Should I Let Strangers Pet My Dog?

And how to tell if your pup really likes it 🤔

stranger petting dog

Every dog parent has experienced that moment: You and your pup are about to pass a stranger during a walk. 

You see that person look lovingly at your BFF, then desperately at you.

So the question you find yourself asking is: Should I let this stranger pet my dog?

Maybe your dog is pulling towards the other person, and you don’t want to deny him a belly rub. Or maybe you want the stranger to politely keep their hands to themselves.

But what’s the right decision?

The Dodo spoke with Dr. Vanessa Spano, a veterinarian at Behavior Vets in New York City, explained why you might want to think twice before letting a stranger pet your dog.

Why you shouldn’t let a stranger pet your dog

It’s easy to think this could be a fun, happy interaction for everyone involved (including your dog), but put yourself in your pup’s shoes.

“Let me ask you this: would you want to be touched by a stranger?” Dr Spano told The Dodo.

The answer’s probably no, right?

Well, just because your dog loves to have his butt scratched, it doesn’t necessarily mean he wants a random person to be the one to scratch it.

And if your pup is pulling towards a stranger, that doesn’t guarantee that he wants to be petted by that person — he might just be trying to find out more about them.

“The dog is simply investigating who that someone is,” Dr. Spano said. “Upon going up to that someone and sniffing them, he will obtain olfactory cues. From there, that information (those cues) is perceived by the brain, helping the dog interpret whether or not he or she really wants to engage with that stranger, ignore that stranger or actively get that stranger out of his environment from fear.”

Basically, just because your dog wants to approach a stranger, it won’t always result in a fun time.

“It is entirely possible that a dog pulls towards a stranger because he is investigative, curious, and perhaps even anxious about that person,” Dr. Spano explained. “Upon sniffing that person, he may actually attempt to run away or even lunge.”

Possible problems with letting strangers pet your dog

“Unfortunately, there are no benefits,” Dr. Spano said.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should never ever introduce your dog to another person — socialization is still such an important part of your dog’s life.

“Some people in this scenario may twist this advice to the extreme and interpret this as recommending the dog just stay in a bubble for the rest of his life, not experiencing any socialization. That is so untrue,” Dr. Spano explained. “Especially as puppies when the world around them is so influential, socializing with people is very important, but it must be done carefully and positively.”

In order to do this carefully, it’s important to understand what your dog’s body language means.

“If your puppy is showing signs [of] actively wanting to solicit attention from a stranger, such as by walking up to the person with a very loose body [and] wagging his tail, go ahead and let your puppy ask the stranger for attention (of course with the consent of the stranger),” Dr. Spano said.

But make sure you’re paying extra close attention, in case that body language shifts to signs of fear or anxiety, like:

  • Backing away
  • Freezing or planting
  • Yawning
  • Licking lips

If your pup starts showing those signs, never force the interaction to continue, because that might lead to fear-based aggression.

And if your dog struggles with anxiety, or is afraid more often than not, letting a random person pet your dog could just make that worse.

“Allowing a stranger to pet a dog that is fearful will only make the dog's underlying fear and anxiety about strangers more intense over time and is risky in terms of liability,” Dr. Spano explained.

The right way to let your stranger interact with your dog

Again, you should only be letting these interactions happen if your pup’s body language indicates that he wants to engage (by wagging his tail or keeping his body loose and wiggly).

And if your dog seems to be giving you the go-ahead — and, of course, the stranger is down as well — you need to make sure it’s playing out the right way.

That means there are certain things you can and can’t let happen.

“Do not allow the consenting stranger to just stick his [or] her hand out and touch the dog,” Dr. Spano explained. “Instead, have the stranger praise your dog, toss him a treat or even toss him a toy.”

What to do if your dog’s interaction with a stranger isn’t going well

The best thing to do is get your dog away from the stranger at the first sign that things might take a bad turn.

Sometimes, the most effective solution is to just keep him away from interactions with unknown people, especially if he’s a new pup or has a history of anxiety or aggression.

“Do not put your dog in a scenario that will not set him up for success,” Dr. Spano said. “If there are any signs of fear or anxiety, do not proceed with the interaction from the get-go. Trust your gut.”

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