I glanced up from fondly watching Jack as he sniffed a pile of autumn leaves to see an older man of slight stature who had just rounded the corner. He stood frozen on the sidewalk, arms hanging stiffly by his sides–extending slightly outwards, his mouth forming a big ‘O’, and eyes wide with what I could only interpret as terror. He was also watching Jack, but not with fondness.
Jack is a short-haired, pointy-eared, 50-pound dog of mixed heritage and wouldn’t hurt a fly. He would have ignored the gentleman, had he even noticed him, because Jack is not a dog that craves attention from strangers. Although I doubt knowing this would have lessened this poor man’s fright. I hustled Jack away in search of an equally aromatic pile of leaves on the opposite side of the street.
As someone who loves dogs, it is very disturbing to see someone react this way to them. These creatures can be so loving and gentle. But I have to acknowledge I can understand a person being frightened, especially if there has been a bad experience with a dog in their past.
Even more disturbing is to see a child quickly approach me with his or her hands extended to pet my dog as the parent casually watches without comment. I have an extremely affection dog, but I feel obliged to stop the child and explain how to approach him. Bad experiences can often be avoided if we understand how to interact properly with these animals.
First of all, a child should be taught to never approach a strange dog, especially if unattended by its owner. Assuming the owner is present, the child should first ask permission to pet the dog. It is important that they understand that the answer they receive may sometimes be no and it is not because the person is trying to be mean to them. Like people, some dogs may have had bad experiences interacting with children and may no longer trust them.
If the answer is yes, the child should slowly approach the animal, from the side if possible, with an extended fist. They should be told that they should not look the dog in the eyes because looking straight into a dog’s eyes can be a little scary for them. It is a sign of aggression on the part of the child.
The dog should be allowed to sniff the back of the hand before the child tries to touch the animal. Wait until the owner indicates it is okay to pet the dog and then slowly reach out and pet the dog on the side of the face, under the chin, or on the chest. Dogs do not like to be petted on the top of their heads.
As a precaution, the child should get into the habit of keeping his or her face away from the dog’s face. They will likely avoid only a good licking, but it is better to be cautious.
No matter how friendly or well trained the dog, circumstances may arise that may make the animal uncomfortable. If there are any signs of unease (ears are being put back, there is growling or whimpering, the dog is turning his head or backing away, etc.), the child should be told to quietly and slowly back away from the animal.
One day when I was walking a dog that was not my own, a beautiful, curly haired young girl about 6 years old came running towards us with a big smile on her face, arms outstretched to hug my small, white, fluffy companion. As she came close I said, “Please stop. I’m sorry, but my dog is afraid of people.” Because the dog was small, it was more likely to be fearful of children. I had no concrete knowledge that this particular dog had any problems dealing with kids, but I didn’t want to take a chance.
Although I tried to explain further, I felt so badly when she turned and ran away from me crying, back towards her parents. But hopefully in the future, she will not be frozen like a statue on the sidewalk at the mere sight of a dog sniffing a pile of leaves.
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