MYTHBUSTING MONDAY: If a dog owner in public gives permission to pet their dog, that means the dog is safe to pet.
True story: I was doing some training practice with Parker at an outdoor shopping center. Suddenly, the sound of multiple tiny feet coming rapidly closer caught my attention. I looked up to see three children, running at full speed, straight toward us. Stopping about 6 feet away, they said in unison, "Can we pet your dog?"
Fortunately, Parker and I have done a lot of training around children. He doesn't like them and he doesn't want to interact with them, but his default is to look at me when he gets nervous - this turns the sharp end toward me (incompatible with biting) and turns scary children into an opportunity to earn a reward!
Now, if I hadn't worked with him as much as I have, that approach could have had a very bad outcome. Imagine a snake or a spider charging toward you at full speed! At the very least, he could have reacted with a big aggressive display, barking and snarling to communicate, "Get back! Stay away!" Or, if he were a dog who had been punished for those displays, he could have just waited until they were close enough and then go in for a bite.
Instead, he looked at me, I rewarded him, then he showed off a few tricks and everyone was happy. No petting necessary.
Not all dogs are like Parker and I know plenty who genuinely love children.
Some dogs are friendly with adults, but don't like children.
Some dogs love children only over or under a certain age.
Some dogs are comfortable around familiar adults and children, but are fearful of strangers reaching out to touch them.
The problem is that the average person can't tell the difference.
Last year, there was a story of a boy who was severely attacked by a man's dog at a hardware store. The boy, with his father, asked if he could pet the man's dog. The man, knowing that the dog had a history of aggression, gave his permission.
This has happened to clients who tried to socialize their puppies to strange dogs in public, as well.
Most dog owners are NOT a reliable judge of their own dog's behavior. Some even operate under the assumption that a dog with a history of aggressive behavior needs more encounters with people to "get used to" being touched by strangers.
I propose a radical idea: Parents, teach your children that dogs in public are working or in school, and should be admired and respected from a distance. HANDS OFF Dogs In Public.
Why put your child's safety (and possibly the dog's life) at risk based on the judgment of a complete stranger?
And please, please, PLEASE, do not make assumptions that a dog is friendly based on its breed. You can NEVER determine a dog's safety based on breed.
If you don't think you or your children can resist the urge to touch dogs you don't know, then learn how to read the subtle signals dogs give that predict friendly or aggressive behavior. Friend and colleague, Sarah Kalnajs, has put together a wonderfully informative DVD that all dog lovers should watch:
Once you have determined the dog is safe to meet and have the owner's permission, ask the DOG'S permission by waiting for the dog to approach you. If she stays back, she is politely saying "no thank you," and would prefer you keep your hands to yourself.
These tips from friend and colleague, Madeline Gabriel, are great for kids: "How to be a Kid Dogs Feel Safe With"