Saying “No” to Hello

We’ve all been told our dogs need to socialize with other dogs and with people, leaving some of us with the notion that our dogs and puppies should go to the dog park often or greet every dog who pulls toward them on the street. No doubt about it, we humans love dogs and, more than likely, even if your puppy is now a handsome six-year-old, lots of humans will want to say hello, to offer the back of their hand for him to sniff, to pat the top of his lovely, well-formed head, to tell him the story of their life.

It’s true that socializing a dog is important, but that does not mean you have to go to the dog park or let every dog and human you pass interact with your dog. First, consider your dog’s breed. While every dog needs socialization to comfortably and appropriately go through life and whatever comes his way, some breeds (Golden Retrievers, say) tend to love most people and most other dogs while other breeds (German Shepherds, perhaps) are more one-person or one-family dogs, a little aloof with people they don’t know and not necessarily interested in strange dogs. These dogs need socialization, too, but when an offer of friendship is made, both types of dogs need to have a say in the matter. That is, whether your dog is super-friendly or somewhat aloof, he deserves a choice about who he will or will not socialize with. He should never be forced to say hello to a dog or human he’d rather not greet. You want your dog comfortable with others. Giving him the opportunity to socialize will help you both achieve that goal.  Remember that for some dogs, greeting others is candy. For others it’s kale!

We’ll never know for sure how a dog makes the decision one way or the other, but they do. Even the friendliest dog will avoid playing with some other dogs and will prefer not to be handled by some people. So be it. But how do we make our decision? How do we decide when to say no to hello?

Sometimes time makes the decision. You have an appointment. You’re late for work.  You just don’t have the time to let your dog play. For these occasions, as well as for the times other things make you want to say no to hello, “Let’s go!” is good communication.

Suppose I am out for a long walk and have plenty of time. I still don’t want every dog or person to greet my dog. First, I look to see whether the human has control over the dog. Unless the dog is a young, exuberant pup and pulling on the leash because he’s not yet trained, if the owner can’t control the dog, especially a big dog, I take a pass. I do the same if the owner pulls his dog aside or holds up his hand like a stop sign, or if the dog approaching is wearing heavy training equipment. I also look at the dog’s body language and eyes. I want to see signs of friendliness before I let my dog socialize. If anything is stiff–tail, ears, hackles–or the dog has hard eyes, that’s a definite no.

What about the dog approaching with a wagging tail, ears back, a wiggle in his body, and a sparkle in his soft eyes? If the owner says it’s okay, and your dog is wiggling, too, this is more than likely a good match, a good time to say yes to hello.

What do we do if two friendly dogs want to play but their humans need to keep a social distance? What do you do when there’s a pandemic? For a while, because I am in a city and walk my dog on leash, this was easy. One owner would stand at the end of his dog’s leash, the other owner does the same, leaving at least six feet between us, and the dogs fool around in the middle.  City dogs know how to play on leash! And this seemed okay, perhaps healthier for everyone than total isolation. But then people stopped doing this, too. Then saying no to hello for humans and dogs became the rule, not the exception.

One day, when things are back to normal, dog owners will chat again while their dogs play bow and leap with joy. Hopefully, that day won’t be too far away.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a noted dog trainer, who, in 2002, was elected to The International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Fame for “a lifetime of dedication to dogs and their training.”  She is the author of numerous award-winning books on dog behavior as well as the Shamus Award-winning Rachel Alexander and Dash mystery series.  Benjamin lives in New York City with her two dogs, Sky, a Border Collie, and Ziggy, an English Shepherd.