87

Dogs are what I see mostly out on my day to day activities and I see some tied up outside shops and I'll pet them, I'll also pet some in passing i.e. just stroking them as I walk past and sometimes as they're walking past me (if they come over towards me and sniff my shoes or something). After I've pet them the owner will indicate if they don't want anyone petting them or not i.e. "Ah sorry, she's really shy!" if they shy away, or "She's not good around people" or simply call their dog over/pull the lead or something like that and they won't say anything normally if they don't.

I'm not a dog owner so it may seem obvious to some. I'm very laid back and would let people pet my dog without asking me if I had one (depending if the dog enjoyed being stroked). Which made me wonder, should I always ask a dog owner before I pet their dog?

I've never had any problems with this previously, any angry owners or anything. (Which is why I'm asking) They generally just walk off with the dog, but I'm thinking more about someone who has a dog. Is it more polite for me to ask than for me to not?

Note: I'm not talking about service dogs, they have a job to do and shouldn't be pet. I normally see them as a working dog, rather than a pet.

What is the etiquette for asking a dog owner before I pet their dog? Is it required to ask, or can I just pet the dog?

236
+50

Always. My dog is a black labrador; an abused rescue I found at a shelter. When I got him (a male), he was limping and terrified. If you touched an ear, he would yelp like you kicked him: somebody had been dragging him (or lifting him) by his ear. An x-ray of his leg showed healing from a cracked bone, and his knee had been dislocated for so long it couldn't be put back without surgery. My vet suspected a hard kick caused both of those.

After seven years, there are seven people that can touch him on the head. Me, my wife and daughter are three of them. He's a happy dog. Still limping, but he gets medication to control the pain.

If you (a stranger) try to scratch him under the chin, he will let you. He likes to make friends. Try to pat him on the head or scratch his ears, and he will snarl to kill you. Persist and he will attack you. My dog knows forty commands, the difference between his right and left, he even knows what it means for him to make a choice between walking paths or foods. He won't cross the street or leave his yard without permission. He understands when I tell him to stop barking, or that somebody is a guest. But when it comes to his ears, this is behavior I can't do anything about.

If you ask me, I'll tell you: Do not touch his head or ears, it hurts. Scratch him under the chin. The hurt is psychological; he actually likes being scratched on the head if he trusts you, but this is the easiest way for me to inform you.

You don't know strange dogs, or their history. Don't assume.

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+200

Don't touch anyone or anything without asking. This applies to dogs, children, people (especially the bellies of random pregnant women and yes people do that), you name it. There is simply no reason not to ask. Now in emergencies, obviously this is exempt. But otherwise always ask and the simplest answer is, it keeps things civil and good and polite and appropriate on and on. There is simply no downside to asking. I make a huge point to make my children ask. We live in an area with loads of walkers with dogs. I won't even let my children approach a little until they have asked if they can approach. It just shows due respect while teaching my children safety and appropriate boundaries. Not everyone says yes and I appreciate that too. If they don't think it's a good idea, they know better than I do. Likewise I usually will not allow my 3 year old to touch a dog. People will tell me it's fine and I say "thanks, but it's really not", because I know her better than they do. She will accept the no fine and we will all be safer for it.

Other answers have adequately explained the inherent danger. Then there is the fact that whatever that dog prefers, or the child or adult, etc, matters. Even when you are in someone's house you should think about this. I had a cat that suffered a very bad injury and then we never were sure if he still had actual pain or just was protective based on memory, but he did not like to be touched past his mid trunk by anyone other than owners. I told people this, but otherwise he was an incredibly tolerant friendly cat. He wasn't going to actually harm anyone who made a mistake, but he would get very upset and there is no reason to upset him like that. Likewise a dog who isn't happy to be touched might not take action, but he still deserves the respect to not be touched in ways he doesn't enjoy.

And I know I mentioned children, but as a mom this one is also a thing. People shouldn't randomly touch your kids either, but they do. They think they are being sweet, but the fact is most moms hate it. They love that you think their child is cute, but you are really stepping into territory that isn't yours to step into.

So always ask whoever can speak for that individual, the mom, the owner, the whoever's in charge. Honestly at least 25% of the dogs that walk past here are done by walkers, so they aren't even the owner anyway.

