“Can I Pet Your Dog?” Why It’s Always Okay To Say No

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely young border collie I’ll call “Sami.”  She was a beautiful example of a well-bred herding dog – quick, keenly intelligent, and fit and graceful at just over 12 months old.

Her owner brought her in for a consultation with me because she was having, as she put it, “some issues with Sami around strangers.”  Things had seemed to be fine for the first few months after bringing Sami home – she attended a puppy kindergarten class with no problems, and did well with walks around the neighborhood and visitors to the house.  She also loved to accompany her owner on off-leash hiking trips on the weekends with a group of friends.

As Sami grew, she became more independent and aloof.  Although she loved to snuggle with her owner on the couch at home, and enjoyed rough-housing and playing ball with some hiking buddies that she knew well, she tended to avoid many of her owner’s friends on their weekend outings.  This was causing some hurt feelings in the group, and her owner worried that Sami wasn’t “friendly” enough.

Anxious to remedy this problem, she resolved to do a better job of socializing her pup with as many people as possible.  Armed with a pocket full of hot dog slices, she took Sami to the park every day after work – each passer-by they encountered was asked to say hello to Sami, pet her, and feed her a treat.  They also made regular trips to Petsmart and their local hardware store, and Sami rode along in the car when her owner ran errands to the bank or pharmacy.

Everywhere they went, she asked people to stop and greet Sami – and they were happy to help!  She was a strikingly gorgeous dog, and everyone was eager to pat her head and offer a treat.

By any conventional measure, Sami’s owner was doing a fantastic job of socializing her with strangers.  Taking her lots of different places, meeting new people, and using treats to help make it a positive experience for her.

There was just one problem.  She wasn’t getting any better.

In fact, much to her owner’s dismay, things had taken a dramatic turn for the worse.  Where before Sami had shown casual interest in other humans or ignored them altogether, she was now barking and lunging at people they encountered on their walks.  Her owner attempted to address this behavior by telling her “NO!” whenever she growled (as instructed by a previous trainer) and holding her in place by the collar for people to pet her.

By the time of our first meeting, Sami had attempted to bite a person who was approaching her on two separate occasions.  Her owner was at a loss.  What more could she do?

When I first met Sami, I found her very interesting.  She was not a “typical” reactive dog, in many ways – not overly anxious, no nervous panting or pacing in the training room.  Small sounds and casual movements didn’t seem to faze her.  She regarded me warily at first, sitting quietly on my folding chair against the wall, but relaxed once she saw that I was making no attempt to engage with her.

I tossed her pieces of string cheese while her owner and I talked, which she was happy to eat.  Apart from that, she took her time exploring the room – poking her head inside the agility tunnels, investigating the smells by the reception desk with great interest, and sniffing for wayward treat crumbs on the floor.  After a bit, apparently satisfied, she flopped down beside her owner’s feet and closed her eyes for a nap.

All in all, not the kind of behavior that I expect to see from most of my reactive patients.

With Sami snoozing peacefully on the floor between us, looking for all the world like a perfectly “normal” dog, I asked her owner a few questions.

First: “Do you think that Sami enjoys being petted?”

Her owner considered this for a moment.  For all her diligent work – and she was an exceptionally kind, intelligent person who truly wanted the best for her dog – she had never thought much about this.

“Well – yes, I think she does.  She’s a sweet girl, really!  She snuggles with me all the time at home.”

I understand, I told her.  How about away from home, with people she doesn’t know well?  Did she ever actually approach strangers for petting, if the decision were left up to her?

Her owner was quiet.  Thinking.

I called Sami’s name.  She raised her head immediately, ears perked.  I tossed her another bit of cheese, which she snatched eagerly from the floor.

Experimentally, I sat down on the floor several feet away from her.  “Hey there, pretty girl!  Come here!”  I spread my hands invitingly, smiling at her.

She took in my antics with a kind of bored disdain, then turned her head away.  A polite, but decisive, “no thank you.”

I returned to my chair.

People on the street thought she was beautiful, and wanted to pet her.  Her owner wanted her to “be a nice dog” and say hello.

No one anyone had ever asked Sami what she wanted.

And this, more than anything else, was the problem.

