Helping Your Dog Cope with Strangers with Style and Grace

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I have unintentionally offended many dog owners and I always want to tell people that we should trust a dog owner to know his/her dog.  Each of our dogs deal with strangers differently so I’ve become adept at helping each dog cop with strangers.  Some people misinterpret my unwillingness to allow our dogs to interact with strangers and I get a snide comment about my unsocialized dogs.  They don’t understand that our dogs “are in training.”

Helping Your Dog Cope with Strangers

My husband, Jason, spotted the woman across the supermarket parking lot about a football field away, locked on his little group like enemy radar and moving in their direction at warp speed.  Jason had come to the parking lot to teach a class on canine obedience amidst moderate distractions, and about a dozen people and their dogs were participating in the class.

As he lectured and demonstrated dog-handling techniques, Jason kept one eye on the woman, who was closing fast. When she neared his group, Jason noticed that she was focused on one particular animal, a beautiful German Shepherd dog of exceptionally hard character that was working with its handler on exercises. The handler, a very capable person, had her back to the approaching woman.


 
As the intruder hurried closer, Jason noted that she stared intently at the dog. The handler still was not aware of her approach, but the handler’s dog by now was staring back at the woman with an intensity that equaled her own.

Apparently, the well-intentioned woman was responding to an urge to pet this beautiful animal. The dog was getting ready to respond to an urge of its own.

Just before the woman reached the dog, Jason stepped forward and placed himself between them.

“Whoa, whoa!” he told the woman. “He’s the wrong dog for that!”

At this point the handler realized what had been about to happen, and jumped into the conversation.

“He doesn’t do well with people coming at him head-on,” she told the woman.

The woman stopped. Perhaps embarrassed now by Jason and the handler, she turned to walk away, but paused to toss the angry comment,

“That dog must not be very well socialized!”

Actually, the dog was quite well socialized. It just didn’t have a personality that permitted it to enjoy a friendly mauling by a stranger. And rather than criticizing the dog or his training, the woman might have considered saying, “Thanks for keeping me from getting bitten.”  In fact, if Jason or the dog’s handler had not intervened, this dog probably would have bitten the woman, perhaps multiple times.

Lesson Number One

The incident provided Jason with some excellent lessons to share with his class. The first lesson was, if you feel the inexplicable urge to fondle a strange dog, never approach it without permission from its handler. Even with permission, approach circumspectly to avoid alarming the animal.

Lesson Number Two

Lesson number two was, if you are a handler and someone approaches your dog with the intention of touching it, there is nothing the matter with stepping between that person and the dog and informing the person politely that the dog doesn’t like to be handled by strangers.

Look at it this way: Would you allow a stranger to rush up to your small child and fondle the child’s face or run fingers through your child’s hair? Would you allow a stranger to do the same to you? Why, then, would you allow someone to do that to your dog?

Meeting-a-Stranger Needs to be Handled Correctly

This meeting-a-stranger scenario can be critical to you and your dog because if you don’t handle it correctly it can undermine your whole relationship.  Virtually all strangers who approach are well-intentioned, and many handlers see no harm in allowing the scenario to play out. But that may not be the way your dog sees it.

How Does Your Dog Feel?

I was in a public venue a few years ago with a client who simply could not comprehend what was such a big deal about a stranger coming up and petting her somewhat uncomfortable dog.

“I’ll show you what I’m talking about,” I told her.

I left the client and walked halfway across the shopping center parking lot, then turned and caught her eye. I was about to do a little role-playing. Focused intently on her, I walked toward her at a rapid pace, never taking my eyes from hers. Still staring hard, I walked directly up to her and into her space, and then reached out and touched her face.  I could see her recoil slightly.

“Now picture that if I were a stranger,” I told her.

She got it.

“Oh, my goodness!” she said.

“That was creepy! If that really happened to me I’d be reaching for my can of Mace!”

Our Dogs Count on Us in Encounters with Strangers

To boil this down to its essence, your dog needs to be able to count on its leader in encounters with strangers. If you stand back and let strangers accost him, you are not being a leader. And in the absence of a leader, your dog will assume the position by default. He has no choice; the behavior is encoded in his doggy DNA. If he – not you – is the pack leader, this will make itself felt in all aspects of your relationship.

You can avoid all the problems associated with this by stepping up to your leadership responsibility.

