Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can I Pet Your Dog? How to Say No Without Sounding Like a Jerk

The last time I heard this question I was at a pet store. I turned to see a smiling employee, looking at Maisy expectantly. Shoot, I thought. I really hate this question; it gets tiring to be the “mean lady” who always says no, but... this woman looked very nice. What to do, what to do?

Every dog owner has probably experienced a similar moment of indecision, or worse, not had a choice at all. I have had toddlers suddenly lay on top of my dog in order to “hug the doggy,” children sneak in and touch her butt, and even adults who have trouble understanding that not every dog is a social butterfly. This is frustrating even when your dog is stable, but for those of us with temperamentally unsound dogs, it's a nightmare. Being continually put on the spot is difficult, and no one wants to be rude. But I've seen how uncomfortable Maisy looks when being touched by strangers, so saying no is often part of the deal. So how are we to balance politeness with protection?

I have a three pronged approach that I use the vast majority of the time. Sometimes I follow these approaches sequentially, and sometimes I skip a step. No matter how it plays out, though, I have had a lot of success using these three steps:

Step 1: Management
My first line of defense is management; I always attempt to manipulate the environment so that the question never even comes up. One of the easiest ways to do this is to avoid the situation entirely. If you see someone headed your way, turn and walk away. Cross to the other side of the street. Duck into a different aisle in the pet store. Find some way to prevent the question from being asked.

If you can't leave, sometimes using nonverbals will communicate that you aren't interested. Avoiding eye contact and turning your attention elsewhere works for the socially savvy. If a verbal interation impossible to avoid, keep things brief. Nod politely, give the shortest response possible, and move away.

Finally, it is very important to be aware of your surroundings. Avoiding someone is no good if it means you don't see the other person behind you. You need to pay attention to what's going on around you and be ready to step in if need be, which leads me to...

Step 2: Be Direct
Can't prevent contact? Then it's time to be direct. If the person asks if they can pet your dog, say no. You don't have to explain yourself- a simple no will do- but if you want to give a reason, do it after you've said no so that the first thing they hear is that they can't touch your dog. A good way to phrase this is, “No, I'm sorry, but she's shy.”

Body blocking in action. (Maisy looks happy because Dobby is her friend.)
Of course, this doesn't work when people don't wait to hear the answer. For this reason, I often perform a body block to prevent a person (or their dog) from approaching mine. To do this, shorten your leash and move your dog behind your back as you step forward into the approaching party's space. Most people (and dogs) will take a step back. This move not only serves to emphasize your response, but also provides a visual barrier.

I'm less polite with people who don't ask. I will augment my body blocks by holding up a hand like a traffic cop and say, “Stop!” The sheer forthrightness of my statement usually startles people into compliance. I then try to soften the blow by saying, “Sorry, but she doesn't like to be touched.”

I highly recommend practicing what you will say and do before you're put in the situation. Most people have a hard time saying no to start with, and there is definitely a cultural expectation that all dogs should enjoy interacting with strangers. Have a family member or friend pretend to be a stranger, and practice different ways of saying no. Find the one that feels most natural to you.

Step 3: Redirection
I have the hardest time saying no to children, especially the polite ones who ask. If there's enough space, I'll say, “No, I'm sorry, you can't touch her. But would you like to throw her ball?” Most kids are thrilled with this offer. I always tell them the rules: no touching, no chasing, and that I will hand them the ball instead of having Maisy bring it directly to them. Then I let them play. The kids are generally satisfied with this interaction, and Maisy gets some valuable counter-conditioning. It's a win/win situation for everyone.

When I don't have the room needed, or if it's an adult that asked (they're usually less impressed with ball play), I ask if they'd like to see her do some tricks. Obviously, it's helpful if your dog knows a show-stopping trick, but in my experience, most people are impressed if your dog will sit and lay down when asked. Amp up this simple obedience by telling them your dog knows sign language, and use hand signals instead. You'll knock their socks off.

These three things are what I do most of the time, but sometimes- like that day in the pet store- I get tired of saying no. If the person seems willing to follow directions, I'll let Maisy decide. I looked at the employee. I'm not sure why, but I thought I could trust her, so I replied with a maybe.

“She's a little shy, so you can pet her only if she comes up to you. Crouch down, turn sideways, and hold out your hand.”

