Downeast Dog News

Good Intentions, Bad Decisions

Sometimes "no" is the right answer
By | Jul 01, 2021

As we climb slowly out of our pandemic cocoons into the bright sunshine, we are going to encounter many dogs who have been hiding in the metaphorical woodwork. Many of these dogs have not met a variety of people or dogs nor have they found themselves in strange environments. And us? Dog lovers have been ravenous to interact with new best friends. Be respectful of them, though. Don't make the mistake that many Toms make.

I felt it was important to reiterate what is contained in this past column as we adjust to our new world and try to help all dogs feel comfortable in it.


“Oh, dogs love him!” she said about her husband Tom. Ruh roh! A red flag shoots up when I hear this statement.

We were vacationing together with Tom and his wife, and we encountered a woman with two on-leash dogs. All dog lovers, we were interested in meeting them. One of the dogs was an elderly Golden, calm, tail gently wagging, loose body, open mouth, and perky ears. She was oriented toward people passing by. The other dog, a large young adult doodle, was standing back, very close to his human, tail tucked, jaws clenched, body rigid, ears back.

Tom asked if we could pet the dogs. The owner said, “Sure!” I approached the Golden, who was happy to get a head rubbie, moved into my hands and melted. I interacted with her for about 3 seconds and stopped just to see if she was happy with our little conversation. She was - she leaned in for more. I had carefully turned away from the doodle whose tail was tucked so far between his legs it was actually curving up towards his belly. I made no motion to reach or move towards him as I could see that this wasn’t what he wanted. He had no interest in moving towards Tom, either, who by now had crouched down very close and facing him to try to be more inviting. This made the doodle move closer to his human - in fact, he had positioned himself between her legs, eyeing Tom nervously.

What the owner did next horrified me. She forcefully tried to drag her dog by the haunches to move in Tom’s direction. The doodle resisted. Tom laughed and said, “I sometimes lie on the ground, so they’ll play.” Um, no, not this one. Not right now.

This happened in seconds. It was clear that this poor dog had been subjected to his owner’s well-intentioned but oh-so-inappropriate behavior many times in the past.

“Please STOP,” I said. She was still hunched over and wrestling with her struggling dog to try to get him to approach Tom. I abruptly stepped between Tom and the poor, panicked dog. I physically lifted Tom back into a standing position and pushed him away (this was blatantly rude human behavior, but it was a dog emergency and he's a good friend). I helped to create more distance between them while also trying to avoid exacerbating the situation with my own proximity to the terrified doodle.

Now that we were at a more comfortable distance, the doodle relaxed a bit. One of my party mentioned that I’m a dog trainer. This prompted some questions from the owner, who was clearly embarrassed by what she interpreted as bad behavior from her doodle who she admitted, “has never wanted to ‘say hi’ to strangers.” She asked me why he was like that and what she could do. [Yay!! A teachable moment!!] I gently explained that in order to help him, it had to be his choice to approach people, not hers or others’. She needed to pair good things with the presence of strangers. Any time she forced him to interact when he didn’t want to will just make things worse. As for “why” he was like that, there are many factors that contribute to fearfulness, including lack of proper socialization, a scare during a fear period, genetics, etc.

She was relieved when I told her that there’s no reason he should have to get close to every person who wants to touch him - she can say, “no,” and she should say no for the sake of her pup.

I am hopeful that this well-intentioned, loving dog owner will be more respectful of her dogs’ wishes from now on, and that Tom will be able to better recognize a dog who is truly not interested in interacting with him. It’s not personal! Early intervention with the help of a certified, positive dog trainer would likely have resulted in a much more confident dog.

Rules about interacting with strange dogs:

1. Ask the human on the other end of the leash BEFORE approaching the dog. If she says yes, follow the next steps.

2. Ask the dog, again BEFORE you approach. The dog may be saying “no” and you must respect this, even if the human says ‘yes.”

3. Let the dog approach you. Turn to the side a bit to see if that encourages her to move towards you.

4. Practice the Three Second Rule: interact for just 3 seconds, then stop, and withdraw your attention. If the dog moves towards you, repeat. If he doesn’t, let him be.

Let’s help our dog friends by listening to what they are saying. Sometimes it means saying “no” to our fellow humans, no matter how good their intentions may be.