Don’t Take Their Word for It

Picture this: you’re walking your dog at the park when you spot another dog and owner coming toward you. There’s something about the dog that gives you pause. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but that little inner voice is saying, “This is not a dog you want your dog to greet.” As you near each other, the dog strains toward yours. The owner calls out, “It’s okay, he’s friendly.” Who should you believe? The well-meaning owner, or that little voice in your head? The latter is always right.

All too often, we take the word of other dog owners as to how their dogs will behave. Most owners don’t purposely deceive others, but they may not have a realistic view of their own dog’s behavior or potential for aggression. Whether at the off-leash dog park, out for a stroll, or anywhere else in public, you must be an advocate for your dog. Regardless of what anyone says, if you feel a situation is unsafe, remove your dog as quickly and calmly as possible.

Sometimes the problem doesn’t involve ignoring someone else’s opinion, but having them heed yours. Just this morning I had Bodhi, our two-months-out-of-the-shelter husky mix out for a walk at the park. There’s a group of people who walk their dogs together off-leash in the mornings, and I recognized the older man heading back to his car with his Boston Terrier. The man is very friendly, and delights in feeding treats to other people’s dogs. But Bodhi is somewhat reactive toward other dogs while on-leash, and is definitely food possessive. When the man called out to ask if he could come over and give Bodhi a treat, I said I’d rather he didn’t, since Bodhi isn’t very dog-friendly. Undeterred, the man said, “Oh, I’ll just toss one to him then.” I quickly told him not to, since his dog was off-leash and would most likely run after the treat, but it was too late—with a cavalier, “It’ll be fine!” he tossed the treat toward Bodhi. As predicted, the little Boston went racing after it. Fortunately, the treat landed a few feet from us, so when Bodhi lunged for the dog I was able to stop him.

Why didn’t the nice man listen when I told him not to toss the treat, or that Bodhi was not dog-friendly? Why do some owners say their dogs are fine with other dogs when they’re clearly not? In the end, why doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we are guardian enough to our dogs to chance social ostracism in order to protect them. Be courteous and friendly with other dog owners, but when it comes to questionable canine behavior, don’t take their word for it.
- Nicole Wilde, author Help for Your Fearful Dog

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


14 thoughts on “Don’t Take Their Word for It

  1. Samantha Weissich

    I have the same problem with people who walk their dogs off leash. There is a law where I live, and people do not for some reason heed to it. I remember a few days ago I was walking my fresh shelter dogs for the first time around a park, when a big Golden came up running with his head lowered to us. I told the women to leash her dog, but she wouldn't. Said " he wants to play!" Long story short my dogs ended up giving the Golden a gnash on his face. The women threaten to sue me yada yada . . . . police came and ended up siding with me and fining the women for violation of the leash law. Point is obey the law don't make people uncomfortable.

  2. Hertzi

    As a concept it's a great idea to listen to your inner voice, to your intuition. We sense and we don't necessarily need to explain why.
    We would like to feel that people know their dogs, or about dogs, but at times people think they know when they don't. People like to think that since their dogs are great with other dogs/people then rest of dogs are like that... and sometimes, people think they know better and different than you, and it's not just about dogs. I find myself explaining to people about dogs' behavior when I go to off leash parks. Some really don't know how to read their dog's behavior, they love their pup but don't understand completely the whole social dynamics, body language of our canine friends.

  3. Christina D.

    So true. I cannot count how many times this kind of thing happens. I often walk with three dogs on leash. Until recently I had a dog that was great with other dogs but her introductions where completely inappropriate. So when greeting new dogs I always ask that people wait until I only have the one dog so that she is introduced appropriately.

    I often take walks and hikes with a friend and her two dogs. This one time we decided to try a new place. It was an area where dogs were OK off leash, because we where strictly walking the dogs I had all three of mine on leash. My friends younger dog loves to play, and we encountered an older man with his GSD. His dog was fine, but again I had three dogs and told him that I would prefer not to greet all three dogs, he took that to mean "stay away my dogs were aggressive".

    My friends dog ran up to say hi to the other dog, but the gentleman tensed up and started kicking my friends dog away. I quickly noticed how his dog went form being relaxed to being very tense. My friend called her dog away, and the man walked off huffing and puffing and yelling at us, telling us we shouldn't be there with aggressive dogs. While all 5 of our dogs sat at our sides wondering what the heck was wrong with the man in the first place. Not a peep, not a growl, nothing. Just his assumption because I had a rottweiler he assumed she was aggressive. Little did he know she is more scared of him t than he is of her. So we let him go off on his rant.

