Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with pet owners

“Oh, it’s okay… she won’t bite.”

As I open the car door and turn to step out of the car, I look up to see two dogs fast approaching. I raise my right foot and hold it in the air. The dog stops suddenly and takes a step back. The owner quickly takes hold of the dog’s collar and then, holding the dog’s collar, slowly brings the dog’s nose closer to my leg.

“She just wants to sniff you.”

I look at my fellow human being and wonder: Do I have any say in the matter?

Why is it that so many dog owners are happy to tell me that their dog is perfectly safe, and that I should have no concerns about letting this animal put its jaws and teeth right next to my leg to satisfy its curiosity? What happens if the dog smells something it doesn’t like and responds by biting me? Isn’t it then a little too late, now that I have to pay for a hospital visit and rabies shots, to run up, regain control of their dog, and apologize?

(I’m reminded of my routine bicycle ride to work last week, when I found myself face-to-face with an angry dog, up on its hind legs, teeth bared, straining against the leash as its owner struggled to keep it from lunging at my body as I rode by. Zen told me to keep riding, since the only thing that had been disturbed was my thought process. Still I find myself turning over and over in my mind the various other possible outcomes. So much for my Zen training.)

And setting aside safety issues and the potential unpredictability of mammals lower on the food chain, what if I simply PREFER not to have dogs rubbing their noses and fur against my body?

Whose needs come first: a dog’s, or a human’s?

It’s my responsibility to set and maintain healthy boundaries around my own body. It’s also my responsibility to make sure that my body doesn’t collide with anyone else’s body; by extension, it’s my responsibility to make sure that my dog doesn’t violate the personal boundaries around other peoples’ bodies.

So why is it that when a dog owner refuses to respect my personal boundaries and I’m put in the position to maintain them myself, she or he becomes so defensive and protective of their dog?

I’m sitting in the park minding my own business. A dog runs up and starts trying to sniff my body. I make adjustments to prevent the dog from doing so.

And suddenly, I’m the jerk?

In this case, I happened to be helping a dear friend with a project that involved being on the dog owner’s property. So I kept my mouth shut. More or less. But the more this pattern wore on through the day, the more unhappy I felt. Now that I’ve had some time to tease apart the issues at hand, I feel better prepared to articulate my concerns. I’m realizing that setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with people can mean making requests regarding how they control their pets. Now I understand that I need to be ready to make the following requests:

“I understand that you love your dog, and I respect that. I need to know what action you’re going to take to keep your dog at least three feet away from my body. If your dog gets closer to my body than that, I need to know what action you’re comfortable with me taking; do you prefer I move my leg quickly and make a sharp sound? Do you prefer I shake my gloves in your dog’s face? Because if you don’t care enough to control your dog and respect my personal boundaries, I certainly plan to maintain them for myself.”

“If you don’t like any of those choices, dog lover, then I leave it to you to maintain control of your dog.”

If that doesn’t work, then I make the choice to remove myself from the situation, whether other people experience emotional discomfort or not.

At the end of the day, this isn’t a ‘dog’ issue, or a ‘pet’ issue at all.

It’s a matter of respecting another human being’s freedom to choose whether to get close to animals or not. It’s a matter of recognizing that just because I love dogs doesn’t mean that everyone loves dogs. When I let my dog walk up and sniff you, I’m disregarding your freedom to choose that outcome. And when you protect your own freedom to choose by preventing the dog from getting close enough to sniff your body and I respond by chastising you, I’m demonstrating a total lack of awareness that your happiness may not include dog slobber on your clothing and body.

What do you think, fellow human being? Where’s the line?


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2 responses to “Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with pet owners

  1. Benny Francois

    Why do we have to respect that they love their dog? Just tell them, “Keep your damn dog away from me.” Tell them firmly and commandingly. People will generally keep their dog away from someone who they perceive as threatening, or scary. If a stray dog comes up to you and invades your space, do what it takes to get him/her away from you. I’m sorry, but people have to stop putting so much emphasis on the “rights” of animals in relation to humans. We have to stop seeing them as equals to people. People, before animals. We’ve gone crazy in this society about animal rights and don’t hurt their feelings. Although dogs are domestic, and people grow very emotionally attached to their pets, they are legally considered property. We should treat them as such. If you don’t like dogs, tell the owner, “I don’t like dogs, keep yours away from me.” Not everyone is card carrying member of PETA and those people who are should realize that the rest of us don’t really care about how they think we “should” treat their pet. I would be cautious however as even small dogs can do a lot of damage with their teeth and claws, so be prepared. Me… I love my dog and she will not respect your space, therefore, I keep her at home in the yard and I have a sign that makes people aware that I have a dog and they should consider that before coming in the gate. If she gets out… well,… you do what you feel you have to do. I should have taken greater measures to contain her and life
    hands us a fist full of crap sometimes.

  2. raequel

    And suddenly, I’m the jerk….
    I cannot see myself in a million years saying to stranger “I don’t like dogs, keep yours away from me.” But I will keep that phrase in mind next time I am at the bank & a dog jumps on me while I attempt to conduct routine banking transactions .My truth is: I do like some dogs. But first, I need to get to know the dog. I need to feel safe & comfortable around the dog. I want to know the parents & the dog’s hygiene before we are intimate. Does that make me a jerk?

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