John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It's not just for your own protection, dummy.
Walking in San Francisco a while ago, I saw tied to a tree the cutest pit-bull puppy, fur as soft as Porsche-quality chamois and warm eyes that could melt a hole through a glacier.
So I reached down to pet this dog. And then reached back fast, as its jaws closed millimeters from my fingertips. Rotten little beast, I thought.
Looking back, I still think a dumb animal was responsible for this unpleasantness – and it was me. Why would anybody assume that a stranger's dog, tethered without its master, would welcome random petting? Canines are complex animals, guided by senses and instincts most people don't understand. Stroking an unfamiliar pup can set off all kinds of dicey responses like fear and aggression, and we're not just talking about in the dog.
This bummer is hard for some people to accept. Just ask Bill Mayeroff, a professional dog walker and author of the necessary life guide, "How to Approach a Stranger's Dog and Not Get Your Face Eaten." Mayeroff doesn't let people pet his dogs if they don't ask permission or if his gut feeling is they'll do it wrong. For this sin he's been screamed at on several occasions.
He was walking his own mixed terrier in a park a couple years back, for instance, when a little girl suddenly made a beeline for him while flailing her arms and yelling, "Puppy puppy puppy!" So he told her to stop and not come any closer, and that's when the mother got involved.
"She starts yelling at me, 'Why can't my daughter pet your puppy?' I said, 'Because your daughter doesn't know how to approach my dog,'" says Mayeroff, who's 29 and lives in Chicago. "She says, 'But I told her she could pet your dog.' And I said, 'OK, now you have to tell her you were wrong and she can't pet my dog.' She was still yelling at me as I walked away."
Mayeroff doesn't take pleasure in crushing the joy of innocent children. He's just being logical. In certain circumstances dogs will snap at strangers, and that puts every creature involved in a bad place. "If a person does something that might set my dog off and he bites, that's a big problem for me," he says. "I could get sued, or have my dog taken away, or have it put down."
Why do people feel entitled to touch the hounds of others? In my case, I grew up with a procession of mutts (including one inveterate biter) and thought my dogdar was excellent. But the vibe I registered from the San Francisco puppy was not, I'm gonna take you down, jack. It was, pet me pet me oh god why aren't you petting me. And thus I was reminded that every dog is different, and unfamiliar dogs can always surprise you.
A widespread belief is that dogs love petting. And many do enjoy being manhandled like a panting Koosh ball. With their belly rolls and kicking hind legs, it's almost as if evolution had designed them for this very purpose. But it's sometimes not true for dogs that have been abused or are hand shy, or with normally chill animals going through certain provoking situations.
"There's something called barrier frustration, or when a dog is on a leash and can't do what it wants to do naturally," says Molly Kenefick, who owns Doggy Lama Pet Care in Oakland. "It can't get away from you, and it's more likely to be reactive," aka aggressive.
Then there is a normal canine behavior called resource guarding. Say you have a parent walking a dog while pushing a stroller. "The dog might be guarding the baby," Kenefick says. Or maybe the dog has a stuffed squirrel in its mouth, its favorite plaything in the world: "It might be reactive because it's guarding its toy." This phenomenon stretches to any object the animal sees as a resource, including ones that might not be obvious in a public setting (say, a pile of stepped-on corn chips on the sidewalk).
Dogs indicate whether they'd be up for a little petting through their body language. Many folks don't know how to read it. That thing about dogs wagging their tails when happy, for example? Total myth. "We seem to be distracted by 'cute,' 'fluffy,' 'small,' and are not actually looking at the situation in front of us," says Kenefick. For those wanting to learn dogspeak, look for when the creature curls its lips, holds its body rigid, shrinks away, or puts its tail between its legs. These are all signs it's stressed and might lash out if you invade its personal space with groping hands.
So what is the proper way to pet a stranger's dog? First, see if it's wearing a yellow ribbon. That's a sign it's a member of the Yellow Dog Project, an effort to publicly identify pooches that need their own space. (Either that or it has a buddy fighting in the war.) Then ask the owner for permission. Go for under the chin rather than above the head, as the latter could be interpreted as an act of aggression. Avoid touching areas the dog might be sensitive about, like feet and ears.
But if you're going to pet without asking anyway, at least have the courtesy not to be on your phone at the same time.
"The way people live their lives now, all the multitasking, it drives me crazy," says Kenefick. "People just aren't paying attention. They're looking at the screen and see fluff out of the corner of their eye, and then all of a sudden they're on top of you."