    As we approached the end of our walk we came across the man again who's dog was now off leash and he was sitting at the end of the walk talking to a friend. He started yelling at my friend who was ahead of me. And she offended yelled back. When I approached I could see his dog, he was busy yelling that we had aggressive dogs that showed no signs of aggression. While his dog became more anxious as his owner yelled at us. The dogs posture changed and it was clear to me that if we walked any where near them his dog was definitely ready to attack us. Lower head, crouching, growling.

    I asked him to put his dog on leash, and after he finished yelling he did. I'm so thankful he did because it would have been difficult to get his 130 # GSD off of my three dogs.

    His friend actually told us if our dogs are aggressive they should be muzzled. Then he let it slip, and said that some rottweilers are nice dogs. Funny thing is the friends dog was a rottweiler mix! I guess ignorance was a bliss that day. But the man with the GSD had no idea what aggressive was and how he was instigating his dog to become protective of him. And for no reason other than he assumed our 5 dogs were aggressive because one of them was a rottweiler.

    So sad but this blog definitely holds true! Thank you!!!

  4. Laurie Troy

    Christina, it is so true. So many people don't know their own dogs or how their attitude and behavior affects them.

    I had a lady call me to take a look at her friends dogs and see if I'd be able to walk that dog since the lady would no longer be able to walk her friend's dog. This dog was tremendously anxious, fearful, and clearly was only use to the owner the friend. The owner wasn't interested in listening to her friend and I never followed up to call the owner since it was pretty clear to me that she wasn't interested in listening to anyone's assessment of the dog's behavior. This owner was in complete denial of her dog's fear and state of being. I would not have taken this dog as a daily dog walk (which they wanted a discount fee). It would have had to be the training fees. This dog wasn't going out the front door or down the walk without training.

    Dog owners really need to know how to read canine behavior.

  5. Lee Matherly

    I am a dog trainer and had a client last week that swears her 90 lb boxer is the sweetest thing ever. When I rang the bell to go into the house this huge dog growling and staring intensely at me came to the door. I quickly broke eye contact and turned sideways looking elsewhere but could feel the stare still coming as if the dog could go through the glass. This was not the dog I worked with so he sat in a kennel while we worked with the other dog the owner had just rescued from a rescue group. We let the big dog out as we rapped things up and I bent over to pat the new dog one last time and the big dog came over and almost took my face off. I quickly stood back up and turned my back and stopped any movement. The dog left and went about the other parts of the house looking for any crumbs left from what was dropped in our training. The owner claims she has never had him do that before and I flashed back to the greeting at the door and reminded myself not to listen to the owner and go with my observations and act accordingly. Unfortunately she is not the pack leader in the house and that dog has taken the job. Although that dog could have done some damage I feel it was a warning and I was quick enough to respond. What about someone else who is not and thinks the dog is playing???

  6. Jo Jacwues

    One of my biggest pet peeves: when owners of small dogs on Flexi-leads let their teeny little guys charge up to my high-prey drive Siberians. No matter how many times I tell them to lock their leash and keep their dogs away "just in case", I still get the reply, "Oh it will be fine, he just LOVES to play with big dogs - and they're so pretty!".

    Until lately, that is...I've changed my warning. Now, as I see the little one running straight for my guys, I just say in a loud voice, "Look, Viking - a snack!"

    Amazing how quickly people get the little ones under control...

  7. Nicole Wilde Post author

    Hi Jo,

    I have to laugh at your warning, I love it! It's funny too because most people think my dogs look a bit wolfy, and you'd think they'd have better sense than to chance their small dog running up to them. But no.

    It's really unfortunate that so many people have blinders on in regard to their own dogs' behavior, other dogs' behavior, and the truly horrific things that can happen--until it's too late. And as Lee Matherly commented above, the danger is not only to other dogs, but to people as well.


  8. EmilyS

    100% of the time, when another dog's owner says "he's friendly", the dog is NOT. Or at least my dogs won't think he is (as he comes charging towards us). And theirs is the only opinion that matters.