The woman did as I said, so I told Maisy, “Go say hi.” Maisy walked about halfway to the woman, then stopped. She looked back at me at me, the hesitation clear in her face. I called her back and gave her a treat.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging. “I guess you can't pet her today. Thank you for asking, though.”

I felt a little bad, especially since the employee was willing to follow my directions, but as I looked down at Maisy, the relieved expression on her face made it worth it. I was glad that I could respect her wishes and say no. And I didn't even have to sound like a jerk to do it.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I of course get this all the time, despite the fact that the dogs I have are wearing a bright red vest! Actually most of the time people don't ask, they just do and even preface it as thy are reaching saying "i know I'm not supposed to pet them, but i just love dogs." Infuriating!

Even with my own dogs if I can see that they don't want to say hi I usually say "sorry, we're training." And then state that we're working on eye contact and ignoring distractions. People usually respect that and then I sometimes show off a trick if I'm feeling nice.

I find that the "my dog's shy" statement never works as people always retort back how they're great with dogs or how all dogs love them.

Crystal Thompson said...

I love the "we're training" reason. Thanks for sharing that!

I've had mixed responses to "she's shy," which is probably partially because Maisy can sometimes look really darn friendly. And she is- she just doesn't like to be touched. I've also tried "she has a bad back," without much success. Usually I just say, "No, I'm sorry, but you can't touch her."

I think it's even more maddening that people will ignore the service dog vest. That's just beyond rude.

Elizabeth said...

I've used the tricks and the ball one. Also my pup will usually take treats well from strangers if they don't touch him, but I've found this usually leads to a little fly by touching anyhow.

I think having a reactive dog that is little and cute makes it difficult to control people sometimes. When my dog does go over threshold and lunges growls and barks, many people think it's funny. Many laugh and try to pet him again. I've even had people lean over and bark back in my dogs face as I'm trying to get him out of the situation as quickly as I can (these are usually those that don't ask in the first place).

All I can think is, if this was a larger breed would you be laughing, would you keep trying to touch him? It can be frustrating.

Crystal Thompson said...

...they lean over and bark back??? WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE!?

Elizabeth said...

People just seem unable to take an aggressive reaction from a 10 pound dog seriously. I wish I could say that's only happened once to me but I'd say it happens 5-6 times a year. :(

Crystal Thompson said...

I've had people laugh at Maisy (15 pounds), but never had the barking thing.

Newsflash to the public: bites hurt, no matter how big or small the teeth are.

Amy said...

It's never an easy situation. I've used my dog was "abused" and is afraid of strangers, which in his case is true. On one occasion a child was running directly up to us in class. (He is motion reactive.) I turned directly and blocked the child from our reactive dog and said "He is NOT friendly." Period. It was ugly, but it stopped a potently bad situation before it could have occurred.The only way to train a dog is getting them out there, but we want everyone to be happy and safe.

Tegan said...

I haven't used these vests personally, but I think they are a great idea. They are a doggy vest with 'give me space' on them. The idea is people are supposed to read them and back off!

Original_Wacky said...

I always ask, and taught my kids to ask as well. One thing I've noticed is that even shy dogs seem to want to smell me over, especially the spots where I have psoriasis. I suppose it's a different scent and makes them more curious. That coupled with me being very non-threatening seems to draw them in.

I get rather flabbergasted at how people seem to expect that every animal out there is there just for their pleasure to pet or whatever. Especially service dogs! Would they run up to a police officer in the middle of making an arrest and try to engage him in conversation? Same basic idea.

Ninso said...

I think this is especially prevalent at pet stores. People assume all the dogs that go to them are friendly and social. Not only do people think they can pet any dog they see, they don't watch what their own dogs are doing.

Jen said...

Sometimes Elka, unprompted, will happily ram right into somebody's personal space. And other times, she dodges around, play bows, backs up, etc.

Surprisingly (or not!) not a whole lot of people necessarily ask to pet her. But when they do, they assume they WILL, and when I watch the ramped-up bob and weave occur (this is most frequently at the park, where we've been running around and playing Chase), I said "Guess not today, thank you!" and sail on.

Anonymous said...

Thankfully I don't get this too often, as I'm walking two Dobermans. But it has happened, and usually I just say "no, not today." I hate to disappoint people, especially kids, but sometimes you have to. Some days we're having a good day and Shanoa gives signals that she's like to meet the person, and I allow it.

