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May I Pet Your Dog?

Well, that sounds like an innocent enough question coming from a sweet-faced three-year-old child, don’t you think?

I’m sure everyone agrees that touching without asking is a big no-no, but I’d like to go one step further to suggest that, “May I pet your dog?” is a loaded question that may do more harm than good.

Let’s explore what’s going on here.

Being a normal person, this is the way the question comes across: “I clearly must be a well-mannered child since I asked so politely.  What could possibly go wrong?  Besides what kind of person would have a dog that does not love children?”

Wow, talk about social pressure!  No wonder it’s hard for people to say no, even when they know their dog is uncomfortable with small children.   Think about that, parents.

Parents and pet owners alike need to be clear about the unspoken question:  “I’m just a little kid with pretty much no understanding of what your dog would like.  When I get up close I may end up frightening your dog or hurting him accidentally or I might even squeeze his neck and put my face right up to his while I squeal in his ear and pull his fur.  Your dog cool with that?”

Hmm, well, maybe not so much now that you put it that way.

The thing is, people DON’T say it that way and kids end up taking way too many liberties with other people’s dogs.

What’s a parent of a dog-loving child to do?

First, kids should always have a parent right there with them.  The pet owner should be free to give full attention to the dog; the parent should actively direct the child.  If the dog gets spooked, it’s best to have the parent right there to know what happened.

My husband always sends kids back to get their parents.  Sometimes, parents are a little annoyed that they had to get up from the bench and walk over.  That is, until he points out that they don’t know him and he could very well be a creepy guy out with a cute dog to “meet” little kids…Yikes!

Instill in small children the habit of admiring dogs from a distance.  Just like you do with zoo animals, it’s OK to enjoy looking at and talking about dogs.  Point out the colors or how fast the dog runs or how nice he walks with his owner.  Kids can enjoy dogs without having to touch them.

Don’t let your young child become so “magnetized” to dogs that you can’t keep her away.  “Oh, but she LOVES dogs!” gives little reassurance to anyone.  If your child has so little self-control from a distance, how do you expect her to control herself up close where it counts?

Teach your older children to ask about dogs in a way that leaves room for an honest answer.  Say something like, “You have a beautiful dog!  Does he like children touching him or would he prefer I just wave and say ‘hi’ from here?”

If the answer is no for petting, please be kind and gracious.  Thank the person for the care and concern they showed both for their dog and for your child.  Remember, there’s a lot of social pressure on people to say, “Yes,” while they hold their breath and hope the dog won’t react.

If invited to approach, pause a few feet away and ask, “How does your dog like to be touched?  Will you show me what he likes?”  Parents, take this time to see how the owner interacts with the dog and how comfortable the dog seems with the encounter.  We’re all good about asking the owner, but we forget to ask the dog.

Is the owner making it fun for the dog?  Does the dog seem attentive and responsive to the owner?  Or, is the dog a little too excited? Does the dog approach your child willingly?  It’s OK if the dog stands and waits calmly, but the owner should not be forcing the dog to sit and stay.  It should all seem very familiar and relaxed — like it’s no big deal for the dog.

Maybe it’s just my thing, but I would never consider having a child touch a dog that was wearing any sort of training collar — choke chain, prong collar, shock collar or even a head halter.  I’m wary of the illusion of control provided by correction collars, and I’d like to respect that dogs in head halters are often still learning and let them be.

An adult should be at the dog’s head during the encounter.  If the owner doesn’t naturally do this to give assurance to the dog, the parent should take this position.

Appropriate petting looks like this:

  • Stand still so you can see that the dog is willing to approach; do not go into the dog’s space
  • Pet the body part the dog offers you
  • Pet with one hand at a time
  • Elbow of petting hand remains touching your body (to limit reaching to or over the dog)
  • No hugging or kissing
  • Whispers only — dogs have very good hearing, you know!

Everything going great after a few pets?  Great!  It’s time to say thank you and goodbye.

After every encounter, ask yourself, “Did the visit with my child make this dog more or less comfortable for the next child?”  Let’s all do our part to help kids be good friends to dogs.

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  1. “Besides what kind of person would have a dog that does not love children?”

