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.)|
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.