  • 3
    I stress the part about asking people, I hate random strangers bumping or worse, actually touching me, and I work actively to avoid that. Exception made for children that get curious about the "fur" in my arms, especially in countries where that is not that common (it already happened 2 or 3 times) – Rui F Ribeiro Sep 7 '17 at 10:31
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    I think it's a mistake to compare touching humans to touching dogs. Our primary form of communication with dogs is physical. The rule for not touching dogs may be better compared to talking to strangers, or maybe more like talking to stranger's kids. Probably best to talk to the parent first. – BlackThorn Sep 7 '17 at 21:28
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    @TBear are you meaning body language, etc? I know dogs communicate a ton with their posture, gaze, etc, and likewise I don't see most owners using touch for more than affection. All other communication is verbal, body language, pointing, etc. Even for humans, a great deal of our communication is nonverbal. I am not sure the primary way you communicate with a dog is through touching it. But again, one of my main points was small kids (they get touched most often) and they don't talk either, so for me I do see a real similarity. – threetimes Sep 7 '17 at 23:53
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    holding your hand out, is in a sense asking permission... from the dog. Depending on the situation, I think this can be appropriate. – user1751825 Sep 11 '17 at 8:08
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    @user1751825 that is specific to her because she has demonstrated an unpredictable nature and an inability to be trusted to do so. By next year I think she will be past it. We have tried it with dogs we know, but I certainly am not going to do it with a dog we don't based on her behavior so far. She still is just as likely to slap the dog as pet it and I won't subject the dog to that. My other kids I trusted far more at this age. I am hoping she is a tad more ready at 4. – threetimes Sep 11 '17 at 13:52
43

I'd like to address service dogs here as well.

Most of the time service dogs wear a vest indicating they are an actual service dog or in training. Do not pet service dogs, don't even ask the owner. They are working and cannot be distracted from their job.

Not all service dogs wear a vest, which is another important reason to ask the owner if you can let their dog. Their dog may in fact be a service dog and should not be treated like a "pet" at that time.

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    This was so obvious, I didn't feel the need to put this in the question. Should I add this as a footnote or something? But this doesn't really answer my question otherwise. – Bradley Wilson Sep 6 '17 at 21:40
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    @BradleyWilson I feel it is a given too but wanted to address it as this site reaches a wide range of people and cultures, some who may not be familiar with service dogs and the rules around them. I tried to address your question with the second paragraph indicating that you never know if it is or isn't a service dog so that is another reason to always make sure to ask. – cheshire Sep 6 '17 at 21:42
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    that's a good point actually, it's not always obvious – Bradley Wilson Sep 6 '17 at 21:45
20

YES.

Never touch an animal you don't know. It's dangerous.

You can get bitten by the dog. I know people who have had this happen to them - they petted a dog who they didn't know and got bitten, and ended up having to go to the emergency room. You also don't know if the animal is carrying ticks or other bugs that may transfer diseases. (Again, I know people who have gotten sick from ticks on a dog.)


Now, if it's on a leash and being taken care of by a person... Yes, you should ask. The dog is theirs. It's their property, no matter how wrong it may be to think of living creatures as property. They may not want you touching it - perhaps the dog may get sick. Or any other reason.

There's no harm in asking, either - if they say yes you've avoided potentially being rude. If they say no, accept that they have a valid reason - it's safer.

I've also heard some stories of owners being violent. But I'm not sure if I trust the sources that I heard it from, so... But it's something to keep in mind: not every dog is friendly - especially dogs trained as guard dogs - and not every owner is friendly.

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    In the UK the acts of a dog are the responsibility of the owner. If my dog bit you, they'd be destroyed and I'd be fined and/or imprisoned. So it's incredibly important to ask the dog owner whether they can pet the dog or not as you don't know the history of the animal or how they react. Plus, always go to the dog with the back of your hand facing them, let them sniff. It's a non-threatening way of saying hello to them, at which point you can scratch their back. – mickburkejnr Sep 11 '17 at 15:28
  • The asker has stated that the reason the topical question was asked here is because it concerns the interaction between the two humans in the scenario, not one of the humans and the dog. Funny how most answers don't really consider that. :-/ – can-ned_food Sep 11 '17 at 15:44
13

As a non-dog-owner, you probably don't know the standard reactions from dogs and how to pet them properly. Simply reaching out and touching a dog is as awkward for the dog as it would be for you if some random stranger suddenly started petting you.

