If you are a dog lover, which you probably are if you are taking the time to read this article, you will enjoy greeting new dogs you meet whilst out and about. However, attempting to greet a dog in an inappropriate manner could cause you all sorts of problems, and could also put you, the dog, and the owner at risk.
Dogs are taught by their mother from an early age, on the appropriate way to greet other dogs. As the time is getting shorter when a puppy is removed from its mother some dogs don't learn this valuable life lesson. When dogs meet, they do not normally rush in face to face. They know the rules of the canine world and respond accordingly. Dogs meet side on in relative silence. There will be little or no direct eye contact and no hugging. There will be sniffing! Some dogs will show respect to another dog by lowering their height and even sometimes rolling over to show their belly. These actions demonstrate that they are not a threat and the greeting will proceed according to the canine rules.
As humans, our behaviour is usually the opposite of this. Humans are of the primate world and our greetings are face-to-face, with eye contact, voice and hand movements. When we use this behaviour to greet a member of the canine world, our friendly signals may not be understood as such. For example, when we bend over the top of a dog, gaze into his eyes and reach out to stroke his head, these actions could potentially be perceived as threatening behaviour by a dog, and this may cause him to react to protect himself and/or his owners from you, and could have unpleasant consequences.
When dogs feel threatened they have two options – fight or flight. If you meet a dog on lead, the first thing to remember is that he has lost the option to flight, and he knows that. So, his only remaining option to escape your unwanted approach is fight. Many dogs will issue a vocal warning before they engage their fight response. This will be a low growl which tells you to ‘back off’ and lets you know that the dog is not feeling comfortable. However, you can’t rely on this as some dogs will completely skip the vocal warning stage and may simply attack. If you’re not familiar with reading a dog’s body language, you will have missed any silent signals and it will be too late. This is often the case for children.
Clearly, if a dog is on lead with their owner you should first address the owner. The dog’s first impression of you will be gained from its owner’s response to you, and their body language. If he sees that you are friendly and don’t make the owners feel uncomfortable, he will feel more relaxed. Always ask the owners for permission to greet their dog. They will know from experience whether this is a good idea or not. Listen to what they say… we have watched in horror as children rushed up to a strange dog whilst asking the owner whether they could pet him, but were already in the dog’s space before the owner had a chance to respond. In most cases they are lucky and the dog was tolerant, but the outcome could be very different.
If and when an owner confirms that you may greet their dog, you can move closer to the dog but allow a dog to complete the final approach towards you. If he doesn’t approach, leave it there – this dog doesn’t want you to greet him. Assuming that the dog does approach, you have his permission for a greeting. At this stage remember the canine rules…
- Don’t make direct eye contact
- Don’t bend over the top of dog – lower your height a little instead.
- Don’t hug the dog as this can be seen as a threat or challenge action.
Don't offer your hand to allow him to sniff. It's possible that you're simply giving him something to bite. Don't make any sudden movements and remain still whilst he takes time to sniff. You need to let any sniffing run its course, as this is how dogs interact. Wait until any sniffing stops and you see that signal from the dog that he's happy with you. If he backs off do not force your petting on him. Once he is happy with you, you can stroke him lightly. Try to avoid the top of the head or the hindquarters. If at any time you feel unsure of the dog, or sense that the dog is unsure of you, stop the interaction, slowly move away and say goodbye. Dogs can sense uneasiness, and this could cause them to react badly to you.
Equally, if the dog has allowed you to say hello and then moves away from you, he is giving you the signal that the interaction is over. Respect that and move on. Don’t keep forcing your attentions onto a dog whose body language is telling you otherwise.
It is also important to teach children the correct way to greet dogs. They tend to see dogs as cute and cuddly playthings and rush to hug them. This behaviour is very dangerous as, not only might the dog feel threatened by them, the child’s face is likely to be the first point of contact if the dog reacts. Always stay in control of your child’s behaviour around all dogs, including those that are known to them. You can read more on child safety around dogs at www.dallysays.co.uk
An ‘attack’ by a dog on a human, particularly a child, can result in prosecution for the owner and destruction of the dog. The owner could potentially face a prison sentence of up to 5 years, disqualification from owning a dog, and a fine of thousands of pounds. Please be considerate of the potential results of your actions. Follow these simple steps whenever meeting new dogs.
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