I want to talk for a moment about shy animals. A lot of us are used to the kind of crazy-energy dogs who will come racing up for a smooch and a pat, but there are some animals who are the exact opposite – they are wary of strangers.
Sometimes it’s for a very good reason. If a dog or a cat has been hurt by a human in the past, it’s sometimes difficult for them to be able to trust again.
We’ve seen it at the shelter a lot over the years. Dogs who cower in the backs of their kennels and cats who won’t come out of their litter boxes.
It’s heartbreaking to witness, but it’s not hopeless. If we give them time and approach them slowly and allow them – on their terms – to figure out that we aren’t going to hurt them, it’s amazing to witness the turnaround.
On the other hand, if you go too fast with shy animals, things may not turn out very well.
In the past, I have taken animals from the shelter out and about with me to various events. It’s sometimes surprising how different they can be when they leave the shelter. Dogs that are super friendly in the kennels can sometimes turn backwards in big events, with lots of people.
Cats who purr and rub and just want to be held at the shelter can turn into squirming maniacs when they are out of their comfort zone.
It’s important to recognize the signs in our four-legged friends when they aren’t happy about strangers approaching. Any time you are out and about at PetSmart, Petco or some other place where there are animals, please take the cues from the pets. They will tell you if they are comfortable with strangers.
Put yourself in the dog’s position. Let’s pretend you’re out on a shopping day. Oh, how I adore shopping days. You’re wandering out of Kohl’s, swinging your bag of loot that you purchased for practically a steal, and you’re pretty darn happy with the world.
Now imagine someone who had been sitting on one of the benches outside comes right up into your personal space, making cooing sounds and smoothing their hand all over your head and face.
It would be unbelievably weird and uncomfortable, right? Your first instinct would be to back up and get away. If the person didn’t stop, even with you trying to extricate yourself from the situation, I imagine your next move would be to lash out in some way. Scream, push, something.
Believe me, if that ever happened to me, I’d set up quite a racket.
That’s what it’s like for some dogs with strangers that don’t take their cues into consideration. And for a lot of them, the only way they have to lash out to stop unwanted behavior is by snarling or biting. A situation where a dog bites is always bad, and if it can be avoided, then we should work toward that goal.
It’s a great and very important lesson to teach children. The proper way to say hello to a dog is to let them come to you. Extend your hand – palm down – and allow them to sniff the back of your fingers. If you have your hand palm up, for a dog who has been hit, before that’s what he has seen. Also, if you have any food particles still on your hand from lunch, some dogs could mistake your fingers for a snack and take a nibble.
Once the pup has sniffed the back of your hand, you can then start to slowly pet his head and face. Any signs of discomfort from the animal should be taken as a non-verbal “back up” cue.
Remember, cats can sometimes be even more finicky and picky about who they like than dogs.
Kids should never be allowed to chase cats around the house or through the neighborhood in order to pet them. If a cat is running from you, it means he doesn’t want to hang out. Cats who are picked up when they don’t want to be can turn into wild things, scratching and biting to be free.
Situations do not have to end in scratching and biting if people know what to look for from the start.
We could learn a lot from the world around us if we took the time to read non-verbal cues. So please, for as much as you or your kids know animals who are fine with people and who have no problem with strangers, remember not all dogs – or cats for that matter – are like that.
Let’s work together to make life good for our four-legged friends. Even the shy ones.
Jennifer Vanderau is the Publications and Promotions Consultant for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at: (717) 263-5791, or visit the website: www.cvas-pets.org. CVAS also operates a thrift store in Chambersburg. Help support the animals at the shelter by donating to or shopping at the store.