Kids are taught to ask permission before petting a dog with some variation of “May I please meet your dog?” This simple question has the potential to avoid unpleasant interactions, but only if kids are taught how to interpret the possible answers, especially those that are nuanced. The answer might be a simple, “Yes.” It could also be a straightforward “No” for any number of reasons: it’s not safe to pet the dog, the dog will feel uncomfortable if the child attempts to interact, or even that someone is on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time for a meet-and-greet. The person may also seem hesitant but not actually say no, or give an answer that conveys serious concern.
The clear “Yes” answers are easy to figure out. It’s common for people to reply to a request to meet a dog with some variant of “Sure, she loves people!” “He would love that!” or “Absolutely, thanks for asking!” In that case, there is a good chance that the person expects a positive interaction between a child and a dog. They might be wrong, but there’s no sense of worry or concern being expressed, which is encouraging, and it makes sense for kids to approach the dog.
Similarly, a definite “No” from the person is also clear. If a person declines the request, kids should respect that and not approach the dog. Common ways that people prevent an interaction are by saying, “I’m sorry, but she doesn’t like kids,” “She’s too shy, it will upset her,” or “I think not because everything scares her.” They might even say, “No, because she’ll try to bite you.” People who answer in this general way know that the dog can’t handle it and that it would be a mistake to let a child meet the dog.
Unfortunately, there are two general categories of answers that can be ambiguous, and too few children have been taught to understand them. The first set of such answers is generally positive with mild reservations. These usually indicate that the people are not concerned about their dog being aggressive, but they feel embarrassed about some aspect of their dog. These replies are along the lines of, “Okay, but she’s very excitable,” or “Yes, but she may jump on you.” Sometimes people just offer a warning that is not behavioral, such as “If you don’t mind getting a lot of fur on you!” In most cases, these responses are not deal breakers for a meeting, but it does depend on the size of the child as well as the size and enthusiasm level of the dog. If the person expresses that their dog is unruly or shedding, it’s okay to answer, “I don’t mind dog hair,” or “I don’t think jumping up will put a dark blot on her character!” as long as the dog is not so powerful or out of control that someone could get knocked over. This requires a judgment call, and the most conservative approach is for kids not to meet dogs after such replies. At the very least, kids should proceed with caution.
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Another set of answers can be more worrisome, and kids need to learn that they should not pet a dog if the people say things along the lines of, “That would probably be okay,” or “Well, she’s shy, but we can see how she does,” or “If she’ll let you. I’m not sure because sometimes she can’t handle it.” All of these replies show that a person is in the hope-and-fear zone. (“I hope it will be okay, but I fear that it will not be.”) There is a great risk that the interaction could be troubling for the child or the dog. Kids should be taught that the correct action upon hearing such remarks is not to approach the dog. A simple, “Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to upset her, but thanks anyway,” is a good phrase to teach kids for such situations.
There are endless possible answers when a child asks, “May I please meet your dog?” The “Yes” and the “No” replies are easy to understand. The former tells you it’s likely to be a positive interaction and the latter lets you know that the person knows the dog can’t handle it and has clearly said so. It’s those intermediate answers that require more careful interpretation. I’m always in favor of avoiding risks and erring on the side of caution when it comes to meeting dogs whose people seem hesitant about having anyone—especially a child—approach. If the answer gives any hint that it might not go well or might distress the dog, it’s best to decline.
Of course, all of this general advice assumes that people have the right read on their dog, and that is not always the case. They may think the dog loves all people, even when the dog’s body language reveals that the dog is terrified and wants a child to go away. That’s why it’s still important for kids to learn how to tell that a dog is behaving in a fearful and/or threatening way. The people’s responses to a request to meet a dog are only one stream of information we can use to decide whether to approach a dog. Still, there’s often a lot of truth in what they say, which is why children should be taught to evaluate those responses and act accordingly.