I love the ideas for redirection. I wouldn't have thought of that option!


Kerry M. said...

Over the past few months, I've turned my default answer into no, but Huck does want to meet about half the people we see, so I know I look crazy when I say he isn't friendly. The thing is, the looming. Oh my, how we all loom. And a couple of times he's gone in and then got scared at the loom and barked right in the person's face. Not cute or funny in a 50 pound dog.

I've never found an easy and fast way to say your instructions of how to approach. I may borrow them. My one help is that kids can't loom as well as they are just too short so we are generally good with them but when they run and crowd around him, he does get scared so I had to sternly reproach a group of kids last weekend who weren't listening to me and I still feel badly about it.

Also a big second to body language. I go on outings with a friend who is very social and has a very social dog. They get approached about 5x-10x more frequently than I do. The stranger will usually glance at me and I give them my best polite but not encouraging smile and they usually won't even ask. We all get approached but if you feel it is always happening, I would recommend thinking about your own body language, because man, there can be a big difference here and it always amuses me how many people approach John vs. me.

Patty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patty said...

Great post! It is a definite issue we run into.

Sophie can get overwhelmed with little kids. So instead of petting I usually ask them if they want to see her catch a treat. Then I place her in a stay and have them throw a treat towards her. She catches it and chomps away. Kids love it and Sophie is not smothered by a little kid.

Ci Da said...

I try to always be very sure to genuinely thank whoever asks to pet my dog, regardless of what my answer is.

Remember, reinforcement builds behaviour, so reinforce those manners!

Crystal Thompson said...

NINSO- If I had a dollar for every time a dog came around the end of an aisle on a flexi...

KERRY M- Yeah, Maisy is sometimes interested in meeting people... just not in being touched by them. Try explaining that though!

PATTY- That's another great idea for redirection!

And CI DA- I agree! I do want to reinforce it when people (ESPECIALLY KIDS) ask to pet her. Those are the kids that I make sure can have a chance to throw her ball.

jarah's mom said...

I have a dog who is very willing to be petted, but isn't crazy of course about being petted on the head. She's also neutral toward kids. This allows me to help all of YOU by explaining to people how to
- let a dog approach, don't approach the dog;
- holding your hand out to be sniffed is a myth, it's still reaching out for the dog and can be seen as threatening;
- reach low to pet, don't pet on the head;
- turning sideways and avoiding direct eye contact reduces the likelihood of being viewed as a "threat";
- best still for my girl is to give her a bit of a back scratch;
- the more that they do what the dog LIKES, the more that the dog will like them;
- and sometimes, she's just more interested in other things!

Maybe some education with a friendly dog like mine will help them be better with reactive dogs.

In the past, I had a dog who was reactive and had similar problems to what I've read here. Now, I feel that whatever I can do to help people interact better with dogs is what I should be doing.

Sophie said...

Great post.

People definitely seem to have a problem with *not* approaching small, cutesy dogs.

I've tried 'she's shy' before - it just gets people saying that they're good with dogs.

I've not tried body blocking much, because one time I did someone just reached around me to try and stroke Lola. The best option I've found is simply to pick Lola up, especially if she's wearing her harness. It makes it much easier to get her out of the situation, and although it doesn't teach her a longterm method of dealing with people up close and personal, she isn't ready for that yet, and I'd rather get her out of there without reacting and worry later about other things.

I need to learn better how to say 'no, I'm sorry' and just leave it at that.

janaARIES said...

Great post and I love the photo...I have to ask though, when Maisy is seriously reacting/lunging, HOW do you get her to stay behind you?

I always let people approach Eva but I say no to people with dogs (her trigger)...but when she sees another dog, even from 30 ft away, she starts tensing. If I stop, zhe will continue to lunge and there is no way that I can get in between her and the oncoming dog.

I find that I have the best luck redirecting her if I keep moving and most of the time, she will go with me cooperatively in the other direction.

However, we've noticed she is much less reactive even around other dogs when my bf is walking her - so I think part of her issue is that she feels my anxiety and maybe is reacting to protect me. Any advise for how to teach to sit behind you? I would like to because I think it would show her that she doesn't need to react, that I am in control and that I will keep her safe - rather than us running away together :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Oh, yeah, I can't get her to do it when she's actively lunging/barking. At that point, she's so far over threshold that she really can't respond to cues, and it's pretty hard to force her behind my back. I really just turn and leave in those situations.

