While I’m pretty confident that most readers of Puppy Tao have a really good sense of dog etiquette and thus are probably the proverbial choir I’ll preaching to in this article, I thought it might be helpful to boil down some rules of common courtesy when it comes to bringing your dog places. Perhaps some of the readers who are just starting out can head off potential trouble, and experienced people might be happy that I’ve done some of the heavy lifting in figuring out clear, diplomatic ways of phrasing some of these unwritten rules.
Rule 1: Never Assume.
Until you learn otherwise, always assume that strangers are incredibly afraid of dogs—even well-behaved dogs and little dogs. Everybody in a public space should have the right not to interact with a dog unless they specifically say they want to. I have seen people far too many times say “he’s friendly” and then inflict their dog on a stranger without waiting to hear how that person felt about it.
It doesn't matter if your dog is friendly. Some people simply don't like dogs, and some people are truly afraid, and we need to respect those people. This is one situation in which it is far better to ask permission than beg forgiveness. You want your dog to be an ambassador, not a damper on somebody's day.
Rule 2: Seriously, never assume!
This is almost the same as Rule 1, except it applies to dogs. For a number of reasons that I'll detail in a later article, I almost never let my dogs greet other dogs while on leash, but if your dog likes to greet on leash and can do so safely, more power to you. Just be sure to ask first. No matter how nice your dog is, it's a recipe for disaster to just let him enter another dog's space without asking the owner.
When you let your dog greet another dog without checking in with the owner, you may be creating an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. Dogs who are too exuberant can wrap up their owners in the leash and potentially injure someone. And some dogs may seem fine to you but turn out to be reactive when confronted by another dog.
Many people are working really hard on their dogs' reactivity, and they have a right to go out in public without having strange dogs run up to their dog. You can't just let your friendly dog drag you into an unknown dog's personal space without checking with the owner. So if you want to let your dog greet another dog, be sure to get a clear OK from the other owner first.
Rule 3: Leave it.
One absolutely crucial skill for a dog out in the real world is "leave it." This is an issue of courtesy when it comes to a toddler holding a cookie at nose height, but it's an issue of safety too if somebody drops something that is dangerous for a dog to swallow.
If your dog is still a work in progress when it comes to a bombproof "leave it," then you need to be proactive about management by, for example, choosing a place to sit that's a little bit farther from the action while you work on the skill every day until it's rock solid.
If you overestimate your dog's training or underestimate your management and your dog does grab somebody's food, do the right thing by apologizing profusely and buying them new food.
Rule 4: Clean up.
As dog owners, it's our responsibility to leave places better than we found them. That ranges from the completely obvious, like bringing baggies, to the slightly less obvious, like making sure your coffeeshop table is spotless when you leave. Make the business owner glad that you were there. Businesses don't have to allow our dogs on their premises, and it's important to make sure that dogs and their owners aren't a nuisance.
Rule 5: You are your dog's advocate.
Your dog cannot speak, so it's up to you to speak for him.
If some things make your dog fearful or if he still has some bad habits, that doesn’t mean you need to hide in the house until he’s perfect. It is, however, up to you to head off potential problems by managing him and warning people before they wander into his space. And even if he’s pretty much perfect, it’s still your job to speak for him when he needs a voice.
For example, if your dog is still working on his polite greetings, you have to be able to articulate that to strangers so they can either choose not to greet him or choose to help you train him—and lots of people will happily help if given clear instructions and expectations.
Or, if your dog is reactive on the leash and somebody marches up with their rambunctious puppy, you need to be able to be clearly state the issue in a friendly way.
And even if your dog is as happy-go-lucky as they come, you still need to speak up when somebody behaves inappropriately. Just because you know your dog would never bite a kid, he still deserves not to have his ears screamed into or his whiskers pulled.
Most owners are pretty protective of their dogs and would typically not allow these kinds of things, but the social awkwardness of telling somebody to get a hold of their kid can sometimes make us delay and subject our dogs to more discomfort than is really fair.
I have had stern words for parents who let their children run up into my dogs faces without any warning. Comet and Jax absolutely love children and would give gentle kisses to kids who did that, but those parents need to know that it simply isn't safe to let a small child run at a dog's face. It's also important to me to ensure that my dogs' great temperaments don't become an excuse for carelessness on my part when it comes to having a child annoy or surprise them.
Dog etiquette is mostly common sense with a dash of walking a mile in other people's shoes. It's all about being proactive to ensure that your dog is either a neutral presence or a positive contribution to everybody else's day. Some of that is training, but the bulk is being conservative about managing situations before there are problems. And if more dog owners observe good dog etiquette, more public spaces will start to welcome dogs.