******

Sami’s story is not as unusual as you might think.  She was not a “mean” or aggressive dog – she simply preferred to be left alone, to get on with whatever she was doing.  Just like humans, every dog is different!  Some love petting and attention from strangers, while others would rather keep to themselves.  Neither of these personality types is inherently better than the other – they just are.

In human terms, I’ve always found this intuitively easy to empathize with.  An example:

My maternal grandfather was the friendliest, most social person I ever knew.  He truly loved people – everything about them.  He was interested in their stories, and loved to talk.  Everywhere he went, he was sure to run into half a dozen people he knew – old friends, distant cousins, or half-remembered acquaintances.  He was the kind of person who would strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger in line at the grocery store, and sincerely enjoy every word.

In the course of my career, I have met a number of Labs and golden retrievers who remind me very much of my grandfather.  They amble happily through life with a friendly grin and a softly wagging tail, and love to say hello to every person who crosses their path.  They give sloppy kisses, and roll over for belly rubs at every opportunity.  Nothing makes them happier than to have a stranger approach and pet them.  These are the therapy dogs of the world, and the easy family pets who love everyone they meet.

So – absolutely, these dogs (and people!) do exist.  But what about the ones who aren’t like this?

I will be the first to admit, that I’m not much like my grandfather.  I do enjoy interacting with people in certain situations, especially one-on-one or in small groups – but I am much more introverted than he was, and much quieter in social settings.

When I go to the store, I’m there to buy groceries.  I don’t care much for small talk, and would never strike up a spontaneous chat with someone else in the produce section.  I want to get the items on my list, and head for the check-out.  If someone insisted that I stop and exchange pleasantries with every single person who crossed my path, I would quickly become irritable and impatient.

This is precisely how Sami felt, every time her owner took her out.

In the beginning, she was not particularly reactive or aggressive towards people she didn’t know – she simply didn’t have much interest in having them pet her.  Truthfully, there are many dogs who don’t care overly much for being touched by strangers, even if they enjoy petting and snuggling at home with their loved ones.  Again, just like us! 🙂

Unfortunately for Sami, her owner’s well-intentioned efforts to “socialize” her only made things worse.  From her perspective, the world had suddenly become a much more unpleasant place!

Before, she could go for walks with her mom in peace, sniffing and exploring to her heart’s content, or enjoy their hiking trips running free off-leash without being bothered.  But now, it seemed that everyone they saw was determined to invade her personal space – they walked up to her (ignoring her polite attempts to indicate that she didn’t want to say hello), stuck their hands in her face, and even insisted on touching her.  Small wonder that she became increasingly suspicious of strangers, and began to bark and lunge when she saw them – she had tried for a long time to ask people more politely to leave her alone, but no one was listening.

Scolding her for this, unfortunately, only made her more frustrated and upset.  She eventually progressed to snapping, and even biting, when people tried to pet her because she had no other options.  Every other attempt she had made to communicate had been misinterpreted or ignored.

Sami didn’t have any desire to harm anyone, and was otherwise a perfectly lovely dog.  She just wanted what we all want – to be respected, when she said “no.”

******

As owners, it can be hard to wrap our minds around this at first – particularly with our own pets!

For better or worse, people expect “nice dogs” to be friendly and eager to interact with everyone they meet.  When we take our dogs for walks or have them in public places, we face a tremendous amount of social pressure to allow people to pet them.  Well-meaning strangers are often insistent about saying hello, and may not read your dog’s body language well enough to understand when their advances are unwelcome.

This puts the onus on you, to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable.  If a passer-by asks to pet her, watch her reaction before you agree.  If she wags her tail and moves forward with loose, relaxed body language, this is a good indication that she would like to say hi.  If she turns her head away, looks tense or uncertain, or tries to hide behind you, she’s saying no – respect her choice, and move on.

******

Fortunately for Sami, her owner eagerly embraced this new approach after our discussion.  We made the following changes to her training plan:

– Sami did not have to say hello to any strangers, or allow them to pet her, unless she initiated the interaction by approaching them first.  We also discussed how to watch her body language to make sure that she was relaxed and happy when she did this – if there was any tension or uncertainty, her owner would call her name, give a treat for turning back to her, and move away.

