It's Dog Bite Prevention week, although I personally believe that we should prevent dog bites every week throughout the year.
The purpose of Dog Bite Prevention week is to educate people so that dog bites can be prevented. I've been a humane educator for 9 years, and have gone through a lot of educational materials with this goal in mind. The information I give children is constantly evolving as I try to decide what is most important. I try to keep in mind that too much material will cause the message to be lost, and less is sometimes more.
A common aspect of most dog safety presentations is to ask the owner of the dog if a child want's to approach and pet the dog. This is a really great habit for both children and adults to get into. Some dogs are not comfortable with strangers and some are nervous around children. Asking the owner first allows the owner to keep the dog safe if this is the case.
Recently I've started to incorporate a new part to my presentation. It's fantastic to ask the owner, but there's someone else who should be asked before a child pets a dog, the dog himself. While a dog can't respond with a verbal "yes" or "no", it's true that actions speak louder than words. I tell children that they should be standing several feet from the dog and owner, and after the owner has given permission they should pat their legs and greet the dog. If the dog wants to say "hi" he will come to them. If he doesn't he may stay where he is or walk away from the child. Either way he's letting the child know if he wants to be petted or just isn't in the mood.
One of the things I like about this is that many times I've seen children approach the dog, start to pet, and ask all at the same time. By telling them to allow the dog to come to them they truly have to wait for permission before they can pet the dog. And it's always safer to let a dog come to you, rather than invade the space of a dog who may feel insecure or anxious about being unable to avoid the interaction.
The other thing I like about this practice is that it allows the dog a choice. Part of humane education is to help children develop empathy for living creatures. Asking the dog shows them that dogs have feelings and preferences just like people, and will show children the feelings of others are important.