Karen B. London
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Tolerating Petting Shows Patience
Eagerness to fetch is obvious

Sometimes when I think of what we ask of dogs, I find myself impressed with what they will tolerate. Recently, I was at our local park with my kids when a man came to play fetch with his Border Collie. This dog was clearly a devoted fetcher. Her gaze was locked and loaded on the ball even as they walked into the park, and her attention never wavered.

I watched the man and his dog play fetch for 30 minutes, and the dog never stopped staring at the ball. She did it when the man was holding it, when it was in the air, and when he set in on the ground for a moment while he tied his shoe. When he gave it a little toss in the air and caught it, the dog’s eyes followed its path. When he walked to the drinking fountain, her eyes followed the ball as his arm swung. This dog was riveted on the ball, the whole ball and nothing but the ball.

My kids know better than to ask to pet a dog who is so engaged in play, but I could see them looking at her longingly. The dog was left to play in peace until another family came and DID ask to pet the dog. The man said, “Sure, but she’ll probably be more interested in the ball than anything.” (Truer words were never spoken.)

The dog obediently dropped the ball and went into a down posture on cue so the kids could pet her, but her focus never left the ball. For several minutes, the kids fawned over her, and the dog stayed put the entire time while staring at the ball. She was polite and calm with the children, but absolutely uninterested in them. She continued to lie there watching the ball until the man said, “I think she’d like to play some more now,” and called her to him. She leapt up with extreme enthusiasm and resumed fetching with the same fervor as before.

This dog no more wanted to stop her fetch game for a petting session than I want to stop in the middle of a run to have someone braid my hair. Yet, she did what she was asked with admirable patience and grace. So many dogs are similarly tolerant and I’m grateful for that every day.


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by John Garghan/Flickr

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Submitted by Frances | June 30 2014 |

Lovely story! My two toy dogs have been taught to "Say hello nicely", which they do fairly happily, provided there are no majorly nteresting distractions. The other day they got their reward when the toddlers who greeted them gently and politely proceeded to share their sugared biscuits with the dogs (their Mum did ask first)... My dogs hardly ever get sweet biscuits, so they are an exceptionally special treat - I think the behaviour may now be pretty well distraction proofed!

Submitted by Jen | July 16 2014 |

I was chuckling to myself while reading this, thinking about my neighbor's border collie. This describes him to a "T". He's an affectionate, lovely boy, but all he cares about is a ball, frisbee, or a makeshift stick if nothing else is available for you to throw. And then I have the opposite problem with my dogs. If anyone so much as glances at my male dog he thinks it's an invitation to cross the trail for a pet, hug or leg lean. My female dog adores children and visibly lights up when she sees them, from toddlers on up. I guess it's a good thing they both work as therapy dogs. My prior dog, a Lab-boxer, wouldn't give you the time of day unless you were in her circle of friends. She tolerated meeting and being petted by strangers but could care less about it.

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