I was "interviewing" an adult dog for adoption into my family. I had decided to take a walk in an outdoor shopping plaza to see how she interacted with people and reacted to noises. The foster parent had told me that she was non-aggressive, but I wanted to see who she really was.

As I walked down the sidewalk, I asked people to pet her and hand her treats. She was approaching people, standing still when they petted her and eating the treats without turning away, although she also didn’t wag her tail. So I knew from her body language that there was some level of disconnect, anxiety, or fear. It was hard to say at that point if it was me, the location, or the people, so I went on.

I came upon a woman and asked if she felt comfortable petting the dog and giving her a treat. She asked if it was my dog and I explained to her what I was doing. She put down her purse and said, "I will evaluate her for you. Have you turned her over on her back yet?"

I kindly explained that I had no intention of flipping her on her back, that I didn’t need her to evaluate the dog, I just wanted to see how she accepted new people. I started to walk away but she walked toward me, completely ignoring what I had said to her, and then bent down and put her face in the dog’s face.

For those of you who don’t know, this is a direct threat to a dog. Think about it. Wouldn’t you be threatened by a stranger who put their face six inches from yours?

The dog dropped her tail. She was getting scared. I should have pulled the dog down the sidewalk at that point, but instead I asked the woman to move away. My voice was raised and sharp, I was getting agitated. I didn’t want to pull this poor dog who didn’t even know me, but I had to do something quick. The woman started handling the dog’s feet and the dog turned her face away and licked her lips (both deferential signs of disengagement).  I could feel my blood pressure rising. It wasn’t going to end well.

I pulled the dog away from her and started walking. The woman was yelling behind me that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I stopped and gave her my impolite opinion of what she had done. She had acted completely inappropriately, scaring the dog. Well, there was more to it than that, but I don’t need to share it here!

This incident really shook me because I feel that when I have the leash, it is my responsibility to protect the dog. Was this dog permanently scarred? No, but that doesn’t matter.

It reminded me of all of the times that I have advised clients to keep their puppy safe from people like that — to control the people who interact with their pup so that the pup has good experiences. We almost always laugh about how people don’t listen and generally do what they want. In reality, that kind of disregard for what you say and what the pup is saying can affect some pups and can precipitate more serious behavior problems like aggression.

In my opinion, the best defense is a good offense. Hopefully, implementing the steps below will help you protect your pup, especially in the extremely important socialization period.

  1. Get out there and tell people not to pet your pup or only to pet your pup in a particular way.
  2. Leave the situation, even if it means pulling your pup away from the person.
  3. Prepare your pup for this situation by teaching her that when people reach for her or stick their face in her face that it means treats are coming so that she will not be afraid.

Yes, the old veterinary joke that dogs are easier to train than people is still true, but you can prepare your puppy for people who don’t listen so that her experiences are most often good ones. 

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: A dog by Dave Morris / via Flickr