I have a confession to make about petting puppies. I go ga-ga over other people’s pets. I ooh and ah over anything with four feet and fur, and it doesn’t have to have all four feet or all that much fur, either! I recall the way some people ogle and fawn over human babies--our reaction is identical, except my genetic makeup zigged while theirs zagged./
With great effort, I have trained myself over the years to be restrained around other people’s pets. Just as humans are put off by a complete stranger drooling and pawing over their little darlings--or putting them up to acts of mischief--pet parents and their furry wonders also deserve some restraint and respect when they’re out in public. It’s not just polite—it’s a safety issue. You must first ask permission and listen to how to pet a puppy.
It's not rocket science. When you see a new pup or strange dog, simply compliment the people on their handsome or beautiful pet. Then ask if it's okay to pet. Chances are they'll welcome the attention, or at least offer some guidelines.
Why You Should Ask to Pet A Puppy
Ryan and Sarah Loyd share their home and hearts with Barker and Hailey, and occasionally take the two rescue Pit Bull dogs to PetsMart for treats. The Loyds worked hard to ensure the dogs act calm and well behaved in public, even using the Gentle Leader head halter for better control. But lately, strangers have sabotaged their efforts, says Ryan.
“When people come up and start making baby noises and gestures, Barker and Hailey go berserk,” he says. The dogs love the attention so much, they’ll jump up, pull on their leashes, Barker barks, and it becomes hard to control them. “When they're in that overload mode of human interaction, they forget about everything else.”
It’s not that Ryan objects to people admiring and appreciating the dogs. “With both tails wagging and that big ‘pizza slice’-looking grin on their faces, I guess people are just so surprised how nice and friendly the dogs are,” he says. “That makes me feel good because they are nice and friendly dogs, and I want the stereotype to stop, especially about this Pit Bull breed.”
Pet owners--and I include myself—simply want people to ask before they approach, and then pay attention to our answers. That’s not only polite, it’s the smart thing to do. Any dog could turn out to be friendly, or not. And you do not want to be the “first time ever” that Fluffy decides to bite because he hates your perfume.
Magic’s loud bass bark sounds scary coming out of nearly 80 pounds of excited, prancing fur. But if you ask me in advance so I have time to prepare him for your approach, he’ll literally be eating treats out of your hand within minutes of meeting. And although Barker and Hailey have never bitten or growled, they might try to lick you to death or could knock people (especially children) down by jumping up to give those slobbery kisses.
“When they see people and other dogs, it's just an overwhelming (literally) event for them. Barker especially gets very anxious around people and other dogs, and that anxiety turns into a happy hyperactivity, which is harder to control. But I can and do control it,” says Ryan. “I just need people's help not to make matters worse.”
How To Say “No” to Petting
It’s flattering for people to admire and take an interest in our pets, and even when that attention backfires, owners don’t always know how to politely tell well-meaning pet lovers to, back off, already! Ryan says he moves away a bit but that doesn’t always work, and by then the dogs are already excited.
We could take a lesson from cat show people, who post signs stating, “I don’t bite--but my owner might!” Another option might be to practice your dog command voice. When you see that pet-loving-baby-talking-fur-hugger approaching, be a traffic cop with your palm out as you smile and say loudly, “WAIT!” In the sudden surprised pause, explain, “I’d love for you to pet my dog if you first XYZ” and offer suggestions that work for your animals.
For instance, these rules work well for many puppies:
- Hold out your hand in a fist, facing down, for the puppy to sniff.
- Offer a treat (the owner provides) to help socialize the new puppy to strangers.
- Offer a toy (the owner provides) to make the interaction happy and a good experience for the pup.
- Avoid hands swooping downward at the pup, which can look frightening. Instead, after the puppy sniffs the hand, scratch under his chin or on his chest.
- Ask children to sit down for you to place the puppy on their lap.
- Request that they speak in a low-pitched calm voice. Children can practice their "indoor voice"--and ask adults to do the same!
Finally, some puppies just don't feel happy around strangers and it takes a lot of persuasion to change their minds. There is nothing wrong with telling that friendly puppy-lover:
"Thanks for NOT petting. He's shy and just learning to like new things. I don't want him get so scared he has an accident or nips someone trying to get away. You can help by (tossing treats? walking away? whatever helps...) and next time he'll be more willing to be loved on."
Be A Friend to Dogs and Owners
“Guys usually ask,” says Ryan, “and I've noticed that people with kids will ask. When they do, I have time to brace myself and the dogs in order for the child come up and pet them.” He then kneels on the child’s level while petting and holding the dogs by their chest.
“I think it's awesome when people take an interest in my dogs,” says Ryan. “I definitely take an interest in other people's dogs. I love dogs. I don't object in any way to people approaching. It just needs to be done in a respectful, considerate way.”