This morning, I walking to school with my son and we bumped into Danny-the-Yorkshire-terrier and his human mom. My kid got really excited! Finally I would get to meet the famous Danny, who loves kids so much.
I was curious to see how my kid would handle the encounter – this is a kid whom I have raised into respecting a dog’s choices and spotting their subtle signals. What followed was a bit of a cold shower/parental reality check. Turns out even zoologists’ kids choose to miss a dog’s request for more space when they are hell-bent on petting them.
When Danny-the-Yorkshire saw us, he crouched down low and creeped closer to us, butt wriggling and tail wagging. My kid saw this as confirmation that he wanted to be petted and bent over to pet him on the back (see Pat Pet Pause below for why this is a terrible idea). Danny-the-Yorkshire rolled over on his back and gave off every appeasement signal in the book.
Sure it was. And do you know what tail wagging means? It means “I have seen you.” It could mean:
Looking at Danny’s non-stop show of over-the-top deference signals, I wasn’t seeing “please pet me” so much as “You’re huge & I am tiny. I can’t go anywhere. You’re bending over me. I want to be petted but I feel overwhelmed. Can we take it down a notch?”
That familiar feeling of sadness crept up in me: how long are we going to keep misunderstanding our dogs? Danny’s pitiful show of deference gave me the same sad feeling I get when a kid acts overly politely and loses all spontaneity when his parents are around. Just how much pressure is Danny-the-Yorkshire under to get petted by every kid in the village?
I was relieved to see Danny’s human pulling him away (I would have preferred she called him away but yeah, at least he was being taken out of the situation). She was in a rush and he still needed to poop, she explained.
It turns out she too had missed his requests for space. Missed or maybe even dismissed. I am not convinced she would have done much about it even if she’d known he was not 100% comfortable. Most people see their dogs as an object with a function: petting – forced petting if need be.
That sad feeling crept up again: not only do I have to fight against ignorance every day (owners who do not realize the dog is uncomfortable), but how many more dogs are expected to just grin and bear it, regardless of how they feel about it?
This is the sad reality for most dogs, particularly the small and cute ones, whose are on constant petting duty by anyone who feels like touching a dog today: a small, furry, mobile petting zoo.
The obvious answer is empathy. Why would you force your dog in a situation in which he is not comfortable? That is no fair way to treat a friend and family member.
If empathy does not rock your boat and you see it as your dog’s duty to grin and bear unrequited petting, then perhaps this will be a more compelling reason to look at consent: seeking permission reduces the risk of a dog bite. Drastically so.
So why does seeking consent reduce bite risk? Because our dogs know that, even if they ask nicely, they’ll be heard. This is how the escalation process works with unrequited petting:
‘But my dog would never bite!’ As a behaviourist, let me tell you: never say never. You should see the countless reports that fly past my desk with: “He bit out of the blue.” and “He had never done anything like it before.” Every dog with a bite history had a first bite. By definition.
Don’t get me wrong. Some dogs, like Danny, seem to be extraordinarily tolerant and to have endless grin-and-bear-it in them. Shouldn’t we actually protect these dogs above all other dogs, from unwanted petting? Aren’t we taking advantage of their good nature?
As far as I remember, I first heard about Pat Pet Pause via the Family Dog’s excellent bite prevention program. Pat Pet Pause is a consent test for dogs. You can use it with not only kids on the street, but your own kids, your guests, passersby, and of course, yourself.
Let me break it down for you:
You can see a video of this exercise here.
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