– Since she was now barking and lunging at people passing on the street, we addressed this with the same general plan that we use for most leash reactivity issues – see my post about Louie, here, for more details on this.  Essentially, we used a verbal marker (“yes!”) followed by a treat every time she looked at a person.  This taught her that seeing a stranger = yummy treats, so that before long she was looking happily at her owner for a reward each time a person walked by, rather than barking.

– No punishment of any kind (including verbal corrections) for growling, barking, or otherwise indicating that she was uncomfortable.  These are communication signals to be heeded, rather than “misbehavior” to be corrected.  Our goal was to manage Sami well enough to prevent her from feeling the need to growl or bark – but if this happened, her owner was instructed to simply move away from whatever was making her upset, then praise and reward as soon as she was far enough away to be calm.

Within a few weeks, Sami was doing much better on her walks – no longer lunging and barking at everyone she saw.  She was also enjoying her off-leash hiking trips again, since her owner had asked her friends to simply leave her alone unless she approached them voluntarily.  People walking directly towards her when she is on-leash are still challenging, likely because this scenario has so often predicted an unwanted interaction in the past – so we are slowly working to change this.

Once she feels safe in this situation, which may take several more weeks or months of practice, she may eventually decide that she enjoys saying hello to people in certain contexts.  She may even find that a little petting is nice, every now and then.

And if she doesn’t, that’s okay too.  She’s a lovely dog either way.

Just as it should be, the choice is hers.

  1. Reading this article, I kept saying to myself, “Well, of course, it should be the dog’s choice to approach people for attention. They should never be forced to interact.” Dogs that I have had who were shy and reserved, they would be given a treat by the person if the dog approached on their own. In addition to the attention from the person, that would be a bonus for making the decision. If there wasn’t food, then the attention from the person, or the dog’s choice to make that decision, would be their reward. The decision to interact must always be the choice of the dog.

    • I agree completely – we often don’t think about this from the dog’s perspective, but we should. Forcing dogs into interactions they aren’t comfortable with can often lead to aggressive behavior, increased fear or anxiety, etc.

      Far better to let them make the choice, and then respect their decision – if they don’t want to say hi, they shouldn’t have to. <3

      • I also found that if given the choice to interact and the experience is positive, the dog’s confidence improves slowly. They find that there are nice people in this world and that they won’t be forced or pushed and they are willing to try new things rather than dread the outcome of making the wrong decision which might have been, in an adopted dog especially, physical beatings or yelling or worse.

        • Jackie, I agree with this as well. It’s amazing what a shy dog can become comfortable with, by allowing them to go at their own pace. The element of choice is critically important for these dogs – when they learn that they can always opt out if they want to, they become much more willing to try things 🙂

          • I adopted a Longhaired Miniature Dachshund through a rescue who got him from a shelter in San Jose. He was about five years old at the time and was deemed unadaptable due to his extreme fear and shyness. That is how the rescue got him and I fostered him and eventually adopted him.

            I had no experience with a dog with such fear, and admittedly I got frustrated because I expected certain things from him, which he could not do. He never bit but he did have submissive peeing to everything that occurred on a daily basis and wore a male wrap for two years before even that stopped.

            What I decided to do was to lower the bar and lower the bar and lower the bar of my expectations to finally a point that he could meet and then we worked up from there, very slowly. That always included that he was allowed to approach people on walks only if he wanted to and he was allowed to approach me only when he wanted to. We started where I could barely touch him or look at him or approach him and the peeing would start, so I just moved him around the house and out to the yard in his crate, which he seemed fine with. The crate became his special place, even though he would shred his blankets and pee or poop in the crate.

            Slowly, I moved him around on leash out to the yard or on walks in the neighborhood and his confidence very slowly grew, but I would still see a tucked tail even if he approached people on his own. I knew until that tail was out and untucked and wagging from joy of greeting a person, his internal fears would still exist.

            Within the last five months, I have started to see him become more and more confident and less of a tail tuck. He no longer shreds his beds and hasn’t had an accident for many months.

            The end of last year he passed a national temperament test with high marks and a month ago earned his first performance title in UKC in weight pull.

            Now he is a super confident and friendly dog and will approach people on his own to solicit attention and no one has any idea that he used to be a terrified dog hiding in the corner of his kennel.