Stopping a Speeding Bullet

Let me tell you about the experience of one of my clients recently on Alki Beach in Seattle, where we were working with her pup. The day was sunny, and a lot of walkers, joggers, skateboarders and bicyclists were enjoying the area. My client’s puppy was a magnet for passers-by, many of whom wanted to man-handle it in a friendly manner. My client allowed anyone to do so. The puppy tolerated it, but I could see anxiety build up in the pup every time a person approached. My client didn’t understand where the anxiety was coming from. I explained it to her, and told her what we needed to do about it.

A minute later, a couple came down the street toward us. The man was a pretty large guy, six-three or six-four and impressively built. The woman was pretty big herself, and together they were quite imposing. As they approached they spotted the pup. I could see their eyes light up, and they made a course correction that would bring them and us together.

This time, however, my client stepped between them and her dog, put her hand out, and very nicely explained,

“My pup is in training. I appreciate your intent, and thank you so much, but it would be better if you didn’t pet her.”

The pup of course understood none of the conversation, but it watched what her owner had done. My client was a petite woman, and next to this imposing couple she looked tiny. Yet she had stepped forward, put up her hand and – in her puppy’s eyes – had stopped a speeding bullet. The look on the pup’s face was priceless.

In the hour that we worked together that day, my client stopped about eight speeding bullets. With each repetition the puppy became more and more self-assured. With every new encounter, the pup looked to its owner expectantly, and by the eighth repetition we could see that the pup was confident that the next stranger would be stopped.

Some dogs actually like the attention of strangers. A lot of dogs don’t, but will tolerate it. Some dogs, like the German Shepherd dog in Jason’s class, won’t even tolerate it.

Helping Your Dog Cope with Strangers

You can relieve your dog of a lot of anxiety by following the example of my Seattle client. Think of yourself as your dog’s personal Secret Service agent. When the President of the United States travels, he travels with agents who are in charge of security. Their job is to scan for trouble and to put themselves between it and the President. This frees up the President to avoid worrying about that issue and to concentrate on doing his own job.

By intervening with people who approach uninvited, you clearly demonstrate to your dog that you are in charge of your pack’s security. Not only does that lift a lot of stress from your dog, it sends a message to your dog as well. The message is that you clearly are its leader, because in the canine world, the job of pack security always is reserved for the pack leader.

Author Bio:

Dianna Young, owner of Camano Island Kennels Dog Boarding & Training Facility on Camano Island and Stella Ruffington’s Doggy Playcare in West Seattle is a certified professional dog trainer and canine behaviorist.

 

What do you do to create a barrier between strangers (including strange dogs) and your dog?

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19 Comments

  1. It drives me crazy when people, especially small kids, assume they can just march up and pet your dog. My dogs would never bite, hopefully, but if they get scared….who knows.

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    • I’m always surprised by people who allow their children to do this; my dogs are super friendly, but they react to me and if I get stressed, they will go on defense mode. Plus, my dogs aren’t used to kids so I think it’s just smart to ask the dog owner first so that we can give you the guidelines.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Kimberly recently published..Petco Prepares New Pet Parents for the Road Ahead with Free Seminars in JanuaryMy Profile
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  2. This is an awesome post! Having a pit bull mix, I am a big fan of telling them “No, Titan is in training.” On occasion and giving the right environment and slow intro, I will allow them IF and only if I know the person personally. At the vet’s office, people always want to pet Titan. It freaks me out because if they have the smell of kitty cat on their hands or approach him quickly or hand on the head, it could mean bad news. Titan isn’t aggressive, he is simply unsure of strangers. So yes, if people get mad for one not allowing them to pet ones animal, so be it. I’d rather be called bad names then have a law suit on my hands or worse yet, have my boy taken from me. Some dogs are good with strangers and some aren’t. Simple as that…. people need to learn to ask first and by all means, never quickly approach especially head on.

    Fab post!
    Brenda recently published..Fun at Castle Titan Today?My Profile
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    • You nailed it, Brenda! That’s so very true. What people don’t understand is that in this environment of breed specific discrimination, a miscommunication/bad approach can lead to your dog being taken away from you. That’s so unfair. Whenever I hear about someone being bitten “for no reason,” I always wonder – how did you approach the dog. My boyfriend is deputy. A few years ago, he and his partner approached a residence and there was a Pit Bull on the porch. The dog stood up and his partner grabbed for his gun, the dog started growling. The dog was responding to the energy the cop was putting up.

