During yesterday’s chat, the following dialogue took place:
I have an elderly dog who has always been leery of strangers. Is there a kind way I can convey to people we see during our nightly walks that I’d prefer they not pet him when/if they ask? He’s cute but cantankerous and has had some health problems recently. I don’t want to sound rude in any way.
Position yourself somewhat between the dog and the person and say, with a regretful smile, “I’m sorry, but he’s old and a little cranky and unpredictable, so I try to keep him away from strangers.” People will understand. I have to do that with Milo, too, sometimes.
I’d just say, “Careful, he bites”.
No, then people can get all flippy on you about having a dog who bites. Besides, as a dog owner, you feel bad when you libel your dog like that.
I realized today why the “Careful, he bites,” recommendation bothered me. It’s because I don’t like to encourage people to think of dogs — either individual dogs or breeds — as categorically “dangerous” or “safe.” For the same reason, a few weeks ago, I criticized parents who forbid their children to be around pit bulls:
The pit bull ban is remarkably stupid and short-sighted, and not likely to protect the kid at all even if pit bulls were more dangerous than other dogs. Children should be taught the signs of danger, not the corollaries of danger. Tell your kid that she can’t be around pit bulls and she’s going to take away not only the message that pit bulls are a menace, but that other breeds aren’t. The fact is, all dogs can bite, and all dog bites can do damage. If you want your child to be safe around dogs, you teach them proper dog etiquette and how to recognize a dog’s aggressive intentions. Crude profiling techniques don’t keep individuals safer; paying attention to what individuals (dogs and humans) are doing, and developing a good sense of intuition, do.
No, I’m not cavalier about the prospect of children being savaged by pit bulls, as the Misreading Brigade among my commenters seemed to think. But there will always be some breed that tops the “most bites” list, and thinking that dog safety begins and ends with avoiding that breed is like thinking that auto safety means never riding in whatever make of car has been in the most accidents. Saying “he bites” about Milo is as accurate as saying “it crashes” about my car. I’m not really concerned about libeling my little guy*, but I don’t like sending the message that as long as you avoid the bad dogs, you’ll be safe. All dogs are potentially dangerous, and all dogs — like all people — have moods, and circumstances, in which they don’t act like themselves.
*The dog’s self-esteem is not a problem. As a friend of mine said today, “Milo never doubts that he’s the lead in the movie.”
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