  9. Sarah

    I have an 80lb fear aggressive dog and I swear if I hear "oh don't worry, he's friendly!" as an off leash dog comes hurtling down the road towards us one more time I am going to scream. Doesn't matter what I say I get the "it's okay, mine just wants to play!" response and am usually left dancing around trying to keep my dog from hurting theirs while they make no effort to get hold of their dog. It's as though they believe that because their dog is friendly my dog wouldn't dream of hurting it. It doesn't help that Rupert isn't your lunge and make lots of noise type, he tends to lie down and then silently attack them when they get within range. Sadly, a lot of them HAVE been friendly dogs but due to a lot of bad experiences a few years ago my dog attacks first and asks questions later.

    I've found yelling across to them that my dog has an infectious disease works better than telling them my dog bites but even that doesn't bother some of them.

  10. S.J. Eastwood

    I wish I had listened to my voice so much sooner. I have a catahoula that we rescued from a shelter about 2-3 months ago. Sweet little thing. She's still a puppy tho.. a very big puppy, At 7 monthst she weighs in at 45lbs. She is also deaf.

    Shiloh (my catahoula) and I went to a dog run that has an agility course and she loved it. Until this lady and her 18 mont old Rotty (Tugboat) came in. This woman CLEARLY did not have control of her dog as he was CLEARLY walking her. I think the most obedience training this boy had was 'Sit'.

    I certainly am not afraid of dogs, any breed. My neighbor owned the sweeted rotty named Princess, I've owned a Red Nosed pitt named Ginger, my mother's dog is an am. staff/ black lab , Charlie (Who unfortunatly has to me muzzled on walks because he isnt socialized to other dogs )

    Ugh, I'm rambling, sorry. The point is.. Tugboat was gentle considering his size but he was nearly tripple the size of Shiloh and Tugboat was overpowering her and dominating her by jumping on her and forcing her down. I could tell Shiloh had enough because she started baring her teeth. When I asked them to call off their rotty, I got "Oh, no it's okay, they're having fun"

    I thinks perhaps I should have chosen my words differenly because I got looked at like I was a homicidal freak but I replied "Pull your dog off, or he will be limping out of this park. My dog obviously doesnt want to play any more, so if you dont mind..."

    Yeah.. Listening to tht inner voice from now on. Because, since then, any dog smaller than herself, Shiloh now tries to dominate because of what she was shown..

  11. Keisha E.

    I have a Rottweiler/German Shepard mix and I've taken him to the dog park before and has been fine. But today dogs run up to him and he started lunging at other dogs and stuff. I felt so bad and apologized and I think he was scared cause he's been attacked before by small dogs. but I guess I have to keep him away from dogs and just socialize with friend's dogs.

  12. Nicole Wilde

    Keisha and all,
    It's heartbreaking to hear about all the dogs who have been traumatized because of another dog whose owner wasn't in control or was unaware of their dog's behavior issues. One thoughtless encounter can literally lead to a lifetime of fear or aggression problems for some dogs. Play dates are so much safer than going to the dog park. If you do attend a dog park, go during hours when less dogs are apt to be present. Get to know the dogs and owners who regularly come at that hour, and better yet, make friends and move things toward play dates rather than the park. And always, ALWAYS remove your dog from the park first if you see someone coming in where you just have "that feeling" about their dog being a problem. When it comes down to it, it's better for others to think you're being paranoid or overly protective than for your dog to suffer.
    Stay safe,

  13. Karen

    I totally agree, what if mine starts to look upset by this situation, dogs body language changes within a fraction of a second so most people can't see it all falling apart in front of them.

  14. Jenny H

    Unfortunately, we live in a human society, and (as we all know) humans are pretty thick ad believe that everything and everyone else must fit in with them. we dog owners do the same, unfortunately. We bleat, why do other people let their dog approach ours when we have clearly asked them not to, why do people still come up to pat your dog when you ask them to "please don't even look at her".
    We have to face the fact that these things WILL happen and have our safety plan ready for such things.
    It is a pain, I know, and it means with my Shrinking Violet, I cannot leave her anywhere in public except on leash beside me. (poor little thing, they say, she's shivering, therefor badly treated/suffering from heat exhaustion, and then they try to 'save' her -- when she's shivering because these strangers are LOOKING at her/in her space 🙁

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