Petting is a big deal for a lot of people. People want to connect with dogs and touch seems to be the default choice. When the nervous dog barks, growls, or snaps at strangers, owners can feel embarrassed and frustrated by the hostility—they just want Fido to be friendly! The, “he let them pet him!” moments are clung to as signs of progress.
Unfortunately, as a professional dog trainer, this report almost always makes me squirm.
Having a stranger pet your dog without incident does not mean your dog is okay with, or enjoying the experience.
From a trainer’s perspective, “he let them pet him” is a red flag. There’s an implication that the dog is tolerating something that could be unpleasant, and he’s been pushed beyond his comfort level. Dogs who only tolerate petting will eventually run out of tolerance and when they do, they’ll switch to aggression or escape. Neither are okay.
If your dog is nervous around strangers, the first step is getting him to enjoy the stranger’s presence without the person interacting with him. Standing at distance from the stranger with your dog on a leash, and feeding him a treat every time he notices the person is a great start. Petting from the stranger when your dog is uncomfortable will only make the situation worse.
I don’t want the dog “letting” people pet him. I want him begging people to pet him. And if he’s not begging for it, it shouldn’t happen.
Pro Tip: it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can tell how your dog is actually feeling about the situation.
If you need help fixing your dog’s guest manners, I can help!