      My boyfriend (who has dogs and read tons of books on dogs before we adopted) knew how to approach the dogs and by the time he reached the porch, the pit bull was on his belly and wagging his tail. Problem averted!

      I would never approach a stranger’s child and pat them on the head; please don’t make the same approach to my dogs.

      K
      Kimberly recently published..Petco Prepares New Pet Parents for the Road Ahead with Free Seminars in JanuaryMy Profile
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      • I’m with ya gf! If more people were educated on dogs, we would have less issues. If more dog owners would educate themselves and be responsible, a bunch more.. less… issues (you know what I mean). :) Fabulous post again!
        Brenda recently published..Fun at Castle Titan Today?My Profile
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  3. I agree with Roxy the traveling dog…we know our dogs and what their reactions are to certain things. My dogs are the same. They don’t take too kindly to strangers. Enjoyed reading your post and how you ended it with the pack security. Looking forward to reading more of your post in the future. Enjoy the rest of your week.
    Corina Ramos recently published..I Get By With A Little Help From Online FriendsMy Profile
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  4. This is an awesome post! I love the comparison between humans and dogs. It’s totally right that I wouldn’t want strangers to do that to me and would be pretty freaked out if they did! I really like lesson number 2.
    Ann Paws recently published..Veterinary Medical Terminology 101: PurulentMy Profile

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  5. Love the article. People’s problem is that they can’t see beyond themselves. As I can see it, this happens in any type of interactions, between people, people and animals …

    Somewhat unrelated, but somewhat related is a quote from an interview with one of my favorite Czech comedians. The question was how he would describe the evolution of his carrier and his life journey. His reply was awesome.

    When I was a starting actor, young buck, I though: Chaplin! Chaplin!
    As I was growing older, I though: Chaplin! And me.
    When I got to the peak of my career, I though: Me! Me!
    And now I just think: Chaplin.

    I think most of people skip many of these steps and get stuck in the Me! Me! phase.
    Jana Rade recently published..What Is Xylitol Poisoning in Dogs? Ask Boomer!My Profile
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    • So very true, Jana

      I used to do the same thing until someone told me that I should really ask first before approaching someone’s dog. I was taken aback and offended, but I chose to smile and thank the woman for her advice. Thank heavens I did and thank heavens she said something to me. I think of that moment often.

      Kimberly
      Kimberly recently published..Pet Blogger Challenge | Checking Under a Blog’s Skirts and SmilingMy Profile
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  6. Excellent article!! Dogs are individuals, just like humans, and so many people have no real awareness of that. I LOVE your role playing example. I know I’d be creeped out and on alert if someone approached me like so many people do dogs. We’ve had dogs who loved ALL people, and dogs who didn’t. There’s socialization and then there’s personality.
    Sue at Talking Dogs recently published..Wordless Wednesday: Joy in Motion!My Profile
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  7. Nicely done. The examples are priceless. Why is it that the “educated, dog aware folks” always understand it when a handler steps us to caution someone about not approaching their dog? While the well-meaning but not-so-aware people are almost always the ones who take our cautionary words as slights against them?

    Have you seen the “awareness” campaign that circulates on Social Media platforms about tying a small yellow “flag” or something yellow to a dog’s leash with the yellow signaling that this dog is “in training” and that passers by should NOT approach? I’m wondering how widespread this practice is because if we could make it nationally recognized, it would go a long way to helping with this.
    Kathy recently published..Managed Care For Elder DogsMy Profile
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  8. Thanks for posting this article. I will definitely be passing it on as I think it is full of great information and presented in such a positive way. I had to learn the hard way with my people-reactive dog how to stand up to strangers who wanted to approach.

    Children will always be the hardest for me as I understand their love of dogs and they just want to say hello. It’s hard to tell them they can’t. But it would be much worse for everyone if I let them! What my dog and I often do instead is perform tricks for them and I let the children toss her food rewards on the ground. This way they feel like they have interacted with her and my dog remains a safe distance away.
    Kristine recently published..Show Off Your Dog’s Waistline Campaign – Or, Shiva’s Lovely Lady LumpsMy Profile
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  9. The yellow and/or orange vests that say ‘dog in training’ are inexpensive and a great tool for creating that moment prior to an incident where an owner can say something….an “ice breaker” if you will.
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