Up until recently, I never really had a dog of my own. My dad trained dogs with the K-9 unit for the Philadelphia Police Department, so all of the dogs that I had growing up were police dogs. As such, they were city property and had to be handled with that in mind. They did not come on vacations with us. They did not sleep in our beds. They were lovely animals and good pets, but there were a lot of things that we were not allowed to do with them as a result of their role as my father’s partners first and foremost.
When we adopted Xena, I had no idea how much I would learn about dog ownership. I have learned a lot about training. About the bond. About how fucking strange my dog is.
But one thing that I keep realizing over and over again is just how much people don’t know about how to properly interact with dogs. So here’s my “Don’t Be A Dick” list for dog owners and dog fans.
Let’s start with my rules for dog fans who are not dog owners.
Rule #1: Ask permission.
This one may seem super simple, but I can’t tell you how many times someone has just walked up to my dog and started petting her without permission. And Xena is OK most of the time, but sometimes she just isn’t feeling human interaction that day and tries to merge with my legs. Sometimes the people making these advances are kids, which can be problematic considering that Xena has not been socialized with children extensively. Which brings me to the second rule!
Rule #2: Use your eyes.
A lot of dogs will send pretty clear signals when they don’t want to be touched or approached. Setting their ears back, hunching their shoulders, backing away, making themselves small, tucking their tail between their legs. Learn to read body language.
There are also signals that humans can send on behalf of their dogs. If you see a dog wearing a service vest, for example, that dog is not meant to be petted. That dog is working. Likewise dogs that are in service with a police officer. Additionally, dogs with yellow leashes or collars may be in need of space. As may dogs wearing muzzles.
Rule #3: Dog spaces are not human spaces.
Everyone loves the dog park. But it’s important to remember that the dog park is a place for dogs to be dogs. If you don’t have a dog, many of these spaces ask that you keep yourself out of them for a number of reasons, first among which is usually liability. One thing that most dog parks agree on is that children under a certain age (usually 12 or so) should not be allowed in dog parks. A lot of dogs are not necessarily child friendly and children can get hurt easily by simply being knocked over by a running dog.
Rule #4: Dogs are not toys.
As much as you love them, dogs are not toys made to entertain you. If an owner asks that you not pet their dog, that is well within their rights. Also, every dog on the street does not need your attention.
Rule #5: Respect the rules of the dog owner.
If a dog jumps up on you when you go to pet it, I know the instinctive reaction is to tell the owner “it’s fine” while they try to get the dog to get off of you, but if the owner reacts negatively to a dog’s behavior, it’s best that you not reinforce the negative behavior. Whether it’s not feeding dogs treats at the table, not petting dogs when they are working, or keeping dogs off the furniture, you are not the person who is most impacted by the decision to let the dog bend the rules: the owner is. So when a dog jumps up on you and the owner says “no!” the appropriate response is for you to go along with the owner and say “no!” too.
With those rules laid out, here’s my list of rules for dog owners.
Rule #1: Leave the leash on.
I cannot tell you how many times I have walked down the street in Philadelphia and run across dog owners with their dogs off leash. When you confront them about it, you will inevitably hear the same song and dance about how their dog is “fine” and they’re just out “for a second” and on and on and on. Let’s get real here, no one cares if your dog is “fine.” A lot of other dogs aren’t “fine,” for one thing. And being a dog on a leash while another dog is free to roam around can trigger aggression in the leashed dog who feels as though they can’t escape should they need to. Dog leashes are mandatory in places all over the world for good reason. They protect dogs and their owners and bystanders from the myriad things that can go wrong when dogs are allowed to wander freely.
For my part, it always freaks me out when dogs are allowed off leash. As an owner of a Staffordshire Terrier mix, the fact of the matter is that, should another dog attack my dog, prejudice regarding Xena’s breed could lead to her being put down. And that scares the hell out of me.
So yea, leash your fucking dog.
Rule #2: If your dog hates the dog park, don’t bring them there.
Related to the rule above about dog spaces being for dogs and not humans, this rule pertains to the people I have run into at the dog park who simply do not care that their dogs hate it there. They come for themselves and their dogs spend the entire time running around with their tails between their legs and begging to leave.
If your dog hates the dog park, don’t bring them. If you want to watch all the pretty dogs run around, go there by yourself and peer over the fence and enjoy the view. But don’t stress your dog out just so you can spend time in the dog park. It’s a seriously dick move.
Rule #3: Learn your dog’s body language.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. Your dog can’t talk to you. The way that your dog communicates with you is through their body. Even a basic understanding of your dog’s body language can help you to meet their needs in a bunch of ways. One great example of this is when your dog is playing with other dogs. I know that Xena is a loud dog when she plays. She barks and play bows and barks some more to signal that she is having fun. Her tail may not always wag, but as long as her ears are up and her hackles down, I know that she is in good shape. As soon as her ears go back I know it’s time for her to take a break. If her hackles come up, doubly so. Knowing those things helps me to ensure that she and other dogs have a good time when they play and that neither dog gets stressed out.
Rule #4: Train your dog.
Look, I know we’re all busy. But if you get a dog, you have to be willing to put in work on the basics at the very least. Sit, stay, come, no, down, heel, and leave it are all really good basic commands that will help your dog interact with the world effectively.
Remember, the only thing your dog wants is to know that they are doing what they need to do. They want a place in the pack. And they need you to make sure that they are safe and secure while they fulfill that role for you. So do yourself and your dog and the rest of us a favor and give them the training they crave so that they can be happy and well-behaved dogs.