and you blog! Ali

  25. Sofia

    March 14th, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    I have that problem with old ladies. I don't want them to cuddle my dog because she jumps at people and want to lick their faces and she's at 20+ kilos, but they say that it's okay and do it anyway. t's NOT okay. One of them even informed that she was a secretary in our local dogclub. If they listen and respect me, then I usually tell them how I want them to pet her so she keeps calm. I feel so bad because they always tell me I don't know anything about dogs.
    However, I know that I do it right. I see the results every day in my dog. She might still bark at some dogs and cars but most of the time she's able to steady herself and look to me for guidance. And she doesn't try to jump at every stranger she likes, 4 our of 5 times she looks at me to see if it's okay to greet and if she notice I'm not comfortable she sits down with her back to the human and ignore them. After a while they stop with the silly kissingsounds and babylanguage and go away.
    And then I give her extra treats, haha!

  26. Sue

    March 15th, 2012 at 2:41 am

    Couldn't agree more! And not just children either... It is amazing how many adults will rush over and try to pet a strange dog without saying anything first. My GSD is a very dominant and very nervous boy - a challenging combination - and, although he adores being fussed by family and close friends, he absolutely hates strangers approaching him when he is on his lead and cannot get away. I always tell people who try to pet him that he is a 'nervous dog in training' and that the most helpful thing they can do is ignore him, but it is amazing how many people seem to be almost 'offended' by this. It is like they take it as a personal insult or something. I now never even ask to pet other dogs I see when I am out, no matter how adorable, because I don't think it is right to expect any dog to put up with a stranger just walking up and fussing it. If everyone felt the same, there might be a lot less dog bite incidents in the world.

  27. Denise

    March 15th, 2012 at 4:44 am

    I think it's great that children are being taught to ask to pet dogs rather just marching up but to be honest I would prefer it if they didn't despite both my German Shepherds being great with people.

    Years ago though I had a collie who was not good with children. At a busy agricultural show a child asked if she could pet him - I said no and explained why. Her father then told her, several times, to go ahead and pet the dog if she wanted to despite me telling her not to. The result was that the dog nipped her hand! Luckily everyone around (including a police officer) had witnessed the incident and so it went no further. The best part was when the father asked if I had children. I replied that I didn't have any children and he shouted at me "well that's clearly the problem!!" before storming off. I was speechless.

  28. Vicky

    March 21st, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I had a similar problem to sue. A very nervous, unsocialised rescue german shepherd and people simply would not listen when i told them that he is afraid of people so can be unpredictable so i started telling people he will probably bite (true as he is frightened) and when people started leaving him alone (combined with tasty ham or chicken for a calm response) he soon realised that people are not scary and he now seems to like meeting new people... who are still told to offer him a treat him so he goes to them noth the other way around.

  29. Lynn

    March 26th, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    If I see someone who looks like they want to pet my dog (an attention-loving Bichon Frise), I often *volunteer* that "it's okay to pet her" and "she loves it when people pet her." It's especially useful when I come across fearful parents who make the mistake of telling their kids to *never* pet someone else's dog. In one case, my friend's 7-year-old son was afraid of dogs when he met my dog, but within a few hours they were best friends.

    On the other hand, I *always* ask when approaching someone else's dog unless I already know it's okay to pet the dog.

  30. Debi

    March 30th, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Children? I have had trouble with adults too! I was at a restaurant, sitting outdoors with my husband and our two rescues. One is a female, five years old and about 30 lbs. She's a Golden Retriever/Welsh Springer Spaniel mix, excitable and aggressive with other dogs, and wary of new people, less so of women. The other is just 1 and a half, he's a Schnoodle mix, loves attention but barks at strangers. So a couple approaches us and begins to put their hands out, explaining that they have dogs so dogs know they are 'dog people'. Of course they both started barking and lunging. So much for 'dog people'...

  31. sheila nusbaum

    March 31st, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Hello Victoria,

    I watch your show faithfully & have adapted some of your ideas with my 3 dogs 2 shis & a bichon. But I have a question for you & I hope you can help me. I often "babysit" my daughter's dog, a lovely golden named Lola. For the most part she is no trouble at all. Being rather strong, we use a haltie, but there is one problem. SHe is sooooooooo skitterish, jumping at anything & everything with which she is unfamiliar. We had that problem with our Bichon (a rescue , as are all our boys), & Buster grew out of it. But since Lola isnt with us all the time, what do you suggest as a training so I can tell her Mom & Pop, Any help would be greatly appreciated Thank you & I hope to hear from you soon. Sheila.

  32. Diane

    April 4th, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Fantastic bit of advice! I am a recently retired pediatric nurse who worked iin a large pediatric inner-city hospital for over 30 years. I have seen many dog bit victims and it has always bothered me that those kids run the risk of being scared of dogs for their entire lives because of one (usually avoidable) incident. I have been a dog person all of my life and feel badly that those children will miss out on all the wonderful things dogs have to offer to humans! For that reason, I developed a Dog Bite Prevention Program and go into schools for presentations. I am proud to say that is one of the things I stress: not only to ask but to respect the answer they get. I then go on to teach kids how to properly "introduce" themselves to a dog. We also discuss canine body language and when it is inappropriate to approach a dog. The programs have been well received in all the schools I have gone to and I have probably met with at least 5000 kids by now. We also practice meeting a dog (I have therapy dogs) and there is at least one other dog and handler with me so the dogs don't become over tired and stressed during the introduction sessions. It is a very rewarding program and I figure if I can prevent only one dog bite by doing this, it has been worth the effort! I have gone back to some of the schools and the several kids remembered from one year to the next what I have taught them so it really works!

  33. Jimmy casanova

    April 14th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    This is something I run into a problem with just about every day with my service dog he is a Yorkie medical service alert dog I have even made hats with my name and his name and do not pet on them,and people still try to pet him anyway,it gets aggravating but people still try any way.i need to print flyers to give out to these people to explain why I cannot allow them to pet baby Buddha my medical seizure alert dog .if anyone has any better ideas I would appreciate them thank you Jim casanova ,Orlando ,fl.....jimmycasbuda@hotmail.com

  34. Jordan

    April 23rd, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I agree tottally. I have a very nervous 9 month old Jack Russell called Esme, and she is very nervous around kids (after being screamed at and smacked on the head by a 5 year old despite me warning to leave her be)
    And Whenever out people ask me "Awh how sweet, can I pet her?" But when I explain to them that she is nervous and it would be better to ignore her, instead they ignore me! They try to touch her and she hides behind my legs, and I am worried one day she will get fed up and bite someone, hasnt happened yet but I get worried it will because she will growl to get them to leave her. And each time it happens she gets more frightened every time! Really Irritates me. I know kids mean no harm, though. But if you think about it, how would you like it if a complete stranger came up to you and started touching you, and you have no clue if they will hurt you or not? Seems nobody thinks about it from the dogs point of view, do they?

  35. Linda Ericson

    May 3rd, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I personally don't want people I don 't know greeting/petting my dogs. My dog walking times are times I spend either training or just plain enjoying my dogs. I' NOT on my phone talking/texting etc., I'm with my dogs

    I've met so many, many people who say their dogs just love it! These same people are NOT always reading their dogs correctly! Their dogs are lip licking, shaking etc. and they don't get it!

    With so many problem dogs, it's time to ask what are we doing wrong?



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