I'm writing this on the off-chance that the person whose dog "just wants to say hi" will read it. Unfortunately, as these things go, there's a better chance that readers of this piece will feel the same way I do. So, to you I say, please feel free to share on your Facebook/Twitter/WHEREVER, in the hopes that the right eyes might fall on it. Also, you could just skip to the end, where I have a special section just for you--the Person Who Just Wants to Be Left Alone.
Dear Person Whose Dog "Just Wants to Say Hi,"
Please ask first. Just a simple, "can my dog say hi?" That's all I ask.
Nothing ruins a walk with my dog Chance more than another owner who lets their dog march right up to my dog.
Why?? you might be thinking. My dog is super friendly!!! HE JUST WANTS TO SAY HI!!!
Here's the thing--there are many people that will be happy to let your dog say hi. And when you ask, "can my dog say hi?", those people will smile and brightly say, "sure!"
But not me. Please, please, please give us the opportunity to say "no."
I don't want your dog to meet my dog. It's nothing personal! But when I'm walking Chance, I would like us to be left alone to focus on our walk.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I'll get into them just in case you're curious, but the truth is, it shouldn't matter what my reasons are. I hope it's enough for you to hear that you're making a lot of lives miserable, and there's a very simple fix.
Because for a long time I've assumed you just had no idea, and that once I told you, "hey, when you let your dog invade my dog's space like that, it sorta ruins my day," you would say, "Oh no, really?? I'm so sorry. Come back here, Fido. Leave the strange lady and her dog alone. In the future, I'll ask first."
But when I recently raised this issue (i.e. posted a status-update rant) on Facebook, and at least 13 friends chimed in with various versions of "YAAASSSSSSS" and "AMEN" and "THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME," two of my friends dissented. As in, they firmly believe they DO NOT need to ask anyone's permission to let their dog approach other dogs. The onus, they say, is on other owners to preemptively announce that their dog is "not friendly." Even after much...ahem...healthy debate, they still believed there was nothing wrong with allowing their dog to approach others uninvited.
There are SO many things wrong with this. I'm hoping YOU, dear reader, will be interested in understanding why.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
If you saw Angelyne loading groceries into her pink Corvette, you wouldn't let your child go jump in her car just because she wants to ride in it.
You wouldn't barge into the cubicle of a new employee at work, pull them away from their computer, and start yelling about how great it is to meet them.
And you really shouldn't be impulsively reaching out and touching pregnant women's bellies or their babies.
A common-sense respect for boundaries makes people feel more comfortable no matter what the situation. It's why we have rules of the road and property-line laws. It's why everyone hates door-to-door salespeople and telemarketers and that guy who cut you off on the 405--those people have no respect for boundaries.
It's the same thing on dog walks.
Every dog and owner out for a walk has a fence-like bubble of personal space around them--respect this boundary and don't enter it without permission.
Help Me Protect My Dog
Another boundary you wouldn't cross: You wouldn't, in the middle of an obedience class, allow your dog to go sniff the butt of the next dog over while his owner is trying to teach him "stay," right?
Of course not. But that's what I'm doing when I'm walking my dog, whether or not it's what you're doing with yours--we're working on discipline. I'm trying to teach my dog manners, respect for boundaries, and impulse control. I'm also trying to show him that it's safe to let me be the leader, because I've got everything under control.
At the dog park, my dog is on his own with other dogs--he's got to figure out where he falls in the pecking order for himself, and to a certain extent he's responsible for his own safety. If he pisses another dog off, he's got to deal with the consequences (for the angry commenters--OBVIOUSLY I DO NOT LET MY DOG GET IN FIGHTS I just mean that if a dog tells him to back off, he needs to run away, which is not an option when he's on a leash).
But when we're on a walk, I'm asking him to relinquish control to me--and in return, I'll ensure his safety. In a pack, the alpha dog would protect his subordinates from a strange dog. He'd investigate the newcomer and evaluate the threat. I'm trying to teach my dog that I'm his alpha--and that means that I want him to let all potential threats be assessed by me, first. (To the other angry commenters who see "alpha" and "pack" and thing I'm talking about outdated wolf-pack behavior ideology, I'm not.)
