Since you are reading this, you are probably someone who likes dogs! You are certainly not alone. As Bark Busters dog trainers & behaviour therapists, we spend most of our time with dogs. This means that we constantly meet dog lovers, be they owners, children, or passers-by. So we thought we'd give you some advice on how to greet a dog safely and politely.
At the risk of stating the obvious, dog lovers love dogs! They love to talk to them, stroke them, scratch their ears and fuss them. That's great as long as you know the dog, the dog knows you and you have established this behaviour as being acceptable between both of you. However, this can become a potential problem when you assume that all dogs will love the attention and assume all dogs behave like this; especially with a dog you don't know. Your innocent actions could seem threatening to some dogs, so you need to be sure that you know how to act and behave around unknown dogs, and the reasons why, to ensure everyone's safety.
We must appreciate that the behaviour and body language humans display is very different to canine behaviour and could be regarded by canines as offensive and/or an attempt to threaten, challenge or control. Understanding that the behaviour we show when greeting, differs so greatly from a dog's behaviour, is the first step towards making your greeting of an unknown dog, safe, respectful and polite.
Firstly, look at a greeting from a dog's viewpoint. Well-socialised dogs, meeting for the first time, will be making assessments based on canine behaviour. They see a dog and assess 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. A dog is also assessing the threat level of the other dog by its stance. This could be tail up, ears pricked, head up, proud stance, hackles raised, or maybe tail down, ears sideways or down, head lowered and even looking away? Depending on the signals a dog is showing could mean the difference between a confident dog, a nervous or aggressive dog or a relaxed dog with no threat at all. Some dogs may use submissive signals such as immediately dropping to the ground and laying on their back or side. If that's your dog, be happy that it is unlikely to get into trouble! The next step is that they sniff each other's faces and then go head to tail to check each other's signature smell from anal glands and genital areas. 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.
How humans greet
Humans do not greet in this way! Nor do we naturally recognise these forms of body language signals. Primate behaviour involves meeting face to face, looking into the eyes of the other 'person', using vocal sounds (talking), and lots of use of the hands and arms (touching, stroking, gesticulating, hugging, kissing). If we use this behaviour when greeting an unknown dog, we may be inviting an unwelcome reaction from the dog, and here's why.
You were probably told when young to reach out and show the back of your hand or clenched fist for a dog to sniff before trying to stroke their head. Depending on the dog and its level of human socialisation, this can cause a dog to feel threatened despite your good intentions; consider that many dogs are naturally shy, nervous or timid. Furthermore, there are many hand shy dogs, such as adopted dogs, with an abusive or uncertain past. These dogs, particularly when on lead, may be feeling uncertain and unable to run away. When an unknown person, using their human behaviour, stares straight at a dog's eyes, leans over them, which can be interpreted as controlling or even aggressive behaviour, then moves their arm swiftly towards their head, the dog may be feeling uncomfortable or even threatened. This may cause the dog to issue a nervous warning (growl) or create a noisy response (bark), or react physically at the end of the lead. Consequently, a dog could be wrongly labelled as aggressive.
Of course, there are many dogs that are very well socialised with humans and our rather blunt form of greeting. They love having their head, ears and body ruffled and patted and will jump up and/or show happy wagging tails. Humans are good at recognising that happy-dog body language and understand the dog's desire for that type of greeting. The trouble is that we are not so good at recognising the body language that tells us we are not meeting one of those types of dog!
to greet a dog safely and politely
Please consider doing the following when thinking about greeting a dog on or off lead in the park, street, or in the dog's home.
First, ask the owner if it is safe to greet their dog. We may teach our children to ask an owner, but in our experience an adult rarely asks the owner of a dog if they can do so. Some people even feel it appropriate to feed treats to their dog without asking permission.
If the owner says not to greet their dog, then please accept this. Don't assume that every dog will like you and because you've had dogs as part of your life for some time that it's okay to keep trying to touch the dog. Up to now, you have most probably met lots of well-socialised dogs.
The best way for people to assess and greet a dog is to do the following: -
- All greetings must be on the dog's terms. Allow a dog to make the first approach.
- Don't rush in to fuss a dog.
- Keep talking to the owner so you don't stare at a dog.
- Stand very still. Don't make sudden movements.
- Ignore the dog. Let him come to you to sniff your legs.
- Do not try to stroke or speak to a dog whilst he's sniffing you… he hasn't finished checking you out. A dog that sniffs you and then retreats, should not be approached, he does not want your advances.
- After 30 seconds or so you should be fairly sure whether or not the dog wants a fuss.
- ALWAYS ask the owner first.
- Even if it is obvious that a dog is happy for a fuss, do not lean over him. Stroke and fuss 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!
- 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.
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. This is why so many people receive a bite or a snap as a result of unwitting behaviour when they approach an unknown dog! By failing to respect canine behaviours, signals and body language whilst imposing attention onto a dog we risk injury to ourselves or others, and put the dog's life at risk too. Some dogs cannot understand the differences between human and canine behaviour. Dogs learn through association and a series of events and interpret our movements and body language through their canine instincts; our words are largely interpreted through voice tone. They assume that you will understand their body language and their signals so it's up to us to ensure that we all recognise the signals and educate ourselves so that we do.