Dear Dumb Runner,
On my regular run, I encounter several people whose dogs are not on leashes. When one of these dogs jumps up on me/chases me/starts running around my feet, the owner inevitably assures me, "Don't worry, he's friendly." My typical response is a wan smile as I try to thread around the dog. But, c'mon—your dog is not acting friendly, and I'm not out here looking for puppy friends! Do you have any better solutions?—Melissa
I've seen this question a lot, but I've never heard a satisfactory answer.
Usually what you get is some wishy-washy Ann Landers-type stuff—you half-expect to hear, "Ask the dog to go to counseling with you; if he won't, go alone"—or tips from a dog training website on how to behave around dogs of questionable temperament. Never can I imagine anyone actually taking the advice and using it to good effect in the real world.
How do you deal with a dog owner who's probably a nice enough person but who is obviously clueless about the effect his dog is having? How do you voice your concerns in a way that doesn't instantly put him on the defensive and ignore you (best case) or lead to shouting and threats of violence (worst case)?
Put more simply: How do you approach a total stranger and tell him, essentially, that he's kind of being a jerk... without having it blow up in your face?
When I saw your question, I was determined to find out once and for all. So rather than go to the usual experts on dog/human interactions, I went to an expert on the human/human variety—Robin Dreeke, a former head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program, consultant on interpersonal relations, and author of It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.
First, he says, consider your goal.
"In this case," he says, "I'm guessing that the goal is to not have the dog jump on me while still being viewed as a friendly, open person."
Next—and this might sound counterintuitive—focus not on the dog owner, but on yourself. This part is crucial, and where most people go wrong.
"The first thing I always do, Dreeke says, "is take accountability for my own actions and never make the problem someone else's. If you start poking at someone else's behavior, their shields go up."
In this case, he says, that means asking yourself, Why should this person want to have his dog stop jumping on me?
"In order to answer this, I would ask myself why I don't want dogs jumping on me and make the interaction my own fault."
For example, he says: "Maybe I don't like dogs because of an event when I was younger and terrorized by one. Maybe I'm allergic. Maybe my dog gets jealous if he smells another dog on me."
"Either way, you are taking the blame yourself, being truthful, and using sympathy as a theme as well as openness, which engenders great trust."
What does this look like in practice?
"I might say something like, 'What a wonderful dog you have. I'm so sorry, though—I have (allergy, fear of dogs, etc.). Would you mind not having him jump on me, please? I'd appreciate it."
To recap: You begin with a "validation," complimenting the owner's dog, lowering his defenses. Next you take the blame for asking a favor. Finally, you "empower" the dog owner with choice.
"All of this," Dreeke says, "should lead to him pulling the dog away and creating a good lasting impression."
Good luck, Melissa!