So when you let your dog run up to my dog, you're messing up the dynamic. To prevent my dog from receiving mixed signals, I would have to jump in between your dog and my dog--and you would think that was super odd, wouldn't you? But if I just let your dog come right up to my dog, it says (to my dog, at least) that I'm the weakest leader ever--and that means he's back to dog park rules, where he's got to figure out the pecking-order situation himself.
And even worse...he might think I'm such a weak person that he needs to protect me.
My Dog Is Not a Toy
In the same way, if you come straight up to my dog to pet him, my dog understands that this is yet another threat I cannot keep him safe from. This doesn't happen a lot to me (probably because Chance is bigger and wears a Halti and some people think it's a muzzle), but on my Facebook page a lot of friends with small dogs weighed in and said this was just as distressing to them as the uninvited-dog-saying-hi thing.
Just because a small, adorable dog looks like a stuffed animal does not mean he's got the personality or lack-of-rights as a stuffed animal!
How would YOU like it if strangers walked right up to you and start rubbing your face? You wouldn't. Now, if you do this to my dog, you'll probably be rewarded for the behavior--he'll get all smiley and wigglebutt-y and try to mouth your hands. You might even think this means my dog LIKES it. I'm not convinced, however.
I think it means that his owner just demonstrated her weakness by not protecting him from an intruder into his personal space, which means he has to deal with this threat on his own, and because my dog is not aggressive by nature, he's sending all the signals that he's just a harmless little puppy dog PLEASE DON'T HURT ME BIG STRANGER THAT MY MOM CANNOT FEND OFF.
And this goes double for children. To many dogs, children look like tiny drunk people who don't walk right. Like they've got rabies or something for sure. They also talk too loud and they never have treats. So, many dogs are skeptical of children anyway. When you let your child rush up to a strange dog to pet it uninvited, you are BEGGING for the worst kind of trouble.
Aren't You Worried About Protecting YOUR Dog?
Hopefully now you understand why managing encounters for my dog is an issue of showing him that I can protect him. So my question is, don't you worry about protecting your dog from my dog??
My friends on Facebook who let their dog go up to other dogs uninvited think that all dangerous dogs have owners who know their dog is a danger and who will communicate this danger in a reasonable amount of time.
I think this is a HUGE risk to take and one I would never take with Chance.
They argued that 99.9% of the uninvited-approach encounters with their dog have ended well. And I'm happy for them. But another friend who commented told the incredibly tragic story of how her leashed dog killed not one but TWO other dogs:
"I screamed and warned on both occasions that my dog is not friendly and both times the owners said 'it's ok, mine are, it'll be fine,' and then boom, just like that, the dog was in my dog's mouth and dead. I still haven't gotten over that."
(Another edit based on comments: yes, I agree, this dog should have been wearing a muzzle. But also, nothing would have happened if his personal space had been respected. A SIDEWALK IS NOT A DOG PARK.)
And if you're depending on other dog-walkers to know whether their dogs are dangerous enough, I think you haven't considered that sometimes dogs are just unknowable--even yours!
I don't know for sure what's going on in Chance's head. I don't know what he does or does not like about other dogs, just like you don't know FOR SURE that your dog won't do something my dog doesn't like.
Once, two unleashed puppies came charging at me and Chance--leashed and Halti'd at my side--while a man followed behind them, yelling out to me, "Is he ok??" Meaning, I assume, would his unrestrained dogs survive the encounter they're about to foist on my dog? I was speechless at the time, but in the future, I will respond, "We're about to find out." Because I'm sorry, but that's the best I can do. I can't predict the outcome of that situation.
Letting your dog approach other dogs without asking first doesn't even give the other owners a chance to head off the encounter, or ask for it to proceed in a controlled manner. And it's putting your dog in a potentially life-threatening situation.
I'm Not Tying a Yellow Ribbon On My Dog
My dissenting friends feel strongly that, if I don't want other dogs coming up to Chance to "say hi" uninvited, I should announce--when I see their dog coming--that "my dog is not friendly!" They say this happens to them from time to time, and they respect it and avoid the oncoming dog and owner--that's how 99.9% of their encounters have ended safely.
