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Some dogs, like some people, really need their space.
As a veterinarian, I know this well. Animals do better at the veterinary hospital when they’re handled with respect and care and given their space when at all possible. It’s better for them — stress gets in the way of a thorough examination and slows healing — and it’s better for the veterinarian. After all, when a pet feels stressed, frightened and threatened — in any situation — he’s more likely to act in what he sees as self-defense by trying to bite everyone around him.
Veterinarians have been working to make visits easier on everyone by moving toward what I call Fear-Free Practices. But you can’t be at all sure of finding that kind of pet-savvy situation at your pet’s veterinary hospital. And many dogs need their space, all the time. So it becomes your job to speak up for your dog.
What can you do if you have a dog who “doesn’t play well with others,” for whatever reason? You can and should speak up for your dog, but it’s often not that easy. I turned to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner for some insight. Dr. Reisner says she actually role-plays with some of her clients so they get used to standing up for their dogs. The Philadelphia-area veterinarian says that people are proud of their dogs, and don’t like admitting that the dog may have an issue.
“A stranger will say, ‘What a cute dog,’” she says, and then move to pet your dog without formally asking. “It’s fine to acknowledge the compliment and say, ‘Please don’t come any closer.’” No further explanation is needed, she said, and that means you don’t have to say why your dog needs space. That’s no one’s business but your own. Volunteering that your dog “may bite” could set you and your dog up for trouble if the person swoops in anyway, after all.
Sometimes it seems that more children know to ask permission to pet a dog than adults do, perhaps because adults figure they can “read” a dog while children are often taught to always ask, no matter what. But it's easy to misread a dog and the consequences could be serious.
And it’s not just reactive dogs who need to be left alone. Dr. Reisner points out that there are many reasons why a dog needs space, and not all of them are behavior-related. While some dogs may simply be fearful, others have disabilities or medical conditions that make them skittish. For example, a dog with limited eyesight or hearing may snap out of self-defense if suddenly touched by a stranger. Other dogs, such as elderly dogs or others recovering from surgery, may be unstable on their feet and may not welcome being touched.
In the past couple of years, people in the training and behavior community have begun promoting The Yellow Dog Project, where pet owners display a yellow ribbon as a sign that a dog needs some room. While speaking up for your dog is always the best method of keeping strangers at bay, a yellow ribbon on his leash can convey the same message. The idea likely came from the horse world, where a ribbon on a horse’s tail is used to signify an animal who may kick.
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