To properly greet a dog, reach out with your hand and wait till he is done sniffing your scent. That's basically like saying "Hello". Then watch his reaction: If the dog turns away, he doesn't want to be petted. If the dog stares at you like he is waiting on something, he probably wants to be petted. A wagging tail is a dead-giveaway that the dog likes you, and would most likely allow you to pet him. When in doubt ask the owner.

As a side-effect, this gives the dog owner enough time to warn you, if for some reason the dog must not be touched. So if possible make sure that the owner can see you while you 'greet' the dog.

When petting the dog, do not fully go in from the first second, instead carefully reach out and watch the dog's reaction. If he turns away, then he doesn't like to be petted in that spot. If he turns towards you, he wants to. Never aggressively pet a dog unless you know him well.

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    +1 for the mention of proper greeting. Sure, it's important to ask the person first, but also ask the dog. Our dog is plenty friendly, and loves being loved on, but if you just immediately go straight over his head, he'll just back away. – Patrick Q Sep 7 '17 at 15:22
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    This is good advice. Just a mention though, the wagging tail isn't a 100% sign of happiness or joy. One of my dogs raises his tail to appear "bigger" when he feels threatened, and his hind leg movements cause it to wag anyways. Dog body language isn't fully consistent from dog to dog, just as human body language isn't fully consistent. – ench Sep 7 '17 at 15:49
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    If the tail is up and slightly trembling, it's not wagging. If it's slightly slack and moving significantly from side to side, it is wagging. Anything in between is not certain. – wizzwizz4 Sep 7 '17 at 16:25
  • Furthermore, the upright tail is a signal to other members of the pack: helps them locate the others in tall grasses and otherwise. Wolves use it when hunting; hounds will use it when pursuing prey too. – can-ned_food Sep 11 '17 at 15:47
11

Asking the dog owner is good. Asking the dog is best.

As an ex-dog-owner, I'll usually say hello to every dog I see. I'll always give the dog a chance to sniff my hand and then either stay around for more attention or leave. If the dog's clearly shy, I'll let it approach on its terms - many dogs are initially shy, but will happily accept fuss once they've realised you're friendly. And if the dog's come over to say hello to me, or it's running loose, I'll always assume it's OK to stroke the dog - if it wasn't, the owners shouldn't let it out. I've taught my son the same, with the extra caveat for him that he needs to be more careful around bigger dogs because they could easily knock him over if they bounce.

Sadly though, I meet more than a few owners who actively prevent their dogs from socialising with people. If you know your dog is scared of particular situations, that's fair enough. But when the dog approaches someone, tail wagging, and you yank it back, you're teaching it to fear contact with other people. This is incredibly damaging for the dog. Or they say "she doesn't like people" to try to stop you stroking it, while the dog is doing its best impression of a four-legged hearthrug in front of you and mowing the grass with its tail. They aren't paying enough attention to the dog to notice or even care about what it's feeling or whether it's happy.

If an owner says their dog is shy, I'll happily stay there and give the dog a chance to approach me. Most will, and most owners then praise their dog, which is entirely right. That's how you train a dog to be less nervous - give them opportunities to associate new people with pleasant experiences. And if they still don't, I don't push it, because the dog is saying that they can't handle it. And sometimes dogs are simply spooked for no particular reason that you or the owner can figure out, and again you accept that the dog just isn't in the mood.

So whilst asking the owner is fine in principle, it does fail when the owner is ignorant or stupid - and there are a disappointingly high number of ignorant and stupid dog owners. And it also fails when the owner thinks the dog is OK but the dog simply, for whatever reason, doesn't want the attention. Asking the dog always works.

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    Interesting "alternative" answer, I'd really like to hear if other users agree or not with it. – Gras Double Sep 10 '17 at 21:41
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    @GrasDouble Thanks. All the other answers assume competent and caring owners - and in an ideal world, I'd agree. The tragedy of pet ownership is that so many owners aren't. – Graham Sep 12 '17 at 16:39
5

YES*

*Unless you are at an off leash dog park and they come up to you.

