Not all dogs want to be approached by strangers. If you’ve ever said, “It’s okay … I’m a dog person!” in response to an owner’s warning that their dog prefers to be left alone, this article is for you.
When we traveled with Ty and Buster, we were often approached by people who want to meet the dogs. When I’d tell them that Ty was afraid of strangers and preferred to be admired from afar we’d often hear, “That’s okay, I’m a dog person!” The person would then proceed to ignore Ty body language and forget all the etiquette for how to greet a dog.
Even people with the best intentions make mistakes when greeting dogs they don’t know. Keep these tips in mind, and you’re likely to have a lot more furry friends.
Mistakes People Make When Greeting A Dog
There are a litany of offenses that well-meaning humans commit against unsuspecting dogs when they meet for the first time. Who can honestly say they’ve never been guilty of one of these infractions?
1. Neglect to ask the dog’s person for permission to meet their dog.
2. Reach over the dog’s head and pat, pat, pat.
3. Put your face up close to the dog’s face and coo, “Oh, you’re soooo cute.”
4. Spot a dog you want to meet, make direct, unblinking eye contact, and quickly approach the dog making high-pitched vocalizations.
5. See an irresistible bundle of fur and walk up behind the dog to enthusiastically rub his or her cute little rump.
6. Approach a dog by looking directly at her and as you near with your arms extended, clap your hands, or click your fingers right at the dog’s face.
7. Notice a sweet dog laying down, crouch over at the waist, and slowly slink toward the dog with your arm outstretched.
8. Believe that because you love dogs, all dogs love you, too, and that you can forego the formalities that ordinary humans should observe.
I’ve been guilty of several of these infractions … and I’ve been lucky. Any of those situations could have ended badly for me and, even more tragically, for the poor unsuspecting pup.
How Would You Feel?
To understand how these behaviors might be upsetting to a dog, ask a partner to help you. Request that your partner wait until you’ve completely forgotten this conversation, then stare you in the eye while approaching, quickly swish his hand past your eyes, over your forehead, and pat, pat, pat you on the head. (Go on, try it!)
If you have a stealthy partner, you’ll probably duck, twist your face in disgust, and pull away from his reach. If he’s really good he’ll continue to stare, smile, and squeal over how cute you are, and then pat, pat, pat you again.
My guess is that you’ll duck again and backed farther away. You’re likely to experience feelings of annoyance and possibly anger – and you know this person. Imagine if you didn’t!
Respect Canine Customs
Unfortunately, our dogs are often subjected to similarly inappropriate greeting. And then they’re scolded if they respond less than enthusiastically!
Dogs have their own language and protocols for meeting strangers (dogs and people) and, if you’re really a dog person, you’ll respect their preferences. After all, we don’t go to foreign countries and expect the locals to abide by our cultural norms. It’s not fair that the full burden of navigating life with another species should fall entirely on our dogs.
How To Greet A Strange Dog Politely
So, what’s the best way to greet a dog? Start by asking the dog’s person for permission to greet their dog. If they say no, understand that they’re only doing what they believe is best for their pet and don’t take it personally. Assuming they say yes, follow these steps:
1. Don’t approach the dog. Pretend you’re ignoring her and allow the dog to approach you if she’s comfortable and interested.
2. Avert your eyes. Sustained eye contact signals trustworthiness in most Western cultures, but in the dog world it signals aggression.
3. Either stand straight or squat, but do not crouch over the dog.
4. Keep your body loose and relaxed. Putting on an easy smile or slowly blinking your eyelids will signal to the dog that you are not a threat.
5. Turn your body so you are not facing the dog. Again, being face-to-face is considered polite human behavior, but it can signal aggressive intentions to a dog.
6. If you speak, use a calm, reassuring tone.
7. If the dog shows interest by sniffing you with a relaxed posture, easy tail wags (not all wagging is friendly), and perhaps looking at you with soft eyes, then you can slowly offer the dog your hand for investigation.
8.Let the dog sniff your hand, if she wants to, and then gently pet the dog’s shoulder, neck or chest – not on the top of the head.
9. The dog will clearly let you know if she wants more interaction or if she is finished with you. Respect her wishes.
10. For dogs who are deaf or blind, take extra care not to make sudden movements that might startle them.
11. If at any time during the interaction the dog backs away, stop what you are doing.
Passing the Sniff Test
When you greet a dog, remember to watch her body language. Keeping your emotions in check and respecting the dog’s signals will make the interaction a good experience for you both. Do you have any other advice for greeting dogs?
About the Author: Deborah Flick is a pet lover who shares her life with Sadie, a shy and fearful standard poodle. She’s currently working toward a degree at “Sadie’s School for Hapless Humans.”