It’s no surprise. Dog lovers love dogs. We love to talk to dogs, pet them, scratch their ears and fuss with them. This becomes a potential problem when you assume that every dog you encounter will love you back. Approaching a dog with a “happy to see you” squeal and leaning in with arms outstretched to say hello usually won’t create conflict, as long as you know the dog, the dog knows you, and you have established this behavior as acceptable between both of you. However some dog lovers don’t realize that those well-meaning, seemingly innocent approaches can appear threatening to dogs; so you need to be sure that you know how to act and behave, in particular around dogs who are unfamiliar with you.
How dogs say hello
Greeting rituals displayed by dogs are very different from the behavior and body language humans display. How we approach dogs can be interpreted as offensive and/or an attempt to threaten, challenge or control them. Seeing things from the dog’s perspective and understanding that the behavior we show when greeting differs so greatly from a dog’s behavior is the first step towards making your greeting of an unknown dog, safe, respectful, and polite.
When well-socialized dogs meet they make assessments based on canine behavior. They see a dog and read its body language from a distance. Then they may go towards the other dog and stop, still assessing its body language for signals to indicate whether it’s relaxed, friendly or anxious, nervous, wary or a threat. They watch for the positioning of the tail and ears, posture, and eye contact.
After that initial assessment, those dogs may sniff each other’s faces and then go head to tail for the all-too-familiar butt sniff. After initial greetings and assessments, they may either walk on comfortably, play, or one may show submissive signals, like lowering head, rolling over willingly, or even urinating (especially uncertain pups). The other dog will then usually indicate acceptance to the submissive signals and both will happily go their separate ways.
The mistake people make when greeting dogs
Humans do not greet one another in this way. Our greeting behavior involves meeting face to face, direct eye contact, vocalization, and lots of use of the hands and arms—like touching, stroking, gesticulating, hugging, and kissing. If we use this human behavior when greeting an unknown dog, we may be inviting an unwelcome reaction from a dog who is confused by the interaction and who feels the need to defend itself.
We’re typically pretty good at recognizing dogs who are well socialized with humans – those who love having their head, ears and body ruffled and patted and will jump up or wag their tails with a touchy-feely greeting. Rather than being offended by a dog who reacts negatively to our greeting, it’s better to respect the dog’s point of view and learn to better recognize dog body language that tells us we are not meeting a canine who understands our human approach. This dog may not “love” you as much as you love him!
How to meet a dog
When greeting a dog on or off lead in the park, street, or in the dog’s home, consider the following tips.
Just as we teach children to do, first ask the owner if it is OK to greet their dog. If the owner declines, respectfully move on. Just because all dogs love you or because you’ve had dogs as part of your life for some time doesn’t mean you won’t eventually come across a dog that feels threatened by your human approach. Consider yourself lucky that to this point perhaps you’ve apparently met lots of well-socialized dogs.
Tips for meeting a new dog
- Always ask the owner before approaching a dog. Don’t assume that every dog wants to say hello.
- When greeting a dog, avoid direct eye contact. Keep talking to the owner so you don’t stare at a dog.
- All greetings must be on the dog’s terms. Start by ignoring the dog and allowing them to come sniff your legs first. Allow dog to make the first approach and avoid sudden movements. Try not try to stroke or speak to a dog while he’s sniffing you. The old advice of “stick out your hand and let him sniff you” can result in a bite if the dog is not done assessing you. A dog that sniffs you and then retreats should not be approached because he does not want your advances.
- Don’t force yourself on a dog if he moves away from you or indicates in other ways that he is not comfortable. Stop after a few seconds and see whether the dog leans into you or nudges you for more.
- Even if it is obvious that a dog is happy, do not lean over him. Stroke the upper side of his body but not his head. This indicates that you don’t want to be considered controlling. Also, some dogs have very sensitive ears so, if unsure, stay away from them.
- After 30 seconds or so you should be fairly sure whether or not the dog wants a happy hello.
As humans, we tend to assume that dogs will understand our intentions and our words but unfortunately that is not the case. Our means of communication differ so greatly from that of dogs. Seeing things from the dog’s perspective, respecting and understanding canine behavior, and reading body language cues while greeting a dog will allow you to limit the risk of exposing a dog to a negative experience as well as injury to yourself or others.
About the Author: Sylvia Wilson is the founder and COO of Bark Busters International who developed the training methodologies behind Bark Busters after working with shelter animals for more than 10 years. A native of Australia, Sylvia is passionate about dogs not being euthanized or abandoned because of behavioral problems and continues to promote only humane, positive dog training methods. Sylvia is an expert in dog communication- she has never met a dog she couldn’t train of any age or breed.