Petting as conversation, touch with consent

There are a number of articles about petting dogs needing to be more about the dogs’ consent in the process; other pieces have not included the important distinctions about enthusiastic consent and/or the reality of sometimes having to touch/grab a dog without their consent for safety reasons. Fuzzy Dog Logic speaks well to all of this in their blog post “If there’s no enthusiastic consent, it means “no.”

I have known many dogs who will seem to patiently tolerate petting, or other physical contact, but will likely swiftly slip away when hands are removed from their coats (often with a quick full-body Shake Off to de-stress themselves as they do). There is a shelter dog Game we play called “How’s that for You” and a similar one for small children interacting with dogs “Pet Pat Pause” to help assess if a dog wants to continue a physical interaction. The Games go something like this: human offers three soft and steady strokes of their hand to the dog’s fur. Then the human lifts their hands off and the dog can freely respond in any way  they would like, such as moving away or leaning in. This pattern is soberingly simple and allows the dog to be an active part of the physical conversation.


I’ve also watched (or been involved with) situations where someone was too hesitant to be hands-on and a dog’s stress level was seriously elevated or a dangerous situation was made worse because of the human’s inactivity. I believe we humans sometimes do need to move in and be more active advocates for our dogs, or just take physical action to change the environment quickly with a body block or a collar grab.

While many of our dogs do need to be taught appropriate ways to greet people (i.e. not jumping up forcefully/barking/lunging/etc), that polite greeting doesn’t necessarily need to include being petted by strangers. Two amusing alternatives are learning a Go Say Hi skill, in which the dog is cued to move forward and do a trick such as Touch with their nose to an offered hand or that cue could instead be for the dog to Sit and Wave (pawing the air) toward a stranger (if the dog is stressed by touching a stranger at all).

Another typical trained greeting which does involve some contact, is to have the dog cued to walk toward the stranger, pause for a brief (three to five seconds) interaction, and then move back to their comfort zone of their person. Recently, while helping a team train this skill, I was asked by the handler if they should reward the dog even if their dog did not actually make any contact. I enthusiastically replied that they should, as I wanted their dog to know that making the choice not to physically interact to has been honored by their person.

How and when to touch dogs is something that is in flux, even with our own dogs. Our current physical environment, any shared history, and of course the dogs themselves the building blocks of these interactions.

We must always be watching/learning/evaluating, practicing, and being ready and able to change direction as needed. Starting with the foundation of respect and mutual understanding, we (humans and dogs) can do amazingly well!



I am a wandering hedge-scholar. Feet in the dirt, head in the clouds, dog by my side!
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