Video by Jessica Leibowitz

We've all been there: it's a whatever day, you're walking down the street, idling on your phone while trying to avoid slamming into other people who are also idling on their phones. Then you catch a glimpse of a fluffy tail swinging like a pendulum on speed and your heart melts for a moment.

Maybe it's a puppy scampering along the sidewalk trying to eat rocks while its owner is on the phone. Maybe it's an adorable dog tied up outside a grocery store, drooling all over itself and begging for you to say hi. Or maybe it's a desperate pup in a pack of dogs, their wonderfully dumb faces beaming like headlights, tethered to a walker who is just trying to get through the day.

What you know for certain is that this particular dog on this particular day needs you to bend down and pet it, and you need to pet it too. It is the sensation of making eye contact with someone across a crowded bar, only twice as meaningful because people are mostly terrible and dogs are universally wonderful.

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Ben Yakas

Most New Yorkers are not shy about petting strangers' dogs—but just because you've bonded for life with an animal you've just met doesn't mean you can ignore the boundaries of general social etiquette around the human beings in charge of those pups. There are a lot of basic rules dog enthusiasts and their owners can follow to ensure that your next petting experience is pleasant for both people, and doesn't end with you creeping out the dog's owner or getting your hand bitten.

After talking to many dog owners and dog lovers, we've distilled the best advice into the video above. And below, you can read a more complete list of some tips:

  • It's generally bad form to start petting a dog that is tied up outside a building alone. While there are plenty of dogs who would love for you to reach down and give them an ear scratch, you don't know whether they are friendly dogs, or if they have random things they are scared of (dogs are strange creatures! I knew a sweet dog who was exclusively scared of men in hats, as one example). If you have truly fallen in love with the dog in question, it's best to hang around a minute or circle back later when the owner returns. Is it the end of the world if you sneak in a pet or two while the dog is waiting? Probably not, but if anything should go wrong, that's on you, not the owner/pet.
  • You shouldn't start petting a dog even if the owner is there without first asking for permission. This seems obvious, but you'd be shocked by how many people just start talking to the dog immediately and bend down without even acknowledging the owner. If you want to say hi to a pup, first ask the owner permission ("Your dog is amazing, is it okay if I say hi?") and then stick the back of your hand/fist out for them to smell you. If they then accept that your scent is not repulsive to them, go to town.
  • Never feed a dog without asking the owner. Are you insane? What if it's allergic to your burrito? Why are you offering a dog a burrito anyway? It's even weirder if you're just randomly carrying a Milkbone with you!
  • Don't awkwardly overstay a petting/greeting. Obviously there will be times when you are chatting with the owner and you get into a conversation and they're cool with it, but when in doubt, just a few pets then move on. Sometimes even if the dog is friendly, the owner has somewhere to be, and is just trying to be polite.
  • Always ask permission to take a photo. Don't just start stalking a dog down the street trying to get the right angle. Would you want a stranger taking a photo of you (or your child) without saying anything?
  • Don't try to steal the dog, even if it's tied up outside and looking at you with eyes that scream, "I want you to take me home and be my best friend forever until the day I die which, let's be honest, is only like in 10 years at best." Unless you think the dog is being abused, in which case you should contact The Humane Society.
  • Don't make eye contact with a dog, or try to pet it, when it's clearly trying to go to the bathroom. Besides the fact that you could interrupt what can be a very delicate procedure for many creatures, it's just...it's not right.
  • When you are petting a dog or chatting with the owner, don't immediately start criticizing its appearance. No one goes up to you on the street and tells you you need to shave your ear hair or trim your nose hair (although some of you really need to do that).
  • Try not to rile up a dog unnecessarily—they could get too excited and start choking themselves out on the leash Jake the Snake-style. Having said that, there are some rambunctious dogs who can't help but go wild, because they are pure souls who are completely illiterate and have no idea how awful humans can be.
  • Don't start giving a dog commands if you don't know the person. Also, don't walk by a dog and make horse-clicking noises, owners are weirded out by that.
  • If you're going to approach a dog to pet it, don't be shocked or startled if the dog jumps on you out of excitement, or if it licks you or accidentally rubs dirt from its paws onto your jacket or jeans. That is the risk that you have agreed to in approaching the animal.
  • If you own or are walking a dog, don't force it to socialize with another dog if it's clear the owner is trying to move on/if it seems like the other dog is unfriendly (although, that is also on the owner: if your dog is unfriendly, you have to verbally make that clear to the other owner).

Of course, we'd be lying if we said we hadn't broken a few of these rules over the years. Think of this more as a guideline to good behavior rather than a strict list that needs to be observed under all circumstances. Some owners/walkers are way more chill than others! But at the end of the day, the onus is on you to make sure you aren't the weirdo making baby voices at a stranger's dog who clearly doesn't want anything to do with you.

(A special thanks to human models Fraylie Nord and Sara Lewin, and amazing dog model Prince; his owners encourage you to donate to the ASPCA.)