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Is it OK to pet other people's dogs? What to know before interacting with someone else's animal

Chances are, you’ve heard people say their dogs are like their children. And it makes sense: for countless animal lovers, a pet is often just as integral a part of the family as any human. But the love that we feel for animals doesn't always translate well in public, as seen by the many people who seem to feel it's totally OK to pet other people's dogs or give them treats without asking.

The desire to pet, play with, and care for any dogs you encounter is understandable, perhaps due to the “man’s best friend” reputation or just their general cuteness. Regardless of the reasoning, though, interacting with a stranger's dog is not always the best move. To address why, let's break down some of the most common interactions people have with other people’s pups.

Petting the dog

Look, it's natural — you see an adorable ball of fur coming your way on the sidewalk or chilling near you at the park, and you have an undeniable urge to reach out and pet. What pup wouldn’t want the love? A lot, actually. Some dogs "might have issues around strangers,” Mary R. Burch, director of the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen, tells Mic.

And keep in mind that even if the dog is OK with random people, their owner (or walker) might not be, for reasons ranging from health concerns to a simple lack of desire to interact. So when considering approaching someone else's dog, says Burch, “the most important thing to do before anything else is to ask the owner if you can pet their dog.”

If the person does say yes once you ask permission, Burch says to avoid coming up to the dog face-to-face (“direct eye contact when approaching a dog can be a little threatening, since dogs typically don’t like the feeling of being watched,” she explains), and to let the animal smell you first. Then, “place your hand under [the dog’s] chin to pet [them],” she says. “If that seems welcoming, pet the dog’s chest. Never attempt to pet the dog on top of the head first.”

Giving it food

Unless you’ve been given explicit permission, refrain from providing another person's dog with any sort of food — yes, even treats. “You never know if that dog may have food sensitivity issues or allergies, or may be on a restricted diet,” Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the AKC, tells Mic. “And by you offering even a small piece of something... which that dog may be sensitive to could cause a problem."

The only possible exception, he notes, is if the dog looks like it’s starving or really needs the food; according to Wag, some signs of malnourishment in a dog include bad breath, body odor and dandruff. However, if you encounter a dog that you think may be starving and can’t get in touch with the owner, it’s a good idea to call a local no-kill animal shelter or veterinarian’s office for advice before giving the animal something to eat.

Giving it water

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Water doesn’t come with the same risks as food; Dr. Klein says it’s generally not dangerous to offer a dog water if, say, you see it tied up outside a store on a hot day. That said, it’s still not necessarily the best idea, since you likely won't have any info on how long the dog's been outside or what the owner has planned. If the owner isn’t there, such as with the store scenario, Dr. Klein suggests waiting to see if they return shortly before offering the pup a refreshment.

“It’s kind of like people with children: If [you] had a son or a daughter and somebody offered [them] something, would you be OK with that?” he explains. “The safety of water is OK, [but] some people may get offended if you’re taking it upon yourself to do something. You have to be ready for the fact that someone may be hesitant or be concerned you’re doing something without their permission.”

Keeping it company

It’s important to tread lightly when it comes to interacting with dogs left unattended — such as those tied up outside stores or restaurants — even if you’re not offering them any food or water. “You have to be careful; you don’t know what a dog is going to be like,” Dr. Klein says. Even if the dog looks relaxed and gentle, that could change on a dime if you, a stranger, decides to invade their personal space. Not only that, but you could also find yourself on the receiving end of an angry owner’s wrath if they return to find you petting, playing with, or otherwise engaging their dog — which, Dr. Klein points out, is considered their “personal property.”

If you're worried that a dog's been left alone for too long outside a store, Dr. Klein suggests going into the establishment and asking if the dog outside belongs to anyone. And again, if you can’t find the owner and feel there is serious cause for concern regarding the dog’s health or safety, try calling a local no-kill shelter or vet.

Disciplining it

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No dog is perfect, and it’s possible you’ll encounter a stranger’s dog (or even a dog owned by someone you know) that does something you’re not too keen on — whether it’s something relatively benign, like barking loudly or taking your dog’s toy, or something more serious, like nipping at yourself or your kid. But regardless of the exact circumstances, Dr. Klein says it’s best to avoid taking on the role of disciplinarian. “Go to the owner and express your concerns, and allow them to reprimand or correct the dog’s behavior,” he says.

If the owner isn’t in the immediate vicinity and you need to issue a stern “no!” or “off!” to redirect the dog or protect yourself (or your loved ones), do what you need to do — but “be very careful that you don’t get yourself in trouble,” Dr. Klein advises — with either the owner or the dog, if it seems angry.

Getting it to play with your dog

As disappointing as it might be to hear, not every dog you see is going to be your pup’s new best friend, so hold off on immediately introducing the two animals. “Always ask the other owner if an interaction with their dog is OK,” Burch says. “Some dogs may be timid or reactive, and interactions with them may not be ideal for either dog. If a meeting has been approved by both you and the other owner, you can proceed to let the dogs meet.”

That's especially important advice for the dog park, as while that environment may seem like a good opportunity for free-wheeling playtime, it's essential to still keep tabs on your dog and monitor any interactions it has with others. “You should actually be more on guard of your dog in a dog park,” Dr. Klein says, since you don't know what the personalities of the other dogs are like. Ideally, he adds, you should "know the dogs really well before you can start feeling really comfortable [to let them play together].”

The bottom line? While dogs can certainly be fun, cute and playful, it’s important to treat them — and the humans accompanying them — with respect and care at all times.