Actually, I try to prevent those situations in the first place- when I see the initial tensing, I start playing Look at That, do some counter-conditioning, and leave.

Over time, she seems to have learned that I can tell when she's uncomfortable and will help her out of the situation.

For what it's worth, Maisy will also feed off my anxiety and is less reactive with a calmer handler (like my husband). I've worked hard to relax around her, and that's reduced the problem.

Liz said...

This is a timely post for me (and I haven't visited in a while, I need to catch up!).

Just tonight I was kicking myself because I was subbing in a new agility class with new people and I tethered my 10 mo old puppy to the wall by the door where I always do as we were walking the course. Well this class has two older men in it. Phineas is awesome with kids (thank god), and fine with women and younger men, but older men he does NOT like. One extra tall man walked right up and leaned over to pet him and Phin froze, growled and barked. The guy was upset, my dog was upset, and I was embarrassed and angry at myself.

I should have managed the situation better, never putting him in that spot (my dog or the male student) to begin with. Lesson learned, and I do need to learn to be more assertive with people as well. I always have that split-second of hesitation, not wanting to be rude, but at the end of the day that is far better than having someone get hurt. I need to reprogram my own brain as much as my dogs'...

Love the idea about the ball play, I will put that one in my tool bag. Thanks!

Robin Sallie said...

I don't mind sounding like a jerk to protect my dog.

Crystal Thompson said...

I guess it's just my Minnesota Nice, then, Robin. ;)

Amy said...

We have a Shar-pei whose afraid of strangers, but because he's unusual looking he gets a lot of attention. After years of hearing, "But all dogs love me" I finally got him a training vest with a patch that says "Please don't pet me, I'm working." It's helped a lot! He's begun to realize that people are not going to try to touch him, and I've been able to relax a bit too - which is good for both of us. I've never had anyone ignore his vest and try to pet him anyway and I don't have to feel like the bad guy all the time.

Linda of MV said...

I live on an island that is accessible only by boat or plane and travel frequently with my golden retriever on the boat. As you can imagine I get the "can I pet her" request all the time. I must say that most people do ask to pet and are very polite. My dog is very people friendly but I do appreciate the asking since when you are traveling in the company of hundreds of other people it can get a bit overwhelming for both me and my dog to spend 45 minutes being approached by strangers and I try to keep an eye on my dog for any indications that she is wearying of the attention (she usually isn't though). In addition people seem to feel that it's ok to let their dogs approach unchecked AND unannounced (and this is usually the situation where she can become uncomfortable). This happens so often and the situation is so crowded that I have developed a real indifference to the other persons feelings when I ask them to give us space. It's just so rude of the other people. I try to keep an eye out for the approaching offender (which is virtually inevitable) and when they have reached the threshold of our personal space I ask them to stop. I have had to ask people to please shorten their dogs leads at times as well because they will stand just outside our space and then let their dog "wander" in at the end of the lead. Almost without fail they are offended and ask something to the effect of "Oh, your dogs not friendly?" to which I usually reply somewhere along the lines of "yes, she is, but this is an inappropriate time". It does the trick but 99% of the time I have offended the offender. I just really don't care. I would rather offend and protect then allow a situation to get ugly and kick myself later.

Inger said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog and must say it's great. I love your advice here and will show it to friends who have a harder time saying "no" than me!
I have one cute, friendly dog and another who isn't great on being approached; he needs to choose to come, sits with his back to them for scratches and gets uncomfortable if they use both hands. I never explain, I just say "use one hand!" in an unarguable voice....
What I am fascinated by, is the REASON people want to pet dogs - they do it for their own sake, to get conformation for their "dogs love me" thing they have. Not because they are interested in YOUR particular dog! This has helped me at least in dealing with pushy would be greeters... I train and compete with lots of elite handlers, and they generally leave other people's dogs alone - or just TALK nicely to them, and leave it at that if this seems to be the dog's preference. No touchy feely stuff there!

Nguyễn Thành Trung said...


Emma Megan said...

Appreciation to the good works always! I love pets too much. That's why, I sometimes write some blog posts there