Do You Like to Be Petted by People You Don’t Know?


I’ve been wondering lately… Why, in the animal sheltering world, do so many people feel that a dog must come right up to you and display super friendly body language in order to be considered ‘normal’ and ‘adoptable’?

How many people do you know go right up to every person that walks into a room to give an enthusiastic and warm greeting? Is it ‘normal’ to expect that a dog that needs a home would do something that many of us wouldn’t do ourselves? I’m not saying we should find homes for ALL dogs with low initial social interest, but I am saying that I think we should think about the subject.  And yes, it is possible that decreased interest in interacting with people might be associated with aggressive behavior toward people… but I know lots of dogs that don’t love strangers but are also not aggressive.

Our shelter recently placed a five year old dog that I fostered, a Rat Terrier named Bolt. Bolt was a wonderful dog in my home, where he didn’t encounter many strangers.  In the shelter, he backed away from people who attempted to touch him when they said ‘hi’ for the first time. And it really got me thinking…. should he be penalized for that?? I would likely do the same thing if someone I didn’t know suddenly came up to me, said hi, and then reached out to pet me.  If Bolt has a little bit of time to get to know that person and that person demonstrates quiet but friendly behavior,  Bolt IS a sweet and wonderful dog. Interestingly, his behavior is similar with dogs… slow to warm up initially (and can be defensive if dogs come on too strong), but he will end up being every dog’s best friend, if they let him. So, bottom line, he’s a bit shy when he first meets other living beings.

Bolt (1)

Just because a dog doesn’t fit our vision of what a perfect dog would be, doesn’t mean that they might not be a perfectly normal dog, and a dog who would make a wonderful family member.  This statement is especially important when we consider that my idea of a ‘perfect dog’ may be very different than yours… some of us like different qualities in our canine companions.  We, as a sheltering community, need to stop making life and death decisions about dogs based upon brief interactions, and take the time to get to know dogs as individuals… We need to look beyond the stress the dog is experiencing, or the initially defensive behavior, to see how dogs behave in a more stable environment where the dog is comfortable… and teach our adopters that all dogs have unique personalities, just as we do …

-Dr. Sheila D’Arpino, Veterinary Behaviorist at the Center for Shelter Dogs