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How the Culture of "Can I Pet Your Dog?" Doesn't Serve our Dogs

If you ask to pet my dog as I'm walking down the street on the way to see a friend or a client, I'm going to say no. If you ask before we're about to go into the rally or show or agility ring or any other sport for that matter, I'm going to say no. If I'm not in a rush and you're chilling, sitting down and we're chatting and if you ask to pet my dog, I might say yes. But more likely, I'm going to tell you: "If they want." And sometimes my dogs are interested in being pet and sometimes they are not. More often than not Anubi and Amalu aren't and Ash and Amidi are.

American dog culture is toxic. Please try to bear with me, because I don't normally make such bold, uncompromising statements, but I commonly deal with dogs that have been pushed too far past their limit too often because their owners couldn't advocate for their dog. And do you know what happens when you push dogs past their limits frequently? You lose their trust. It's not done maliciously. It's done out of ignorance and usually because of peer pressure.

People don't want to tell their friends, family, and peers: No. Most people don't even want to tell a stranger: No. So when a person comes up and asks to pet your dog or to let their dog say hi to yours, it's really difficult for most people to say "No, thank you." And even when they stand their ground, many people won't take No for an answer and will press the issue anyway. This is the culture that we've created where people feel it's acceptable to walk up to a complete stranger and create this peer pressure conflict.

Two friendly but frustrated dogs practicing not greeting

I honestly can't count, where long past the point where I kept track, the number of dogs that come to me not with fear reactivity but frustration reactivity which was created by well meaning owners letting their dogs say hi to every single person and dog as a puppy in the name of socialization. However, then, as those puppies get older and owners no longer have the time or patience to let their dog say hi to everyone they start dragging their dogs across the street and not letting them greet anymore. And what results? A very frustrated dog who has no way to express their frustration at not getting to greet by barking, lunging, snarling, and growling.

In general, letting your dogs greet on leash is setting yourself up for failure.

  1. Leashes restrict a dog's natural movements, which means dogs are greeting nose to nose and if that goes on for longer than about 3 seconds, often dogs start to get stiff, take offense, or get snappy.

  2. Greeting on leash also makes it hard for those owners with reactive fearful dog who don't like other dogs in their face to advocate for their dogs. Here comes a person, their dog pulling ahead of them, assuring you that their dog is friendly. But how is that person supposed to politely disengage if their dog doesn't want a dog in their face.

  3. Greeting every dog as a puppy can set up your dog to be friendly, but frustrated as discussed about.

  4. Letting your dog pull up to people to say hi reinforces their pulling. You might has well be giving your dog a treat for pulling you because you're rewarding them by letting them greet the other dog.

  5. It might not be safe for your dog to greet a random other dog. Owners of aggressive dogs still need to walk their dogs too. For the safety of my dogs, I'm always going to give another dog their space unless invited to do otherwise.

Are there times where I might let my dogs say hi on leash? Yes, I will let them go sniff and then after 3 seconds (after which dogs start to play or snap) I recall them away. I always do this on a loose leash under complete control because a tight leash can result in a tense dog. I will sometimes let them say hi to dogs at shows and trials, typically dogs they already know, but generally my same rules apply. In general though, greeting dogs is for off leash.

This is one area that Americans struggle (generally) when compared to Europeans who are often lauded for their well-behaved dogs. This an absolutely a fantastic article which addresses the differences far better than I will. However, I want to touch on some of the differences I've seen while in Europe.

Anubi off leash with his siblings and mom at a park in Paris
  1. Off leash dogs - many dogs are off leash in parks and other open spaces in Europe. When a large distraction arises, owners call their dogs back and leash them without a fuss. This is a sharp contrast to leash laws in the United States.

  2. Dogs in public spaces - dogs are allowed in most public spaces in Europe: cafes, pubs, public transit. It is treated as a matter of course that dogs will accompany their humans, thus European dogs get to experience a much wider array of novelties than most American dogs.

  3. Dogs not seen as a novelty - in Europe the general public ignores other people's dogs while in public. Children are urged to ignore dogs and no one stops and asks to pet a stranger's dog. This allows dogs to be less distracted and dogs to be more focused and engaged with their owners. I've worked with European clients who had moved to the US who were downright offended that everyone asked to pet their lovely French Bulldog. And another European man who told me the only time in the prior ten years anyone had ever even stopped to talk to him about his dog was to compliment his German Shepherd and state they used to participate in IPO with theirs. That was his only interaction regarding his dog in ten years. While I was with Anubi's breeder in Paris, more people stopped us, but his breeder assured us this was largely because Azawakh are quite unusual, even in France.

There are other differences. The article I linked above is fantastic reading. But a wider availability and array of experience where dogs are not interfered with is a recipe that generally leads to well-adapt, quiet model canine citizens. It is something I would very much like the United States to begin emulating. And while there are some exceptions, I honestly think in some ways COVID has been better for raising puppies, because in general the COVID puppies I've worked with have been more focused on their humans and less frantic to get to other dogs and people.

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