New campaign encourages people to ‘Ask to Pet’…

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14 May 2019
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A campaign, urging the public to be more considerate towards owners and their dogs, is gathering momentum. As Joanne Bednall reports…

Despite working as a veterinary nurse for more than 10 years, it wasn’t until Bethaney Brant, from Chester, Cheshire, became a puppy owner herself that she realised just how inconsiderate some people can be around dogs.

In fact, as a direct result of strangers’ well-meaning but thoughtless actions, Bethaney has abandoned plans to train her 14-month-old Cocker Spaniel, Harington, as a therapy dog, because a number of negative experiences have resulted in him being anxious around strangers.

“’Harington is my first dog and it has really opened my eyes to the owner’s point of view,” explained 31-year-old Bethaney, who added that people’s insistence (all adults) on approaching her sensitive young dog, and squealing, kissing, hugging, and even — in one case — picking him up while he was on his lead, have contributed towards unnerving him further. I called it ‘puppy-induced hysteria’,” continued Bethaney, who works as project coordinator for the Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network (SAVSNET), based at the University of Liverpool.

“Harington found all this very daunting as a young pup. When he becomes worried, he freezes and watches, trying to weigh up whether a person is a threat, but, bizarrely, some people mistake this reaction as ‘Haz’ wanting to interact with them.”

Bethaney became increasingly frustrated when people she encountered on walks “refused to listen to the person at the end of the lead, despite Haz wearing a yellow jacket saying he needed space and a lead saying he was in training. One person asked me why I brought my dog out if I didn’t want people to stroke him,” continued Bethaney, who has often had to put herself between Haz and people who insist on trying to touch him. If you let him come to you, Haz loves a fuss, but he gets worried if people lunge at him with ‘zombie-like’ hands.”

The final straw came one day when Bethaney encountered a man who was determined to stroke the spaniel, even when asked politely not to.

“We had started training Harington to be a therapy dog and there is a big emphasis on polite greetings, with paws remaining on the floor,” explained Bethaney. The man kept encouraging Haz to jump up at him and when asked to stop, he refused.

Attracting interest from other owners

“Because of strangers causing Haz worry, we’ve now given up on the therapy dog idea.”

In June 2018, Bethaney set up a Facebook page, which friends started liking and sharing. Before she knew it, her ‘Ask to Pet’ campaign had launched and was attracting interest from like-minded owners.

“I would love it to become the norm for people to ask before they stroke a dog,” said Bethany. “On the rare occasion that someone asks me, it makes my day. It means I can set up the situation so that Haz doesn’t become stressed or worried.” Bethaney says it is surprising how many people assume that just because a dog looks cute, he or she is friendly.

“You don’t know what an unfamiliar dog’s temperament is like; he could be nervous, aggressive, or in pain,” continued Bethaney.

“You won’t be aware of any triggers or past experiences. Even a normally friendly dog might react differently or unexpectedly if, for example, he’d been attacked by another dog half-an-hour before, or had too much excitement for one day — after all, you wouldn’t take a toddler to three parties in one day and not expect tiredness or irritability.

“Any Google search reveals that you should always ask an owner’s permission before stroking their dog — nowhere does anyone advise you to go and dangle your hand in front of an unknown dog’s face. So why do people — many dog owners themselves — do it? Strangely, adults are much worse than children. They always say they teach their children to ask, but don’t follow their own advice.”

The Ask to Pet Facebook page sparked a lot of reaction and reinforced Bethaney’s view that she wasn’t alone in her opinion or experiences. Soon, people started sharing Bethaney’s posters and slogans, which further validated the campaign and fuelled her passion to get the message across.

Now Bethaney has started giving free 45 – 60-minute talks, initially to groups of children — Scouts, Brownies, Guides and schools — but now extending to adults. Already these interactive workshops, which include tips and advice, information about the Yellow Dog Project, questions and answers, and a re-enactment of Bethaney and Haz’s experiences, have proved so popular that requests have been received from as far away as London.

“Unfortunately, I can only give talks in my local area at the moment as I work full-time,” added Bethaney, whose campaign is a labour of love as she currently receives no funding or sponsorship. Bethaney has also produced leaflets, handouts, and posters, the latter inspired following a visit to the vet’s.

“I’d taken Haz to the vet,” recalled Bethaney.

“Despite him wearing signs asking for him to be given space, people still tried to touch him, which worried him further when he was already feeling under the weather. People shouldn’t be stroking dogs at the vet’s — after all, we don’t go to the doctor’s to socialise.”

Bethaney returned home, designed a poster, and shared it on Facebook — and very quickly received around 30 requests for copies from veterinary practices. Now, she is keen to attract sponsorship so she can grow her campaign by printing more leaflets and producing educational resources.

“I’ve had so many requests for leaflets, from vets, dog trainers, and people who organise puppy parties,” added Bethaney, who’s keen to get more vet practices on board and has plans to produce an insert for puppy packs, providing new owners with information and coping strategies.

“But mostly, I’ve had requests from ordinary owners who want to avoid unpleasant confrontations or embarrassing situations by offering a leaflet that informs and educates. They just want to walk their dogs in peace. It takes two seconds to ask and can be the difference between a positive and negative experience for everyone.”

Always ask first

Bethaney believes it’s important to think of the following before stroking any dog:

  • Consider the dog — he may be nervous, tired, reactive, in training, old, in pain (suffering from arthritis for example), recovering from illness, injury, or surgery, or be partially or completely blind/deaf.
  • Consider the owner — who could be training their dog, busy, or simply does not want to be interrupted.
  • Consider yourself — to avoid, for example, being knocked over or bitten.