Ask the Dogcharmer: Otis

When a meet-and-greet goes wrong.

Otis. — Courtesy Maria Black

Hi Tom,

My question is actually more about people, rather than my dog. Otis is a bit nervous by nature. After a lot of work, he now loves meeting folks on our daily walk, but sometimes people do things that freak him out. For example, the other day we met some tourists who didn’t speak English. They were showering Otis with attention, and he was loving it. Then their teenage son started wiggling his fingers over Otis’ head, and he didn’t know what to make of it. I tried to ask him to stop, but again, no English. I saw the ears go back and fur start to rise, and managed to get him away before he became aggressive. Yesterday a guy asked if he could pat him, and Otis happily bounded over to him. The guy then cupped his hands over Otis’ face. Of course Otis freaked out. Wouldn’t you? My question is, what can I tell folks when they want to pat him? I don’t want to frighten them off by making them think he’s going to bite them, but I want them to be sure to greet him in a dog-friendly way. Any thoughts?

Maria in O.B.

Dear Maria,

Having three kids and several dogs over the past bunch of years, I can say without hesitation that dogs are a lot easier to train. And oh boy, can I relate to people doing strange and inappropriate things when meeting folks while out with the dog. I was having great success with a fear-aggressive German shepherd in NYC, getting him to relax by having strangers offer him treats after he was told to sit, until a homeless man challenged us both. “That dog ain’t so tough” were his words as he gesticulated wildly, threatening to punch the dog. That melee set us back several lessons. Or the time a drunk started to fall on the wheaten terrier he was trying to pet as I was trying to teach Wheaty street manners. Or the father who suddenly took his 3-year-old daughter off his shoulders and stuck her right in the face of the nervous Lab with a bite history, without asking me if the dog is friendly.

Like I said, dog teachers have it a lot easier than people teachers. So here’s what I’d suggest, Maria. When out in the world, always have treats with you, because with Otis being as cute as he is, a lot of people are going to want to meet and pet him. Immediately give the stranger a treat while saying, “Otis is shy, so please tell him to sit and give him the treat when he does, and please pet him under his chin, because he gets scared when he gets patted on top of the head.” Do this with everyone you can, and watch Otis get more and more confident, because it’s confidence and trust that alleviates fear aggression.

Best of luck,

The Dogcharmer

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