I train many different types of dogs, all having various levels of naughty behaviors. Anytime we leave home with our dogs in tow, all kinds of things can happen. It can really be a challenging experience for owners of special needs dogs. One thing I often hear from owners is how difficult it can be taking their dog out in public when total strangers are rude or won’t listen to them about how to approach their dog.
Time after time, I hear owners of shy dogs saying that their dog was terrified by a child who ran up to pet them, or was terrified by a larger friendly dog because the other owner wanted their dogs to meet! This is where every dog owner must get a back bone. This is especially true for those of us having shy, anxious or aggressive dogs. So many owners are afraid of offending a complete stranger who is being inappropriate with their dog!
I often take owners and dogs out in public as part of our regular lessons, so that those owners can learn how to manage their dogs in public, and also to let their dogs prove to their owners just how well behaved they really are! Of course, many of the strangers that we encounter have no idea that I’m a dog trainer, so I see what happens first hand.
Your dog has no obvious voice where he can speak in English to tell strangers what’s on his mind. He has his body language and eyes, and he also has barks and growls to indicate what he’s feeling. Many humans don’t speak “dog,” and often have no real idea what is going on inside their dogs. When you have a special needs dog, I think it’s really crucial to know and understand how to read your dog’s body language. By doing so, you can often diffuse a stressful situation for your dog long before your dog is really reacting.
The second thing that needs to happen, is that you need to get some standard statements/phrases that you can use when you encounter strangers with your dog. Memorize these statements or come up with your own, similar statements so you’ll know what to say when you get into those uncomfortable situations.
- My favorite thing to say in a very friendly voice is, “Sorry….I’m out training the dog right now….I’ll try to catch you later and we can chat!”
- “I’m really sorry, but my dog doesn’t do well with strangers, so please don’t pet him. I’ll be happy to give you a dog treat, and you can toss that to him if you’d like.”
- “My dog is aggressive. Please stay back.”
- “My dog is too excited to greet you or your dog nicely today, so we’ll have to meet on another day.”
In every single one of those situations, you can smile as you speak, and you can keep your dog moving on out of there! Be friendly and be kind to people, but don’t subject your dog to more stress than you know your dog can manage. A good rule of thumb is to increase the distance between your dog and the stranger or other dog. That will give your dog a good buffer of space, and it’s always helpful in keeping your dog calmer and more quiet, which should be your ultimate goal.
It’s very important to rehearse what to say, because my clients often tell me that when they were in the moment, they just couldn’t think of what to say or do, so they just let the stranger call the shots. Just because someone says that they’re good with dogs is no reason to throw your dog under the bus! If you know your dog is not going to be comfortable with the encounter, err on the side of protecting your dog!
My vet often asks me if Rugby will be comfortable with something before she does it. She trusts my judgment about how to approach him. It can be intimidating to speak up to a pet professional like your vet or trainer, but I honestly always really appreciate it when new clients tell me that their dog is head shy, or doesn’t enjoy a butt scratch. Pet professionals are all about creating good encounters with dogs, and we rely on our clients to help us make that positive impression with their dogs.
Work through any feelings of being rude or mean in speaking up to strangers or pet professionals. As a dog trainer, I sometimes have to tell people really difficult things while I’m teaching them how to get results with their dogs. I think carefully about what and how I need to say what I’m going to say, I attach love and compassion to it, and I smile. I think most people will receive the above statements well if you’re smiling when you say them. Practice in front of a mirror if you’re still unsure. Let the thought of being your dog’s champion rule your mind and your heart, and learn to be your dog’s voice!