Can I Pet Her? Preventing Dog Bites

One dog is on each side of Will, walking along quietly, sniffing the grass and watching the birds fly by. All of a sudden, the neighbor girl runs up to say hello to the two cute dogs—how could she not? Both dogs get excited at the attention, though one has a tail tucked between her legs and is backing away. The neighbor girl doesn’t notice and rushes to the seemingly waiting dog that’s not yipping in excitement. Reaching both hands towards the dog, she squeals hello and the dog growls for just a moment before becoming so overwhelmed that it bites. The girl screams and backs off, her hand red and bruising with a dog’s teeth marks.

Could this have been prevented? Should Will have kept his dogs inside, knowing that one is not comfortable with strangers? Should the afraid puppy have been wearing a muzzle? Should the neighbor girl have approached with a bit more caution, and asked the owner permission to pet either dog?

There is a correct answer here, and a bit of blame to be shared—but that blame does not lie with the dog who was so overwhelmed by a stranger, she reacted the only way she knew how. She was leashed, unable to get away while a stranger rushed in with unfamiliar hands. She tried to communicate her discomfort through body language—tucked tail, raised hackles, tensed muscles, flattened ears, and even a growl. 

And her owner should have stopped the attack on her comfort zone. The dog was afraid and unable to move. She reacted the only way she knew how in that scary split second—by biting, not out of aggression, but out of fear. 

Many things could have been done differently in this scenario, but one thing that would have drastically altered the outcome is knowing how to approach an unknown dog. Many dogs are perfectly friendly—they love people, other animals, and getting attention by anyone who will share it. That does not mean, however, that they love strangers rushing into their personal space while they are leashed and unable to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. 

So, rule one, and the most important rule when approaching any dog: always, always ask first.

Rule two: Assuming you’ve gotten the go-ahead to say hello to the dog, move slowly. Let the dog sniff your hand, and if she seems comfortable with that, slowly move into petting. If the dog continues to back away from your hand, that’s a sign that she’s not okay with what’s happening—say hi from a distance and keep moving past.

Rule three: Keep in mind that you don’t have the right to pet any dog you see on the street. If the owner says no, it’s for a good reason and he’s just trying to keep his dog—and everyone his dog interacts with—safe. Even if it’s a dog you know from the dog park or training class, the owner gets the final say on whether it’s okay to approach. Some dogs are perfectly fine rushing up to strangers off leash, but not on leash. Trust the owner to know his dog best and keep his dog safe and comfortable.

Some dogs will even be wearing a yellow ribbon on their leash—this is a sign that they need their space during their walk, so don’t rush up to say hello. Even without the yellow symbol, always be respectful of their space and ask before approaching. 

Of course, continue to feel free to greet the dogs you meet while out and about, just do so carefully.

By Rachel Leisemann Immel