      • Having read this very interesting blog I will be watching my 20 week old pup closely to try to read her body language next time we go out. I did exactly the same with her socialisation as Sami’s owner – assumed it was a good thing to let her meet and greet as many people and dogs as possible. She’s started lunging at dogs and people and even pushchairs but not barking and I have assumed she wants to say hello and so am pulling her away or turning her away as I want to control whom I think she should approach. Maybe I too have been misinterpreting her communication completely.

        • It can sometimes be challenging to tell what your dog is trying to communicate! But the most important first step, is making an effort to watch her and understand. 🙂

          You might try rewarding her for simply looking at dogs and people, rather than encouraging her to interact, and see if this seems to help. If not, a good reward-based trainer should be able to take a look at her in person and help you figure out what she’s trying to say.

      • I have to say, I haven’t had this problem with most of my dogs but one, a border collie cross, had a particular issue with children. Only the ones who were walking and only up to about 5. We had to be very careful with her because she would snap at their faces. She had no problem with anyone else until one day the vet put her up on the table to examine her. When he leaned over to look in her eyes, she bit him. That’s when I realized she was afraid of anyone she could look in the eye. We tested my theory by putting her up on the freezer at home. She didn’t snap at me but she did whine and tremble and look away. After that, we just made sure that no one that small approached her. I have, however, often noticed that a lot of people do this very thing to their children. Sad but true.

        • That’s a very interesting observation, in your dog’s case. It does make a certain amount of sense, as many dogs are not comfortable with direct eye contact – especially from people they don’t know.

          It’s great that you were able to suss out exactly what was bothering her about these interactions, and avoid having children approach her. I’m sure she very much appreciated it! <3

  2. I find it especially interesting when someone asks to pet your dog and you politely say no, and they proceed to do it anyway! We have a friendly beagle, and a sometimes not-so-friendly weiner dog (who in fact, I’d love for you to meet in a professional setting eventually) and people always want to pet her-especially kids. We always offer up the beagle instead but they insist on petting the wein like they’re gonna be the ones that cure her with their magic petting! And people will let their kids do it while I silently bite my lip with anxiety and try to get away as soon as possible. Anyway, love reading your blog! Always so helpful and calming and non-judgemental 🙂

    • The problem of people not listening to or respecting your request not to pet your dog is SO common! It seems like folks can come up with a host of reasons why they will be the exception (“Oh thats OK, I’m good with dogs!”). I have found that the best way to quickly and succinctly stop these well intentioned people in their tracks is to respond with “I’m sorry…he/she has Ringworm!”. It might be a bit embarrassing at first, but I have yet to have any of my clients report that there has been any push back or further unwanted attempts to pet their dog! 🙂

    • I have a not-so-friendly wiener dog as well, and have the same issue! Kids are constantly running up and trying to pet him, most often without asking permission first. Luckily his first reaction to this isn’t to snap, but to run away. I do carry treats with me, and generally I tell the more persistent parents/kids that “he doesn’t like to be petted, but you can give him a treat. Just no pets!”. Then it’s completely up to him if he wants to take the treat or not. This seems to work well, even if the kid ends up having to put the treat on the ground before he takes it.

      These wiener dogs, it’s their biggest curse that they are so darn cute!

    • I had a lab who loved absolutely everybody (except one neighbour who turned out to be a thief and a child molester but that’s another story). I would take her out for walks and, when people asked if they could pet her, especially kids, I made her sit down and had the child stand about 10 ft away, then I told them her name and said “if you call her and she comes, she’ll let you pet her”. I don’t remember her ever saying “no” but that didn’t matter. Not only did they get the message that it was the dog’s choice, not mine, but they also felt pretty special when she ran to them.

    • Yes! People are sometimes not good at taking a hint, unfortunately… from either you or the dog 🙁

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I would be glad to meet your not-so-friendly weiner dog sometime.

  3. Love this piece; thank you! Our current dog is curious to look at people but doesn’t want to be touched or cooed over, thank you very much! Fair enough- it’s who he is, and we don’t force it.

    • It sounds like you’re handling his preferences perfectly! I’m sure he appreciates it <3

  4. Seems to me the dog Sami is a natural herder and thinks that humans that want to approach need to be herded and tow the line. Oh, my middle name is Bernard.