They also suggested I tie a yellow ribbon on my dog to signal that he's not friendly. Apparently, this is a movement "liked" on Facebook by a whole .04% of the US population--no one commenting on the thread had heard of it, rendering it a somewhat useless warning in my opinion.
At any rate, when I Googled "yellow ribbon on a dog," one of the top five results included an article where the author had this to say about the practice:
"American juries (urged on by plaintiff’s attorneys) are using the yellow ribbon the same way they’ve been using the 'Beware of Dog' signs for years: as an admission that the dog owner knows he has a dangerous dog. And your dog could pay with its life if it’s labelled as a 'known dangerous dog.' The dog doesn’t even have to bite anyone. In Texas and a number of other states, it’s legal to shoot a dog if someone is 'reasonably' afraid of it."
So, yeah, that's the first reason why I'm not tying a yellow ribbon on my dog, or announcing that my dog is "not friendly."
The other reason, of course, is that MY DOG IS NOT NOT FRIENDLY.
My Dog *IS* Friendly--I STILL DON'T WANT TO SAY HI
The honest truth is that I'm really lucky and Chance isn't very aggressive. Yep, there have been some dogs that he has decided to react negatively towards--this has resulted in a snarl, a lunge, maybe a snout-poke, but no bites so far. It's scary, but not destructive.
More often, what happens with Chance is, after the initial butt-sniff, he lunges into a play-bow, then launches into some good old-fashioned roughhousing.
If your dog weighs ten pounds, you probably think it's adorable when they start playing while on leash. Imagine if your dog tipped the scales at 60 pounds.
It's like trying to hold a marlin on the line, WHILE you're fishing right next to someone who ALSO has a fish and you're trying not to get your lines twisted AND neither of you want to lose your fish. And my dog loves being chased, so if he gets into play-mode, pretty quick he's gonna bolt like a sprinter.
And he's wearing a Halti on his head. So if he bolts, he could really hurt his neck. Or break it.
None of this is fun for either of us. You might think it looks fun for my dog, but I guarantee you IT IS NOT. Because he just gets frustrated that he can't let loose and GO like he does at the dog park. You won't see this struggle, because we'll part ways and head in different directions. But I have to continue the walk with my dog, who is now primed for some wrestling, and is just itching to find the next dog.
If I knew that every dog owner whose dog "just wanted to say hi" wouldn't let the greeting escalate to this level, it probably wouldn't ruin my day so much. They could sniff butts, when the play-bow happens we'd both correct our dogs to a controlled sit, and then we'd be on our way. BUT THAT HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME, NOT EVEN ONCE. Rather, the other owner usually chuckles and says something along the lines of "oh he just loves playing with big dogs!"
Grrrr. (That was from me, not Chance.)
The Internet Agrees With Me
There's a lot of debate in the dog world, about everything--from who's got the best training methods to whether your dog needs to eat grain-free to how often vaccines should be administered.
You know what there's consistent consensus on?
You shouldn't let your dog invade another dog's space uninvited. Especially on a walk.
Cesar Millan says "don't let your dogs approach others without asking" and "walk in front of your dog [and] use a short leash." (For the angry anti-Cesar folks: I cite him here not as a full-throated advocate of every one of his methods, but as an acknowledgment that a huge portion of the dog-owning population respects his advice. Check out my article on Cesar Millan for my full thoughts on the whole anti-Cesar issue.)
The Animal Humane Society says "be aware of other peoples’ space. Keep your leashed dog close to you and stay alert to others using the path/park/sidewalk, etc. Your leash should be slack but short enough to prevent Fido from contacting or jumping on passers-by. Even if people say, 'It’s okay,' your dog needs to learn to behave appropriately in public."
The AKC-edited manual to the Canine Good Citizen test, Citizen Canine, says: "Even though we may be dog lovers, when a dog is barreling toward us at light speed, it is irritating for many of us to hear the owner yelling from halfway across the park, 'It's OK, he's friendly' (or 'He just wants to say hello,' or 'he just wants to play."). It doesn't matter if he's friendly. The irresponsible owner and his out-of-control dog didn't have the right to make others feel uncomfortable or to interrupt other owners' walks with their own dogs."
