You love Australian Labradoodles. Your child loves Labradoodles. In fact, when you see a complete stranger with an Australian Labradoodle, you can hardly wait to pet his or her pooch. “Look! A doodle!” you say to your child, who is probably already pulling you by the hand toward the dog.
If you are like most well-meaning dog lovers, however, what you do next is not a loving gesture to potential new canine buddies. If you have taught your child the wrong way to approach a dog, you may well be passing on outmoded advice that isn’t helpful for the child or the dog. Quiz yourself to be sure. Which of these is correct?
The right way for a child (or anyone) to meet a dog is to:
A) Ask for permission to pet the dog, then stand and wait for the dog to approach. Pet under the chin or on the chest.
B) Ask for permission to pet the dog, then extend the back of your hand for the dog to sniff it. Pet on the head or back.
C) Ask for permission to pet the dog, then squat down and offer an open palm to the dog.
Only one of these answers takes the dog’s perspective and feelings into account. Only one models for the child how to ask the dog whether he or she wants to be touched. Think about it this way: if you were on a crowded elevator, would you want a friendly stranger to say hello to you by smiling and then feeling the fabric of your pants or touching your hair? Most of us prefer to choose who touches us. Dogs are no different. “Just because you feel like it” is not a good reason to touch someone who is telling you they are not interested. What valuable lessons to impart to your child: it is okay to say “no” to being touched, and it is important not to touch others who say “no.” Even if we really want to.
These days most people have gotten in the habit of asking the dog’s person whether it is okay to pet his or her dog. This habit is a terrific trend, because if the dog is feeling uncomfortable, the human in charge can say, “Thank you for asking, but today Buddy is not feeling well, so please don’t pet him.” However, even if they say yes, your next step is always to ask the dog whether he or she feels like being touched by you. Simply stand still, and make sure your child stands still. If the dog would like to interact, he or she will move closer. If not, please respect the dog’s feelings and do not touch. If the dog says “no” by not coming closer to you, you and your child can still enjoy being near the dog. Ask the dog’s person how old the dog is, what he or she likes to do for fun, or if the dog knows any tricks. Your child may count the dog’s feet or spots, or admire his or her collar. Then say thank you and be on your way.
If the dog approaches you, it is a great sign that the dog would like you to touch him or her. Ask the dog’s person how his or her dog prefers to be petted. However, be aware that many people do not know the answer to this question about their own dog. The most universally inviting type of touch is to stroke the dog under the chin, on the front of the chest or on the side of the face. Give it a try, and then stop and put your hands at your sides to assess whether the dog likes it. The dog will let you know whether or not he or she wants you to continue touching by standing still, moving closer to you, or turning away. If the dog stays put or comes in for more, keep petting under the chin and reassessing periodically, giving the dog a chance to break off the interaction. If the dog turns away, stop touching him or her.
Someone in ancient times, before we knew how powerful dogs’ sense of smell was, decided that if the dog could get a whiff of the back of our hand the dog would feel at ease. As we now know, dogs can sniff out cancerous cells, they can track a weeks-old trail in the woods, and they can detect a single drop of urine in a gallon of water. If you are close enough to ask the person if it’s okay to pet his or her dog, the dog has already smelled you and assessed you more intensely than you can imagine. Not only that, but if you have enough space between you to extend your hand, by definition the dog has not come right up to you, which means you have not waited for the dog to approach. You are thereby encroaching on the dog’s space. The dog may be able to overcome such an intimidating gesture on your part, but instead of imposing what you want on the dog, gain the dog’s trust by using your hands in a non-threatening manner. Pet under the dog’s chin or on his chest only after the dog says “yes” by voluntarily approaching you.
As you may have guessed, the correct answer to the quiz above is A. Ask for permission to pet the dog, even if the dog looks friendly or cute, and even if you already know the dog. (If there is no one around to ask because the dog is tied up, please don’t touch the dog.) Next, be a tree; always ask the dog by standing and waiting for the dog to approach. After all, it is respectful to ask before touching others. (If the dog’s owner prevents the dog from approaching you by making the dog hold a position like a sit stay, or by holding the dog in their arms, don’t touch the dog. To teach dogs to greet people calmly.) Finally, if the dog comes close to you, the chin or chest is where you should pet. Your child can “give a kiss” by kissing the palm of his or her hand and then petting the dog on the chest. If the pooch doesn’t come closer, don’t touch.
Be a real dog lover by taking dogs’ feelings into account. Teach your children to use the ABCs of saying hello, and make it easier for a dog to love them right back.