Updated: Oct 7
Imagine for a moment you are out somewhere, with someone you know and trust, but surrounded by people that you don’t know. You are just there with your friend, hanging out and looking at things that interest you, having a good time watching the world go by.
Then one of the strangers nearby starts to walk towards you, looking straight at you. Unsure of what they want and why they are marching up to you, you start to feel uneasy, glancing away and maybe fidgeting. Despite your body language showing that you would rather they not come any closer still they come, but now with an outstretched hand towards you.
Trying to avoid that hand invading your personal space, you try to move behind your friend for protection but, instead of giving you shelter, they tell you not to be rude and push you back towards the approaching hand. You try to tell them that you’re worried but they don’t listen.
That hand is getting closer all the time and you start whispering that you’d like them to go away. That person doesn’t listen either, just keeps coming closer, until you feel like you have no choice but to tell at them to LEAVE ME ALONE!
The approaching person stops at last but claims that you are aggressive and nasty and shouldn’t be in public. Your friend, the person you thought you could rely on to help you feel safe, tells you off – perhaps even shouts at you or punishes you for ‘being bad’, and that you had better be ‘good’ next time someone wants to invade your personal space and touch you without asking if you’re ok with that.
Sound silly, doesn’t it? Because we just don’t do that to people. We don’t walk up to them and just touch them, especially if we don’t know them well.
This is what is expected of many dogs in our society. That they should be fine for anyone to approach and accept physical contact on just about any part of their body at any time.
There may be any number of reasons why a dog does not want attention in that moment. They may be anxious or fearful, they may be recovering from an illness or a medical procedure, they may be senior dogs who can’t see or hear quite as well as they used to and feel a little vulnerable, especially if they aren’t so steady on their paws anymore.
This is why it is up to us to advocate for our dogs. If people approach our dogs without asking if it’s ok, it’s fine to block their approach. I once had to do this in a vet’s waiting room as a woman started walking directly towards my dog (who was muzzled and behind two of his trusted humans to try and help him feel as safe as possible). She kept going even when told he’s scared of people he doesn’t know – I had to physically block her path and push her backwards bodily.
Even if you don’t necessarily mind people making a fuss of your dogs out in public, never forget that to check with the dog and see if they are happy to accept attention and fuss. Learn the signs dogs use to show comfort or discomfort in a situation and – vitally – pay attention to those signals.
Tell the people around you how to check with dogs whether they are happy to receive attention.
Most important of all, listen to your dog and advocate for them. It’s absolutely fine to say no if someone asks to make a fuss of your dog. Dogs are not here for our entertainment. They are sentient beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We have to remember and respect that fact and do everything we can to keep them feeling safe and happy in our world.