A number of years ago, I was walking my family’s old Basset Hound mix, Wesley, through a secluded part of the woods near our home. This area was mostly unused by other residents, and I gradually began walking Wesley off-leash. I always enjoyed these off-leash walks as they gave Wesley more freedom to explore and sniff. The Basset in him can never get enough sniffs.
One day, we were walking as usual when I suddenly encountered a lady who had come quickly around a corner. Unfortunately, she was much more traumatized by our meeting than I was. Wesley walked up to her hoping for a treat, but instead of delighting in his floppy-eared cuteness, she cowered away while explaining that she had been attacked by a dog and still had fear and anxiety around dogs. I quickly apologized and put Wesley back on his leash. It was this experience that reminded me of a basic courtesy that many of us disregard when it comes to dogs and dog owners. I’m talking, of course, about consent.
We are sometimes so blinded by our own love for our pets that we fail to realize that there are many reasons why someone else may not want to interact with them. And that’s their right. Our pets make us feel happy and give us that warm, fuzzy feeling, but for someone else, the effect might be the opposite.
I sometimes see dog owners allow their dogs to approach strangers with nothing but a shout of, “It’s okay, he’s friendly!” It’s not okay. That person may have a fear of dogs, that person may be ill, that person may just want to go for a quiet walk uninterrupted. We must respect each person's right to personal space.
On the flip side, it is also common to see people, adults and children alike, run up to dogs to pet them without consent from the dog or owner. If the dog owner tries to protect their dog, you’ll sometimes hear an excuse like, “It’s okay, I’m great with dogs.” It’s not okay. You are giving unwelcome attention to the dog owner and his or her dog. No matter how innocent your intentions, there is a chance you are doing harm. In cases where the dog being walked is in training, is nervous or reactive, or is sick, any unwelcome attention will only create a difficult situation for the dog and owner.
While we’re on the subject of greeting dogs in public, it’s important to mention service dogs. Service dogs are working dogs who perform important tasks to assist their owners, and it is never okay to approach, touch, or otherwise distract these dogs unless there is an emergency situation that warrants it. If a service dog approaches you unaccompanied by their owner, he or she may be trying to get help and you should seek assistance immediately.
If you ask to pet someone’s dog and the dog owner grants permission, it is still your responsibility to make sure the pet consents to your physical contact. StopThe77.com has great resources including a guide to respecting a dog’s personal space for children and a chart picturing various ways that dogs show us that they are feeling anxious or afraid. If a dog shrinks away from you, no matter how much of a “dog person” you are, you should respect what she is telling you and give her some space. True dog lovers will always put the dog’s feelings before their own desire to have an interaction.
Here is a list of behaviors a dog may exhibit if he or she is feeling scared: licking lips, panting (when it is not due to heat or exercise), cowering, yawning out of context, looking nervously from side to side, furrowing brow and lowering ears to the side, pacing, rejecting food, and moving away or hiding. If we disregard all of these signals, dogs will sometimes bark or growl to get the point across. If that doesn’t work, a dog may even resort to biting to make the harassment stop.
As pet parents, it’s up to us to keep people and pets safe. We must be sure our furry friends don’t invade the personal space of other people or pets, and we must also protect our pets from unwelcome attention. Personal space is everyone’s right.
Jessica Gladkowski is the Director of Community Relations at the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. Jessica received her Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from The University of Vermont, and over the next several years she traveled to Japan and South Korea where she taught English and immersed herself in different cultures. Jessica is inspired to combine her passion for helping animals, teaching, and serving a diverse community through a career in animal welfare. She lives in Aiken with her husband David and their rescue dogs Django and Ollie.