Naomi Dunleavy
Dog trainer/behaviourist

Don’t touch my dog!

This can be a very touchy subject (pun intended!) that many of us just aren’t sure how to manage. When asked if someone can stroke our dog our automatic response is to say yes, because we are polite and we want people to know that our dog is a nice dog! Not me ….. I say no – in most situations very politely and with a brief explanation why, though I will become more forceful if I need to.

The reason I say no is because Portia, along with a large proportion of dogs, simply does not want to be touched by an absolute stranger. I mean, do you? Drawing comparisons with how we feel about situations is often the best way to understand how our dogs might be feeling. The need to gain consent for interactions with other people has very rightly been a topic for much discussion in recent years and we all understand the need for the rules and boundaries to be very clear. Most of us would feel uncomfortable with an unfamiliar person (or sometimes a familiar one!) simply standing or sitting too close to us, imagine how you would feel if that person after making direct and prolonged eye contact with you pushed their hand into your face and then started to stroke your hair and face……… very weird. Our expectation is that we can go about our day largely left alone and with no unsolicited physical interaction (unless you’re on the tube!)’, imagine if you had to spend your day worrying about people touching you. Yet we very often readily agree to allow people to do this to our dogs without asking or even considering how they might feel about it. Just like people there are some really social dogs out there, dogs who thoroughly enjoy contact with anyone and everyone, dogs who will greet every person they meet like a potential new best friend and will ask for fuss and strokes from any hand that will give them – these dogs are great but they aren’t really the norm.


This photo shows a dog who is incredibly uncomfortable in this situation. He is leaning as far back as he can, his ears are pinned back and you can see white rings around his eyes, his front leg is raised and his whole body looks tense and ready to spring away. This dog does not want to be touched!


Most dogs, like us, prefer to get to know someone before inviting contact, for the majority of dogs touch and fuss is an intimate and familiar act that requires trust and respect to be enjoyed. It shouldn’t be forced or suffered. Watch your dogs when they meet new people, they’ll be able to tell you a lot about how they feel about the situation. If called in a friendly manner do they approach readily, with a loose body, soft face and sweepy tail? If so then they are probably happy to go and make friends and feel comfortable. You should still keep an eye on them though – either may become uncomfortable and need some assistance! Your dog may become excitable and silly, which can be a little scary if someone isn’t expecting it. Your dog might initially enjoy the interaction but it could become too much if it is prolonged or if touched in areas they’re not keen on – we all have ‘no go’ areas, for Portia it’s her head and face. Does your dog approach slowly with their head down, like they don’t want to, but feel like they have to? In this case call them back so they don’t feel pressured. If like Portia your dog ignores the invitation don’t pressure them – Portia will turn her head away to politely decline an outstretched hand or she might look up at me or take a step back. I always allow her to move away if she wants to, her other strategy is to walk straight past which can be a bit confusing for the person. You can look for some of the more subtle signs your dog gives you to say that they don’t want to touched by someone. We often refer to these as appeasement or calming signals and if you look for them you will probably see them in all sorts of contexts, including when meeting people and other dogs. It is important that you look at the whole dog – a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog! Some of these signs include – lip/nose licking (when there is no food present), yawning, looking away, turning head/body away, ears held back or down, low or hunched body posture, paw lifts – when your dog lifts a front foot off the floor, a less subtle sign is when it actively leans or moves away. Seeing these very likely means your dog does not feel very comfortable and would really rather not! The rather not could be applied to lots of things. From your dog’s point of view this is pretty clear communication and they may be confused as to why things aren’t working for them. This can lead to them feeling that they need to be more obvious in their communication, dogs will keep communicating until they find something that works.

The next stage could be growling, showing teeth or snapping, this is a stage you really don’t want your dog to get to, they will find very quickly that this strategy is very effective and will apply it quickly, dispensing with the lower level communication. Another important point to raise is that it is absolutely crucial never to punish/tell your dog off/get angry if your dog growls. If your dog growls it is trying to be as clear as it can that it is not happy, if told off it will learn to stop growling but it will still feel the same. It is often compared to removing the batteries out of a smoke alarm – you take away the early warning! Over the years I have worked with many, many dogs whose discomfort when meeting new people has been made far worse by being forced into interaction or punished for voicing their discomfort. Unfortunately dogs ‘won’t get used to it’ when pushed into situations that cause fear or anxiety, they just become more fearful and anxious which can often lead to aggression towards new people which is something we all want to avoid. Care should also be taken using food to try and help your dog to ‘make friends’; quite often the dog would really like the food but doesn’t want to approach the person so will feel huge emotional conflict, I never want my dog to have to make such a difficult choice. When Portia is getting to know a new person I may ask them to give me a treat to give to her or to toss the food a short distance away for her to have without any pressure, this helps her build a positive association with a new person. Telling people ‘No’ can make us feel uncomfortable and some people for reasons unknown to me can become annoyed and argumentative.

I recently had a conversation with a stranger about a dog I was walking, when I explained that he would prefer not to be touched this person demanded to know what was wrong with him before muttering that he was ‘probably a rescue’ before storming off! I will always try to be polite when I say no, if referring to Portia I will explain that she likes a chat but doesn’t want to be touched, sometimes this is sufficient and sometimes not. Many people will go on to tell me that they are ‘good with dogs’ or have had dogs for many years, and that may be true but they do not know Portia and still can’t touch her! If a child or parent of a child asks to pet her, I always say no for a number of reasons, children are always more vulnerable than adults and usually more unpredictable in their actions, this can be confusing for a dog; my dog does not have enough experience with children for me to view interactions with unfamiliar children as safe. I definitely don’t want to test the boundaries of my dog’s good nature! Again some parents become annoyed when told no and demand to know if she bites or is a guard dog; sometimes I try and and explain why – sometimes not. I don’t really feel that I owe anyone an explanation (I have never asked if I can hold a stranger’s baby – this would quite rightly ring massive alarm bells!! I will become more forceful if I have to, I am Portia’s guardian and her protector. More than anything I want Portia to feel safe whenever she is with me, to know that she is understood and listened to and that she can always look to me for help. While we all want well socialised and confident dogs. this is not achieved by allowing everyone who likes the look of your dog to descend upon them and invade their personal space, this is more likely to create a dog who is uncomfortable with people (sensitisation). Allow your dog to make choices and have some control over what happens to them, accept your dog may not enjoy all the things we want them to and don’t be afraid to be your dog’s advocate!

I am considering organising some workshops for dog owners and carers to look in more detail at canine body language/communication, dog/dog interactions and dog/people interactions.

In this video you can see Finley polilety decline having his head touched! There is a very visible lip lick and ducking away, he’s being very clear!

Finley having a scratch and moving away because he’s had enough.

In this video you can see Finley polilety decline having his head touched! There is a very visible lip lick and ducking away, he’s being very clear!

Finley having a scratch and moving away because he’s had enough.

If you think you would find this interesting and would like to take part please do get in touch!

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