NYC Dogs Are Not Traveling Petting Zoos
My pup Grayson is pretty cute, if I do say so myself. Even though he’s four, many people still think he’s a puppy and many people want to touch him. Some people ask permission, but most do not. The first time I took him to a public dog park, within 5 seconds a total stranger picked him up. I am often the person saying “Please stop touching my dog!”. This happened most recently at Deux Amis, where my husband, my dog, and I go for dinner most Friday nights in the summer. Grayson settles on the mat I bring for him, and he earns his bread and butter (and filet mignon) by staying relaxed on it — see video below. I don’t want him to learn that leaving his mat gets him attention and free food from other patrons. I’m glad we’re surrounded by fellow dog lovers who think he’s cute, but he’s not a traveling petting zoo. These table neighbors are ruining our training and his future behavior, making it harder for me to take him into public. Touching an animal that doesn’t belong to you is inappropriate.
I fully believe in training our dogs to behave appropriately in public and to help them feel safe and comfortable in all of the human centric environments they will encounter. Strangers approaching without asking makes it much harder for me to accomplish this task.
Even if I’m with a dog who behaves politely in public, dogs don’t speak English so he can’t advocate for himself. We expect our dogs to not only tolerate but to love every interaction that is forced up on them. Yes – forced – they are on the end of a leash and can’t get away. Many dogs tolerate interactions but give off stress signals that are unread and ignored. I don’t think this is reasonable or fair. There are plenty of reasons our dogs shouldn’t have to endure certain situations. It’s up to us to speak up for them.
Here’s why you shouldn’t touch a dog you don’t know without asking permission:
- He could be training (learning to settle, learning to ignore people or dogs, learning to sit for pets, learning how to walk, insert behavior here: X)
- He could not be in training but need to be in training (just because he’s in public doesn’t mean his owners are responsible)
- It might be a puppy going through proactive socialization
- He could be stressed out, fearful, or aggressive (see #1 and #2)
- He could not like strangers, the bag you’re carrying, the skateboard you rode in on, the suitcase you’re dragging, the smell of your cat on your clothing, the fact that you’re loud and wobbling around tipsy, etc. etc. etc.
- He could not like being touched
- You have a dog with you he might not like, might be scared of, or might behave inappropriately with (barking/lunging/over aroused greetings, etc.)
- He could be sick, in pain, or recovering from surgery
- You’re modeling dangerous behavior for your kids (who are more likely to get a bite to the face if they run up to and grab/pet a dog without asking)
- Your toddler is running around and/or screaming and it’s freaking the dog out (just because your kid is in public doesn’t mean they’re behaving appropriately)
- He’s about to go potty and his owner doesn’t want you to interrupt him
- His owner doesn’t feel like interacting with strangers right now
- He could have limited sight or hearing
- He’s not your dog
Before I was a dog trainer, I was that obnoxious stranger on the street stopping to pet your dog and hold you hostage while I went at it with your furry friend on the leash, so… I GET IT. Dogs are CUTE and interacting with them makes everything better. At the time, I was a professional dancer whose constant anxiety about life and making a decent living in my chosen profession was ruining my mental health. I didn’t have a dog, and I really really needed one. When I quit dancing, it was my then-boyfriend/now-husband who suggested I walk dogs while I figured out my next moves. Since then, I built and ran a dog walking company while simultaneously getting an education in training and behavior and have taken on progressively more challenging cases as my education and experience allows. Here in NYC I have worked with puppies, with dogs who are reactive to other dogs, and dogs who bite strangers. “Don’t Touch” vests, “In Training” vets, DINOS (dogs in need of space) gear, yellow dog project ribbons – all of these visual cues meant to instruct strangers to leave these dogs alone are often ignored. Telling people to please stop approaching or stop petting earns eye rolls and shouted profanities. I have had to walk a mile out of my way to avoid other dog owners who insist their illegally off leash dogs need to greet my legally on leash ones to keep the dog I’m working under threshold.
I have had to learn the most effective ways to get strangers to leave me and my dogs alone. Here they are:
- Telling a stranger “he’s sick and contagious” usually works even for the rudest of rude people, because it gives them a reason to stay away that they care about. Strangers don’t care if they ruin your training but they do care about getting sick.
- If the dog I’m working has a solid leave it behavior, I will tell the dog to “leave it” – the stranger is the “it” they leave while we walk on by. If they don’t have a leave it and we are outside, they likely have a hand target or eye contact behavior. I will ask the dog to hand target, to look at me, to go find a treat I’ve tossed in the opposite direction, or to do anything incompatible to interacting with the stranger.
- If I am in the middle of a training exercise and clearly and obviously actively training a dog, sometimes I have no choice but to pretend like the person does not exist. So often I am working a client dog outside when a stranger approaches and starts talking to me or the dog. The rate at which this happens while I am obviously training (treat bag out, clicking and treating rapidly, dog doing behaviors) is actually quite astounding. In this situation, I drop my criteria for the behavior and increase my rate of reinforcement since the stranger is now a huge distraction. My focus is on my dog, the criteria we’re working at, my timing, and my treat delivery. It’s not on the stranger.
- If I am working with a dog for whom getting close to a stranger is not an option (due to fear, aggression, or for whom getting close to a stranger will elicit or reinforce pulling or jumping up) I simply turn around and walk the other way without comment. I might feed the dog while doing so – not as a training strategy but as a distraction or to prevent unwanted behavior in a pinch.
- I am not going to abandon a dog mid-session to meet a stranger’s needs. My responsibility is to the dog I am with. I have worked with dogs who are triggered by their handler talking to a stranger. In this situation, I literally can’t stop and talk to the stranger while I am with the dog. If I do, the dog will bark and lunge, and that causes a huge training setback for us. It’s not worth it. I have gotten on an elevator at floor 25 and rode all the way down to floor 1, facing the wall and pretending like the stranger does not exist for the entire ride.
- If I am in the middle of a training session and the dog has the skill, I sometimes put the dog in a down or sit stay so that I can turn to the stranger and point out to them that we are in the middle of training and it’s not a good time.
- Body blocking can help prevent strangers from physically touching the dog I’m with. If the stranger is very pushy, this doesn’t always work so I prefer to just get away from the person. I have had strangers reach around my body to touch a dog I have in a sit stay behind me in the corner of the elevator after I have asked them not to approach. (Elevators are so hard!)
- Putting out your hand in a “STOP” sign and stating firmly “please do not approach” or “please call your dog” while body blocking or just before turning to walk away sometimes gets the message across. If I can, I will sometimes hold a hand out while I am training to try to silently convey this message.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it. Aggressive dogs shouldn’t be going out to restaurants with their owners. Any dog with a bite history should be muzzled if they are in public. Owners should be responsible. But sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they’re not in the mood to talk to you, and sometimes they’re proactively training or retroactively working on a behavior modification protocol. Please, read the situation and if you’re asked to leave the dog alone – do so without an attitude. You expect dogs to behave politely and appropriately in public, and you should too.