Some more light Googling yields gems like:
- "The best solution to these growing problems [that result from uninvited greetings] is to avoid the possibilities all together, by teaching your dog to ignore other dogs completely when walking on leash, unless specifically stopped on command, told to sit and wait for permission to approach and greet. Otherwise your dog should learn that when he’s on leash, he should walk past and ignore other dogs. There is no need for your leashed dog to learn how to greet other dogs, in order to be a good canine citizen."
- Dog trainer Marthina "McClay uses a human example to illustrate her point, comparing dogs meeting on a walk to humans meeting for the first time at a party.'You wouldn’t go and sit on a stranger’s lap, would you?' she said. 'Dogs have personal space just like we do, and they may become offended when a stranger invades that space.'When a dog feels that his or her personal space has been invaded, the natural response is to bark and possibly snap back at the intruder. McClay said dogs get blamed for being aggressive in these situations, but it’s a normal reaction for a dog to “get cranky” about a strange dog rushing up to him or her."
- "Only let your dog approach a stranger if that person asks. The same rule applies to strangers walking their own dogs. If you see another dog and owner approaching, ask first ('Can they say hi?') and honor the other’s response. Don’t shrug off their objection because 'he’s such a nice dog': if he or she doesn’t want your dog to approach, no more explanation is necessary."
And finally, there an incredibly insightful and productive conversation on Reddit you should definitely check out if you're still not convinced.
TL;DR (Too long; didn't read)
- Respect the bubble.
- Respect that other people may be training their dogs and don't want to be interrupted.
- Respect that other dogs may not want the invasion of privacy.
- Uninvited approaches are dangerous for your dog anyway.
- Both yelling "my dog isn't friendly" and yellow ribbons are stupid and ill-advised for legal reasons.
- The other owner may want to avoid exuberance as much as aggression.
- Nobody on the Internet says "you should definitely approach other dogs uninvited, it's up to other people to warn you away."
For the Person Who Just Wants to Be Left Alone
If you are the person whose dog just wants to say hi, I can't thank you enough for having read this far. Seriously. I'm really grateful that you're still here.
But I'm betting that most of you who've gotten to this part are wondering how exactly to deal with people who let their dogs approach uninvited.
Yes, you can definitely shout out, "My dog's not friendly!" or "My dog might bite!" This will, in most situations, achieve the desired result.
But if you're like me, you probably resent saying something that's not true about your dog simply because you want to extricate yourself from a situation you've been forced into. Or, as I described above, you know that it's probably not in your legal best interests to go around shouting that your dog is dangerous.
When I started my Facebook rant (which was the foundation for this article), I honestly believed the problem was that other dog owners just didn't realize what a nightmare they were causing for the rest of us.
After a lot of discussion with said dog owners--I realize that some of them truly don't believe it's their responsibility to give other dogs space unless they've been notified to do so.
So unfortunately, I'm going to start notifying.
It feels horribly uncomfortable and rude, but as my trainer says, I have to be the best advocate and leader for my dog that I can be. And that means setting him up for success, which in turn means sometimes making myself and other people feel uncomfortable.
When Chance and I go for a walk, and another dog and owner approaches us and it looks like the owner is not going to make any effort to respect our bubble, I'm going to say, "please keep your dog away from my dog."
And in the event that an off-leash dog charges at my dog--or it otherwise looks like an attack might be imminent--I'm spraying the oncoming dog with my can of Pet Corrector compressed air.
I don't need to say there's something wrong with my dog, and I don't need to explain why I don't want my dog interacting with your dog. I have a right to my personal space, and I have a right to protect my dog's personal space. So I will be exercising that right.
Because my dog and I have every right to go on a walk that is pleasant for us both. And I honestly don't care that your dog just wants to say hi.
UPDATE: Wow. I am utterly blown away by the response to this article. Thank you all so much for the support and feedback! More than anything, I am just so so sorry to hear the overwhelming number of horror stories. I am so sorry for everyone who has had something totally awful--and totally preventable--happen to them. I tried to keep up with responding to comments below but I just can't. To everyone who recognizes their own struggles in this post--my heart goes out to you, and thank you so much for making me feel like I'm not the only one who feels this way!! And above all, a HUGE thank-you to those of you who have let your minds be changed!!!!! YOU ARE HEROES.