Explained:

Its mostly for your safety and the owners liability. Asking will make sure the owner knows you are petting the dog and will give them the opportunity to say, no bad idea, if it is a bad idea to pet the dog. Most owners will say yes because they want people to love their dog as much as they love their dog but you should still ask. For example, mine won't bite you, but he will jump up to lick your face. Lots of people don't like that and so I want to be ready to handle mine before you bend over to put your face in striking distance :). It helps keep me from thinking he is freaking out about something and just keeps everybody grounded.

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    Even in an off-leash dog park, it's still rude to touch a dog without checking with the owner. Yes there are assumptions made when letting a dog off leash, but freely touching my dog or encouraging behaviour is not one of them. As a personal example I have a dog with a jumping habit. We've been working on it for almost a year now, and he's made substantial progress, but I still don't want any positive reinforcement from a stranger greeting him or rewarding him when he jumps on them (he's medium-small and very cute). – ench Sep 6 '17 at 23:45
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    Yeah but I said if they come up to you. Not if them come jump on you. But also you'd probably be close enough to say "DOG, no!" And most dog owners get that if the owner tells the dog no you should stop interacting with it. – Collatrl Sep 7 '17 at 11:46
2

In my opinion, always.

A few years back, I was visiting Washington DC and met a lovely woman with a beautiful Labrador. Turns out they were Security and were surveying the area. I was there with my husband and his group who were on a course related to Law Enforcement and International Policing.

Long story short, I asked the lady if I could pet her dog to which she replied with a delighted, "yes!", pointing out the dog was female, and mentioned how people seldom ask before petting animals, service dogs no less.

Since then, I've always made sure to ask owners before petting their animals, pets or otherwise.

I think it's not just a courtesy, but indicative of how different animals respond to a stranger's petting.

0

This answer might surprise most people, but I'd say: "No, you don't always need to do so":
Let me explain: I have a dog and I regularly go walking with him, and indeed sometimes people want to caress him. Generally my dog really likes that, and me too.
Last week I was passing some young guys (beginning twenties) and one of them suddenly took my dog's head, and did some nose-to-nose with him.
At first I was surprised that anybody even dared to do that (my dog is really tall, around 50kg.), but it was a really lovely surprise (also for my dog). I also learnt a lot from it: sometimes you might end up arriving in a situation you don't expect, and how will your dog respond to it? I'm glad having seen that a surprising situation does not freak out my dog: he kept being calm, exactly how he should.

Does this mean that anybody can do this with just any dog? No, obviously not: some dogs are mean, some are anxious, some people are even meaner, ...

I just want to stress out: don't regulate too much: sometimes surprises happen, unexpected things, ..., and those situations are very valuable. Obviously when you don't feel confident you'd better ask the dog owner first or even better, don't approach the dog: dogs have a marvelous instinct for detecting insecurity and anxiety. But if you are, as you mentioned yourself, very laid back, then don't always wonder about what might happen when do you do whatever, you might end up not being that laid back anymore. Wouldn't that be a shame? :-)

Good luck

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    I wonder what you would've written here, had your dog decided to bite the guy's face off... – Erik Sep 7 '17 at 14:53
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    @Erik: this is exactly my point: some people are so focused on the negative that they can't imagine positive things to happen. When I'm walking with my dog, I'm regularly watching his attitude, and this helps me foresee what he will do, but that's besides the point: let's be more positive, and we'll make the world a more pleasant place to live in. – Dominique Sep 7 '17 at 14:57
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    It's nice that you're watching your dogs' attitude, and it's great to be positive, but it's also important to be reasonable; lots of dogs DON'T want to be touched, or won't react well to it, so it's smarter to just ask rather than risk traumatizing the dog or yourself. – Erik Sep 7 '17 at 17:09
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    Your answer is based on a false assumption. Dogs can attack for reasons rooted in their history. Some people in my family had a dog that would attack if she smelled alcohol in your breath, even just a bit, because the previous owner was alcoholic and abused her. Had your young guy been drinking a beer 30" before, and had he done that face to face thing with her, he would have earned a ticket for reconstructive surgery. – Ncen Sep 7 '17 at 21:45
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    @TBear all dogs need to go outside, even the ones that don't like to be touched. – Erik Sep 8 '17 at 5:42

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