    I had to chuckle at that. I swear some people seem to think dogs are ‘for kids’ and that their child is entitled to enjoy other peoples’ whenever they get the whim.

    I know many people who have dogs and expressly dislike small children. =P

  2. I’m amazed at the parents who look at you like you have three heads if you say no to the request. Don’t they understand that I might be saving them a trip to the ER? I’m a trainer and I’m not always walking my own dogs! Even if I were, I have a duty to protect my dogs from beastly children, and if I don’t know the child, chances are I’m assuming beastly not well behaved;-))

    1. Thanks for the two cents! You are so right that people are often put off when you say “No” to the request to pet the dog. I think part of that is because most people cave in and say “yes” when they’d rather not so people get used to asking and then getting right to the “yes.” I think we should have a National Say No to Petting My Dog Day so people (especially kids) can practice and be OK when the answer is No. I like your point that saying “No” is out of consideration for the child’s safety, too.

  3. Thanks a million for this! another thing in my repertoire is
    He’s just had treatment w/ noxious chemicals for fleas so you’d be better off to avoid the stuff getting on your hands.

  4. Yeah, I have the same problem. My JRT is people agressive and still learning to accept people coming into her space. This one time we were out for a walk, I didn’t see the kid but Bella must have because she froze and would not move. I shrugged thinking that maybe there was something under the hedge that she had sen, so I bent over and out of nowhere this 4-5 year old boy came screaming from around the hedge and raced up to Bella an reached out to grab her collar. I was startled and quickly moved to get her away from him but he actually put his hand near her mouth and she got him by the sleeve of his jacket, and bit down hard. The kid was screaming and I was upset, his mom and dad were upset but I apologized profusely and asked if he was okay, his mom checked him over and then apologized to me saying that she was sorry that she had let him out of her sight for a second. It still bothers me that the kid didn’t even ask before approaching a strange dog but had foolishly put his hand near her mouth.

    1. Hello Alex – wow, that was a scary situation all around! I’m glad the adults were all able to be reasonable about it and maybe it opened the eyes of the boy’s parents. You can definitely see why dogs get scared of kids.

  5. Thanks for this great website. I have 3 small dogs and no children, and I’m just nervous about letting unknown kids pet my dogs. I worry about lawsuits, among other things.
    You’re right, it is awkward to say no, but thanks to this website, I now feel much better about it.

    1. Hello Denise – I’m glad you feel empowered to say, “No.” If kids always hear “Yes,” they soon stop waiting for the answer and proceed directly to moving in on dogs. You are doing a favor to families by saying no if you are not comfortable. (And, really, what is there to be comfortable about if the child is a mere toddler? There’s a HUGE difference between “kids” and “toddlers.”)

  6. Thank you, Denise! By coincidence, I did happen to see that column. I usually avoid even looking at the Dear Abby headline because I think they pick titillating examples of people being stupid and present it as if the whole world is full of abusive and cheating spouses and nasty controlling mothers-in-law that want to wreck wedding plans. The dog example fits right in because she says nothing about how to teach and direct children or what is appropriate with the animals we have under our care or anything that would help other people.

    1. I think this Dear Abby column serves as a good warning to parents to never leave their pet unsupervised with visiting children – for the sake of the children and the pet. I like that DoggoneSafe also advocates for the dog.

  7. This is so true. I hate to say no – I feel like a scrooge – but my dog is not comfortable around children. I stand there, tensed the entire time, trying to keep her calm with treats while also keeping the kids away from her face. She may be small – she’s a dachshund – but she’s strong. She hasn’t bitten anyone yet: I’d like to keep it that way.

    1. Cassy, did you see my later post on “National Say No You Can’t Pet My Dog Day?” I don’t like to say no to people, either, but I’ve gotten better with practice. 🙂 Just yesterday at soccer practice I decided to say no to all the little toddler brothers and sisters — for the express purpose of letting them experience being around a dog and not “having” to pet her. If kids only hear “yes,” the people who need to say “no” are going to continue to have a hard time with kids and parents seeming annoyed or overly disappointed. I tell the kids and parents, “My dog is old and her back is sore. It won’t feel good for her to be touched today.”

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