While it may seem harmless to lavish affection on a dog, when an owner is teaching him to not jump on people, the last thing the pet needs is an enthusiastic stranger.
Why? Because the problem has got so bad that some pet owners have started misrepresenting their pets as service dogs. And that could lead to some business-owners (illegally) denying entry to legitimate service animals if they get the wrong impression of a service dog’s behavioral standards.
One website aims to educate business owners and the public about the situation.
While it's an automatic reaction to ruffle those ears, dog owners are pleading with the public to ask first. Whether it comes to a puppy in training, a working service dog, or any pup in need of space, “the most important message to dog lovers is dogs aren't public property,” Elizabeth Bossoli told NBC News. “As a dog lover myself I understand how hard it is to let this sink in… but you're not entitled to interacting with or touching the dog.”
Bossoli and her husband created pleasedontpetme.com as a resource for the service dog community and a way to educate business owners and the public about working dogs. But it's not just service dogs that should be considered off limits. Another online community — DINOS, Dogs in Need of Space — aims to create safe spaces that all people and pets can enjoy. Their materials remind the public that not every dog is comfortable with unfamiliar dogs or people for reasons that could include injuries, illness, aging, or anxiety.
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Despite efforts from groups like these, anyone who's walked a puppy lately can attest that the message isn't out there yet. So it turns out Bossoli has still another task: to dissuade exasperated pet owners from misrepresenting their pets as service dogs. Handlers at the end of their leash with people who won't leave their pets alone have resorted to extreme measures; in hopes that it will quell unwanted attention, they're labeling their companions as service dogs. Not only does this not often help the original problem, says Bossoli, but it's a dangerous approach.
“You're giving people the impression that your dog has been highly trained … but really maybe the dog is fearful and bites people when it's scared,” she said. And if it's jumping up and barking ... someone who owns a business sees it and thinks 'I don't want to let a service dog in my business if they act like that.' The next time someone tries to bring [a legitimate] one into their business they'll be illegally denied.”
The problem arises because it seems we just can't keep our hands off other people's pups. “I'm constantly out with dogs and I've probably been the recipient of every kind of reaction somebody could have,” Tyler Ohlmann, a dog trainer in Louisville, Kentucky, told NBC News. Especially with a puppy or a popular breed, he said, “It's like you're walking down the street with a rock star.”
While it may seem harmless to lavish affection on a dog, when an owner is teaching him to not jump on people, or to sit calmly while being pet, the last thing the pet needs is an enthusiastic stranger exclaiming “Oh, it's fine, I love dogs!” while the dog climbs all over them, Ohlmann said.
“Dogs do what works,” Ohlmann explained. “For that puppy, if he jumps and he's coddled, he's talked to, he's pet, he's likely to do it again. It's fine when he's a little fluffball, but when a dog grows up to be 120 pounds it's not cute anymore. And the dog doesn't know he grew up. They're not measuring themselves on the door. Suddenly people look at them different and they don't know why and it's confusing.”
And it's not just a puppy problem. Dogs don't understand that a behavior — like mouthing or jumping — is ok for one person but not another, Ohlmann said. When friends or strangers insist on rewarding a dog for misbehaving, “that's where people show they're not thinking about the ramifications for the kid or for the elderly or disabled person [that the dog interacts with next]. When a person is on crutches and the dog wants to say hi [by jumping] it's not going to go well.”
So, while we don't like the social stigma of saying 'no, please leave my dog alone,' owners must fend off unwanted interaction, Ohlmann told NBC News. They can do this by asking for time when a fan wants to pet their dog. His suggested response? “We're working right now, give me 30 seconds.”
“When somebody pops up and wants to give your dog a bear hug, [that time] allows you — from your dog's perspective — to be in control. It gives you a moment to breathe, which is typically the hardest thing for a handler. You can do an exercise so he can focus, get the dog in a better position to be pet in.”
At the same time, public, take note. “You should never, ever touch or even approach a dog before getting permission from the owner,” said Bossoli. “And take no for an answer.”
Dana McMahan is a contributing writer to NBC News.