Before petting a dog, the common societal practice is to slowly hold out the back of the hand for the dog to sniff, offering it up as a gesture toward acceptance or permission to approach. Whilst this is a wise move when in the presence of a strange, untrained dog in order to guard against possible aggression, it’s something I firmly discourage when training your own dog. That is, when teaching good social skills during training, do not encourage strangers to use the “limp fish” hand with your dog. If you do, you’ll be setting a precedent for your dog to expect this from every stranger.
Teaching your dog to accept attention from all kinds of people in all kinds of (reasonable) ways is a necessary part of building sound, stable character in your dog. The reality is, not everyone is going to approach your dog in the same gentle, submissive manner as the limp fish hand. Some people (especially children) are going to jump right in there with a big hug or an enthusiastic back rub, and you need your dog to be okay with this – and not shy away in fear, nor openly reject with retaliatory aggression. Of course, you want to ensure people touch your dog in acceptable ways (e.g. no tugging of the ears or grabbing of the skin – again, something to be particularly aware of with children), but as long as a person’s approach and touches are within reason, your dog should be taught to cope with – and even learn to enjoy – this.
Dogs vary according to their personality. Some inherently relish in absolutely everyone’s positive attention, yet others can be quite nonchalant, fearful, or even worse…. It’s a matter of character, and it’s okay if your dog doesn’t necessarily want to, by nature, be everyone’s friend. What’s not okay, though, is for your dog to act out in a negative way. Inherently timid dogs will want to run and hide and even lash out with fear aggressive motions. Inherently assertive dogs can show varying degrees of dominant aggression from hair standing up, to a low throaty growl, to lunging and even outrightly trying to use their teeth. These are the kinds of behaviors you need to train out of your dog. You need to “reprogram” your dog so s/he develops different, acceptable defaults.
Dogs should be trained to react acceptably to offers of love and affection from all kinds of people – males and females, very young and old, people wearing hats or sunglasses, people riding skateboards or pushing strollers, etc. You get the idea. But, if you allow your dog to expect every one of them to gingerly draw close with a sloppy hand held out, perhaps combined with gentle words like, “There’s a good boy,” or “Everything’s okay,” or “I won’t hurt you,” then you’re setting an unproductive and even dangerous precedent. If this is your dog’s expectation, anything outside of the standard will inevitably cause problems. Your dog might simply experience general discomfort, but he could lash out with the message “I don’t like what you’re doing, so back off!” Whatever the negative reaction, it will not be desirable – for the person, for your dog, or for you.
The best, wisest, most positive thing to do is to ask every stranger/person to simply walk up to your dog and reach in without any hesitation. Then one day when a young child scurries up wanting to give your dog a big ol’ embrace and a kiss on the snout, your dog will be emotionally prepared and will offer a mature, stable response.
For more details on how to build strong social skills in your dog as part of my training system, please review the “Socialization” lesson on my Perfect Dog DVDs, and if need be, the various lessons on “Aggression.”
Caution: If you’re beginning training with an already aggressive dog then always have the dog muzzled during social interactions until the dog’s defaults have been completely “reprogrammed” and all signs of aggression (verbal and physical) have disappeared.
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