Ruff Love (Part II): Meeting Dogs Who are Bashful or Bold

This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let's connect!
This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let’s connect!

We recently talked about why it is important to let a dog approach you to initiate interactions rather than sticking out your hand. But what if the dog doesn’t approach you? Since we are all grown-ups here, I know you will accept in mature fashion the answer to that question: Tough noogies.

By not approaching you, the dog is saying, “No thank you, I don’t want to get closer to you right now.” As a true dog lover, a person who takes the feelings of others into account, and an all-around sophisticated type with the latest information on dogs, you will no doubt find it easy to respect what the dog is saying. If you think the dog is “fine,” click here to learn many of the signs a dog is uncomfortable with you in their space. If you are very interested in the dog, or if it feels socially awkward not to touch the dog, just talk to the person about the dog instead. Like so:

“How old is your dog?”

“What do you like to do for fun together?”

“Where did you get that cool collar?”

“Oh my goodness, your dog is so adorable!” That’s handy for little dogs being held and therefore unable to make the choice. Obviously the person will say, “Go ahead, you can pet him! Pet him!!!” This means they love their dog, but they are not yet hip to the scene. You can say you’d prefer to pet him when he’s on the ground so he can choose to approach you. 

“Wow, your dog is really beautiful. He reminds me of a dog I once had.” That works nicely for dogs being asked by their person to hold a stay position, or being held back by the collar.

The surprise twist to this is that, when you choose not to encroach on the dog’s space, he or she is likelier to approach you. I have lost count of the times someone has said to me, “Wow! My dog never gets near anyone, he must really like you!” I explain I did not sprinkle magic dog trainer dust on him. I just didn’t mow him down physically and emotionally. It is truly funny to see the look of surprise and curiosity on some dogs’ faces when they encounter their first polite human.

What if your dog never seems to want to approach anyone?DSC_0244

Most dogs are not even given a chance to make the choice. When someone asks permission to pet my dog I like to say, “That is so nice of you to ask! I really appreciate it,” which is true, and also buys my dog time to get comfortable with the person. Then I say, “The best thing to do is to stand where you are, with your hands at your sides, just like you’re doing. Bazooka prefers that. If she wants to be touched, she’ll come to you on her own. Then you can pet her, under her chin, like this.” And I demonstrate.

If at any point the person disregards your advice, just call your dog to you cheerfully, or step away with her a step or two, cue a nose touch to your hand, or, in very close quarters, face the person and step smoothly and suavely between your dog and the person. I do this with a huge smile on my face as I say, “My dog needs much more space than this. Thank you so much, we’re just going to go over here.” If you have a dog who is truly easy-going, consider swooping in and popping a treat in her mouth in the middle of the interaction, so she’ll have an extra pleasant association with the experiencing a close-talker. (It’s a  good insurance policy for future encounters, even if she seems ok in the moment.) Otherwise, skip the treat and create space.

It helps to practice your spiel before you need it in real life, with a friend or in group training class. Have fun with it. Try out different personas and different exit strategies. When practicing the ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect, with kids or adults, sometimes the dog’s owner or the dog should say “no” so the humans learn accept not being able to pet the dog without any hard feelings.

If your dog is bashful, or worried about being touched, choose from these strategies:

  • A nose touch to your hand. It provides fun, focus and good feelings in the presence of the stranger.
  • A nose touch with the other person, then call your dog to you. First practice with family and friends your dog loves.
  • Favorite tricks (like spin or sit pretty). This keeps your pooch happy and the person is likely to be delighted and keep their hands to themselves.
  • Relax on a mat (using very high value rewards) so that pose becomes a position of safety and security when you need to chat with someone. Be prepared to step between your dog and an incoming Ms. Grabby McGrabbenheimer.
  • Work on body handling exercises with you, friends, and then less familiar people so your dog gains confidence with people’s hands coming at him or her.
  • Watch for common signs of stress (looking away, lip licking, yawning, still or stiff body, closed mouth, furtive glancing) and call your dog to you when you see them building. 
  • You needn’t coax, reassure or apologize for your dog, or tell him or her, “Go say hi, you silly thing.” There is no need to feel embarrassed or try to convince your dog to go up to someone, either with the leash or a bribe (like getting the stranger to hold out a treat, which I do not recommend). Just work on a training plan, ideally with a skilled trainer so it’s customized, and proceed at your dog’s pace.

Why is a sit-stay for petting not a good idea?

Perhaps your dog goes hoppin’ wild when he meets people, either out of happiness or out of nervous energy (very common and often misinterpreted as happy). Someone might have advised you to make the dog hold a stay while people pet him. After all, it’s no good for people to be knocked down or to feel unnerved by a rambunctious pooch. But we need a better solution than taking away the dog’s ability to communicate with his body language. To recap the last blog entry, a dog is not a coffee table. The dog should have a say in who touches him or her. Besides, if your dog is feeling hyped up, making him hold a stay likely adds to his stress. Why do that to him when there are alternatives?  Some ideas:

  • Teach your dog to calmly sit while the humans are chatting, and then be calmly released on cue like “say hello” to approach the person.
  • Teach her to do a nose-touch with strangers’ hands or shoes and then call your pooch back to you before she gets wound up.
  • Sprinkle treats on the ground for your dog to hoover up while you chat with someone.
  • For dogs who truly love to be touched all the live-long day, teach them to stand with all four paws on the ground so at least they can step away or back up if the tides change and they need to create space for themselves.
  • Teach your dog to relax on a mat even under very exciting circumstances, so he or she can hang out while you talk with someone.

There is a lot of stuff in Puppy Savvy about how to do this, including detailed training instructions for a nose touch, calm greetings, sit stays and other games for any age dog who is bold or bashful. Watch this nine second video showing baby Logan in training. You can see him about to launch himself at the person, but when offered a chance to nose touch the person’s hand, he chooses that instead.

What skills do you train to let your dog know he or she can approach without jumping? What maneuvers or phrases do you use to allow your dog space or protection from incoming hands or bodies? What have you discovered doing the five-dog challenge? (All the cool kids are doing it: The next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch, try just standing still, and see if the dog comes up to you.)

Tune in for the final installment of the Ruff Love series in which we address the question, “My job requires I touch dogs whether they approach or not, because I am a veterinary professional/animal control officer/groomer/shelter worker. What am I supposed to do then, Miss Smartypants Very Fetching lady?”

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