A handful of times in my life I have had the unpleasant event of a (probably drunk) person I’ve never met before going “Oh you’ve got lovely curly hair” and touching it without any further warning or permission to do so. Now I’m quite happy to receive a verbal compliment from a stranger (in English, because that’s the only language I understand!) but the touch takes it to another level and it turns out that I’m not that keen on being touched by strangers. At worst, it can be quite intimidating. Each time it happened I managed to restrain myself, although I was slightly more upset about it than the time before. These things have a kind of cumulative effect. Imagine how I would have felt if the comment had been in a different language, or if this happened to be every single time I went out anywhere…
I think you know what I am getting at here…
I don’t like it and I’m quite a balanced and relaxed individual, I knew the intent of the person thanks to understanding the language, and I know the world I move around in is relatively safe.
Not all dogs will have this restraint, and it’s important to empathise with how they may feel in situations when strangers try to touch them. They have the potential to be feeling more intimidated by it than I did because they don’t understand the intention of the person, and it probably happens to them A LOT! Add in to this the possibility that they don’t know for sure that the environment they operate in on a day to day basis is actually pretty safe. (N.B. We assume because we feel safe that our dogs will know the world is safe, but their instincts are much more survive orientated, worrying about dangers and territory challenges)
If your dog isn’t too keen on being stroked by strangers, hopefully you are now understanding a little bit about why not. It is something which can be improved, but it’s definitely not being helped by these people helping themselves to fusses with your beloved dog without your permission!
“Don’t worry, I’m great with dogs!!!”
All people who say this really mean is that they are confident with dogs. Being confident with dogs does not mean that the dog in question will be comfortable about being touched by this person. I have heard way too many stories from clients who (before seeking my help) were contending with this problem on a regular basis, in a scene that goes something like this:
Relative stranger “Oh what a gorgeous dog!” – Dog owner “He/she is really nervous, I would just leave him/her”. – RS: “Don’t worry, I’m great with dogs! Hello mate!” lunging in for a fuss with full eye contact. – Dog owner *cringes*
Dog: “Snaaarrrllll” (alternatively “Snap”, or for those who are too scared to take action, pees itself)
Some people will at this point realise that they were wrong, others will actually blame the dog/owner for the dog’s behaviour.
How to handle it if you dog doesn’t like being stroked by strangers
Unapologetically tell them! Us Brits can be a bit too polite in these kind of situations. By being polite we aren’t doing ourselves, our dogs or the strangers any favours, as we are leaving ourselves open to the dog biting, the stranger getting hurt, making a complaint and pressing charges. In a worst case scenario this could lead to criminal proceedings and the dog being put to sleep.
Okay, now that I have sufficiently scared you into realising the importance of dealing with this, here is what you do.
- Don’t take your dog to places that there are going to be a big number of people it will be difficult to avoid, e.g. a crowded market, a dog show…
- Be ready to avoid people, my preferred option personally is a bit anti-social which is just to calmly and positively walk in a different direction if you see someone coming towards you with intent to stroke! Or long before that if possible.
- Buy a ‘Nervous dog’ lead and/or harness, so it gives people a moment to think better of it before lunging in. This is not a catch all unfortunately, as some people will still think the nervous dog will be fine with them.
- Be assertive. If you can’t walk away, or need to stop and talk to someone, simply place yourself between your dog and them and explain “My dog is very nervous, we are in training. You must completely ignore him/her unless I tell you otherwise, even if she/he comes over to sniff you”
- If they say “Oh don’t worry I’m great with dogs” I would go so far as to say “Sorry, I’m not prepared to risk her/him being scared by you”. You can even put a hand out as a physical barrier between them and your dog – and be prepared to walk away if they aren’t heeding your warning.
But I want my dog to be GOOD with strangers!
I want to win the lottery. Just kidding, I might actually win the lottery one day, it’s not impossible as long as I keep buying tickets I’m in with a chance. You have a far far far better chance of your dog feeling happy being stroked by strangers than I do at winning, so how to you ‘buy tickets’ to your dog being okay with strangers (or even people you know!)?
The answer to that is too long to explain in a blog, but it’s not that complicated. Jan Fennell has done a very good job at explaining it in her book “The Dog Listener“, and it is one of the many dog behaviour problems I help my clients with.
One things it’s important to be clear on here is that some dogs are very nervous by nature and you can go a really long way to getting them to be in a calm, managed interaction with a stranger but it is always possible for someone to put them under more pressure than they are comfortable with, so it’s important to pick your battles.