I was at a new Home Dog Training client in Dacula last Sunday working with him and his three-year-old German Shepherd named Otto. Otto was a great dog that my client had rescued about nine months ago.  Although he didn’t know anything about Otto’s past, for the most part he was a great dog.  The biggest issues that he was facing with Otto was getting him to listen, obey commands, and not jump on people. 

Pet a dog safely

After several hours of instruction and hands-on training, Otto understood that he had to listen and obey. My client was very happy with the results and was looking forward to having a wonderful relationship with a great Shepherd that now listens and obeys. 

As we were finishing up, I asked my client if he had any more questions.  He thought for a moment and remembered one more thing.  Sometimes, when he is out in public, he sees a great dog that he wants to pet.  Most of the time, he can walk right up to the dog and pet him with no problem.  Other times the dog seems agitated. A few weeks ago, a dog that he had approached actually tried to nip him. He wondered what he was doing wrong and if I had any suggestions to keep him safe.

I started off by reminding my client that “humans are just stupid”. (I naturally told my client that I was obviously not referring to him!)  Many of us somehow believe that all dogs are ready and willing to be petted by anyone at any time. If we see a dog that we like, we naturally wander right over to them.  Sometimes we approach them from behind and out of sight.  Then we lean over and stick our hand into their face because we are going to pet them on the head.  We are doing all of this without any indication the dog wants us to pet them or even get close to them.

First of all, we need to understand that if we walk up to a “new dog” or even if the dog’s owner pulls them over on a leash to us, the dog had never been “given a say in the matter”. Our approach or his owner’s forceful leash tugging to have him come to us may make him feel unsafe and will trigger a “flight or fight” scenario within the dog’s “rules of immediate engagement”.

When a dog is triggered into a “fight or flight” scenario, that means that he has two courses of action.  One action is to run away. That will keep him safe and secure.  The other is to fight and lunge out at the entity he feels is putting his safety at risk.  Since the owner has the dog on a short leash, all the dog can do is to lunge out to protect himself.  This means that the “approacher” will probably be jumped on, growled at, or even nipped.

With this in mind, it is very important that you always let your dog decide if he wants to go up to someone and allow them to pet him. Let him approach the person under his own power while the person “calmly stands their ground”. If your dog doesn’t want to be petted, he will not approach the person and remain at a distance where he feels safe.  He has now communicated “Even though you would love to pet me, not now”.  This will keep everyone safe.

Again, never allow a stranger to directly approach your dog or forcibly tug your dog towards a stranger for “a friendly pet”. It will probably end up in an inappropriate situation that could possibly result in having your dog put down.  Even worse, it will all be your fault.

But, what if your dog calmly walks up to a person and provides a submissive nature indicating he would accept a pet?  How should that person proceed in order to make your dog feel safe and comfortable in that situation? We would like to provide you with some suggestions to make this a happy encounter:

  • Never stoop down over a dog in order to pet them.  Many dogs interpret your posturing directly above them as an aggressive act and may become immediately defensive and physically protective.
  • Do not direct your hand in such a way that it is moving straight towards his face. In much the same light as the prior point, any direct approach by you can be interpreted as an aggressive action.  Many shelter and rescue dogs were probably regularly beaten.  The beginning of “any beating” starts with a quick and direct approach of the human about to beat the dog”.  You do not want to recreate this horrendous scenario.
  • The first thing you should do when petting a new dog is to simply allow him to smell you. Stay still with your hands at your side and allow him to “check you out”.  If he appears calm after “his sniff”, that probably means that “you have passed the sniff test”. This also means that you can continue your slow, safe, and methodical process to give him a pet.
  • Slowly lower your height in such a way that you do not place your body over him.  This may take a little practice because we (humans) naturally bend forward.  You will need to learn to “bend down”.
  • Once you are low and in front of him, very slowly move your hand towards the dog. The back of your hand should be facing the dog. Since most dogs are struck with the palm of the human’s hand, you do not want the dog to see “a human palm” approaching them. Keep your hand low and below his head as you move it towards his chest.
  • Calmly rub his chest.  After a few seconds, slowly move your hand around to his neck and to the back of his head.  Tell him that he is a “Good Boy” in a soothing, high tone.
  • Calmly and slowly stroke him from the back of his head to the middle part of his back.
    This will provide him with the same tactile feel as when another dog grooms him.  It is a sign of respect and will help him feel safe and secure.
  • When you are done, calmly return your hand to your side in a manner that does not take it directly in front of his face.  Wait for a few seconds and then stand up. Make sure that, when you get up, you do not place yourself over the dog.  If at all possible, let the dog walk away from you while you stay calm and facing him.

Please call or text us at (770) 718-7704 if you need any dog training help.  You can also email us at [email protected]. We are blessed to have been your local dog training experts for over nineteen years.  We have trained over 6,000 wonderful dogs and excellent families and are ready to help you.