  5. This article really resonated with me, and made me feel so much better about the choices I made with socializing my own dog. Like Sami, my dachshund (funny how they’ve been mentioned several times in the comment section 😉 has no interest in meeting strangers. While not particularly “unfriendly”, he tends towards shyness and prefers to befriend you on his own terms. I did many of the same things Sami’s owner did by bringing him everywhere and introducing him to as many new situations as I could. The only difference between us is I never forced him to actually interact or greet. My only expectation was that he stand quietly and be polite. If a stranger or another dog wanted to say hi, it was completely up to him if he wanted to reciprocate. I’ve always been worried that maybe I didn’t do “enough” to make him more comfortable and friendly. After reading this, I’m positive he would have reacted the same way has Sami if I had forced the issue.

    If a person does try to say hi to him without asking(kid’s being the biggest culprit, please please please stop letting your kids run up to dogs!), he generally just does a quick sniff and lick then immediately walks away. I always just say he’s incredibly shy and don’t force the issue. Thanks for all your wonderful articles, I learn so much every time you post!

  6. When I used to teach puppy classes we always talked about this – even did some role playing so owners would be more confident when in a situation where they didn’t want their puppies petted. I believe that many were surprised to consider things from the dog’s perspective. I always hoped that they would tell their friends, “Guess what I learned in puppy class!” or that they would recognize a dog who didn’t want to be petted and would take a moment to discuss this with the owner.

  7. I no longer have any issue giving a firm “No” to any human who wants to pet my dog when it wouldn’t be appreciated by then. If only I could be as successful with off leash dogs owned by oblivious and incompetent people with no respect for dog etiquette. Now I have a dog a formerly decently dog-friendly dog that can go to a daycare no problem where the people transition her slowly into a small group of appropriately sized and behaving dogs, but wants to take the face off of any dog that comes up to her (with a bright, blaze color leash attached, heeling at my side, a handful of treats in front of her face, my body as in front of her as possible, stepping off the trail, etc.) in the woods, whether she’s muzzled or not. Then their owners get mad at me if I point out how rude both they and their dogs are, saying that whatever town we’re in has no leash law and I shouldn’t have an aggressive dog out in public. Luckily at 40# I can just about pick her up (which she hates), though it still ends up with the same conversation.

  8. My Sammie the chow mix (who looked very similar to the cover photo!) had this same issue. I never forced her, but stupid people (“oh she’s so beautiful “) would come right up and try to pet her, as she hid behind me. Never mind the “lick you to death” daddy’s boy rottie mix always along with us (oh he’s so scary ~ not) , ignore him and try to pet the biter. Sigh.

  9. This sounds exactly like my 1.5 year old Bernese Mountain Dog except replace lunging with hiding…. she pulls away and hides from every stranger’s attempt to pet her and goes so far as to cower behind me. With her being such a huge fluffy bear, everyone wants to pet her! We did puppy classes where she was the most outgoing and well behaved star of the lot, lots of socialization, but at 6 months she suddenly showed this timid side, and we saw it progress rapidly. We tried to “fix it” by over-socializing her, bringing her everywhere, having everyone pet her, but it seemed to get worse! After consultations with trainers and our vet, we even tried anxiety medicine, which dulled her personality for a few months, and didn’t seem to help.

    We finally gave up on the meds, and the forcing her into uncomfortable situations, and just asked strangers (and even our friends) to not pet her. She will come around if/ when she’s ready, but she just doesn’t like strangers.
    Miraculously, with us relaxing and treating every situation casually instead of a needed training opportunity, she’s been much calmer. We learned how to tell people to please not pet her.

    It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable when people ask “what’s wrong? What happened to her? Is she a rescue?”, but she’s just this way, and we LOVE her perfectly as is. Thanks for writing this, it makes me feel validation that our situation is ok!

  10. This blog is a perfect description of my border collie, Roxy. I did all the same things that Sami’s owner did too, trying to socialize her. I also reached the conclusion that I had to ask people to ignore her. Once I did that, life got much better for us both. I love your analogy of people having different personalities and so do dogs. I’ll talk to anyone, I just expected my dog to be the same way. While all my previous dogs were social, Roxy is not. Letting go of my expectations really helped. Love your blog and so glad I found it.

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