Well, that sounds like an innocent enough question coming from a sweet-faced three-year-old child, don’t you think?
I’m sure everyone agrees that touching without asking is a big no-no, but I’d like to go one step further to suggest that, “May I pet your dog?” is a loaded question that may do more harm than good.
Let’s explore what’s going on here.
Being a normal person, this is the way the question comes across: “I clearly must be a well-mannered child since I asked so politely. What could possibly go wrong? Besides what kind of person would have a dog that does not love children?”
Wow, talk about social pressure! No wonder it’s hard for people to say no, even when they know their dog is uncomfortable with small children. Think about that, parents.
Parents and pet owners alike need to be clear about the unspoken question: “I’m just a little kid with pretty much no understanding of what your dog would like. When I get up close I may end up frightening your dog or hurting him accidentally or I might even squeeze his neck and put my face right up to his while I squeal in his ear and pull his fur. Your dog cool with that?”
Hmm, well, maybe not so much now that you put it that way.
The thing is, people DON’T say it that way and kids end up taking way too many liberties with other people’s dogs.
What’s a parent of a dog-loving child to do?
First, kids should always have a parent right there with them. The pet owner should be free to give full attention to the dog; the parent should actively direct the child. If the dog gets spooked, it’s best to have the parent right there to know what happened.
My husband always sends kids back to get their parents. Sometimes, parents are a little annoyed that they had to get up from the bench and walk over. That is, until he points out that they don’t know him and he could very well be a creepy guy out with a cute dog to “meet” little kids…Yikes!
Instill in small children the habit of admiring dogs from a distance. Just like you do with zoo animals, it’s OK to enjoy looking at and talking about dogs. Point out the colors or how fast the dog runs or how nice he walks with his owner. Kids can enjoy dogs without having to touch them.
Don’t let your young child become so “magnetized” to dogs that you can’t keep her away. “Oh, but she LOVES dogs!” gives little reassurance to anyone. If your child has so little self-control from a distance, how do you expect her to control herself up close where it counts?
Teach your older children to ask about dogs in a way that leaves room for an honest answer. Say something like, “You have a beautiful dog! Does he like children touching him or would he prefer I just wave and say ‘hi’ from here?”
If the answer is no for petting, please be kind and gracious. Thank the person for the care and concern they showed both for their dog and for your child. Remember, there’s a lot of social pressure on people to say, “Yes,” while they hold their breath and hope the dog won’t react.
If invited to approach, pause a few feet away and ask, “How does your dog like to be touched? Will you show me what he likes?” Parents, take this time to see how the owner interacts with the dog and how comfortable the dog seems with the encounter. We’re all good about asking the owner, but we forget to ask the dog.
Is the owner making it fun for the dog? Does the dog seem attentive and responsive to the owner? Or, is the dog a little too excited? Does the dog approach your child willingly? It’s OK if the dog stands and waits calmly, but the owner should not be forcing the dog to sit and stay. It should all seem very familiar and relaxed — like it’s no big deal for the dog.
Maybe it’s just my thing, but I would never consider having a child touch a dog that was wearing any sort of training collar — choke chain, prong collar, shock collar or even a head halter. I’m wary of the illusion of control provided by correction collars, and I’d like to respect that dogs in head halters are often still learning and let them be.
An adult should be at the dog’s head during the encounter. If the owner doesn’t naturally do this to give assurance to the dog, the parent should take this position.
Appropriate petting looks like this:
- Stand still so you can see that the dog is willing to approach; do not go into the dog’s space
- Pet the body part the dog offers you
- Pet with one hand at a time
- Elbow of petting hand remains touching your body (to limit reaching to or over the dog)
- No hugging or kissing
- Whispers only — dogs have very good hearing, you know!
Everything going great after a few pets? Great! It’s time to say thank you and goodbye.
After every encounter, ask yourself, “Did the visit with my child make this dog more or less comfortable for the next child?” Let’s all do our part to help kids be good friends to dogs.