Look, don't touch. Petting strange dogs.

                                        A most welcome touch, you can see it. 

How often are you tempted to pet a strange dog?  You should know how to read body language before you reach your hand out to touch.  Not all dogs want to be touched.  They may be friendly but have no desire for strangers to touch them.  Yesterday at the park I saw one of these.  It was a Rhodesian Ridgeback, which are strangely common here.  The man with the Rhodesian stopped to talk to another guy who has a very friendly and submissive yellow Labrador.  The one with the Rhodesian reached over to say hi and the Labrador sunk down in submission.  I've met the dog and it lowers at any approach, dog or human.  She is very friendly but very squinty and scrunched.

Then the owner of the Labrador reached out to pet the Rhodesian.  I'm nosey eh?  Anyway as I was watching the behavior I could see the Rhodesian move back and his tail was motionless.  This should have been enough to communicate that he was not anxious to have the guy touch him.  As the man pet the top of the dogs head; the Rhodesian slowly looked up at the man.  The dog did not want to be pet but the man continued.  Luckily it ended there and the Rhodesian was not forced to escalate his communications.  Most dogs will leave it at that (stupid human) but some really don't want to be touched.  Do you want a stranger coming up to you and touching you?  No.  But for some reason we think that our dogs should just put up with it.

There are dogs who love to be touched by anyone.  The more socialized they are to being touched by strangers the better.  Elsa is one of these and I love that she loves people as much as she does.  But there are a few people who have spooked her over the years.  Both had on hats and were staring at her.  Ah, humans and their crazy staring; another human behavior that dogs are highly sensitive about.  At least dogs who are the very "aware" type, like Elsa and Luke. 

Last week we were at the harbor when a Policeman came by.  Hmmmm?  Elsa's never met a guy in a uniform so we approached.  He'd already been petting one of the other poodles we were there with but when Elsa approached she threw herself at him.  She didn't jump, she just gave him her best warm and fuzzy greeting that she could muster.  She leaned into his leg, looking up at him with googly eyes.  He obviously enjoyed it as much as she did.  Good to know that a uniform doesn't faze her. 

Lots of dogs are friendly but don't want to be touched.  They certainly DO NOT want to be pet on the head.  Reaching over a dog's head to pet them is very unwise.  If you must pet, go under their head to their chest.  Do not loom over the dog, I see so many people stretching across a dog; reaching over their head, this is all wrong.  I'm sort of a minimalist when it comes to touching dogs; other than my own two who are regularly mauled.  Looking is and should be enough;  unless of course you see a dog who is wriggling to greet you.  When you approach someone with a dog, stop.  Watch the dogs behavior; if they make no move towards you then leave it at that.  Why must we touch?

I see people trying to pet dogs who do not want to be pet all the time.  Dogs will tell you exactly how they are feeling.  Sadly humans do not read dog language very well.  When a human approaches and a dog backs up; they do not want to be touched.  Perhaps if you stand their talking long enough, they will come around.  Maybe not, perhaps they just don't want you to touch them.  Don't pursue a dog, when a dog backs up or moves away, STOP.  But, even a dog who does not back up may not want to be touched.  Signs can be subtle and you need to learn how to read them if you plan on touching strange dogs. 

I remember doing an Irish Wolfhound shoot years ago.  There were two dogs, a male and a female.  The female was very friendly and we had a nice greeting.  The male kept his distance which was fine with me; he was neutral in his attendance.  Then we had a moment that I will never forget.  I was on the ground, so much lower than the two of them.  I sat on the ground and prepared to photograph the two when he approached me very slowly and cautiously.  I stayed still as he sniffed my head, he was obviously curious at that point and wanted to meet me.  As he lingered I reached out and pet touched his chest lightly.  I waited to see his reaction to this and he quite enjoyed it.  I rubbed his chest as he moved in more to smell my face.  Wish I'd had someone to photograph the moment.  The owner was beaming as she said "he never does that, he must really like you."  I was smitten by the huge guy, what a love.

Even when dogs do allow touching by strangers; they have a different set of rules for pack vs. non pack members.  Don't push it, you are not a member of the pack of a strange dog.  Remember that.  You will not be given the freedoms that a pack member is given.  I can put Elsa in a full head lock and give her a kiss smack dab on the end of the nose. She is use to this and quite enjoys it; I would not expect her to allow a stranger to do this.  Having worked with dogs for so long, I just learned not to touch.  When I enter the home of a new client I never give eye contact or touch.  I let the dog check me out and read with my peripheral vision.  Then once I've been sniffed I move, which can bring with a whole pile of new behaviors to watch.  I may or may not end up touching the dog; it really depends what I'm there for.  Of course if it is a regular basic manners course of 6 weeks then we become amazing friends.  Then there is lots of touching which is enjoyed by both of us.