You wouldn’t rush over to a stranger at a party and ruffle their hair, so why would you run up to a strange dog and pat them on the head? Just as we have social etiquette for meeting new people, dogs have rules for greetings too. Unfortunately, many people may not know or respect those rules and that can lead to trouble. A threatened or frightened dog might react with cowering, growling, or even biting. Learn how to greet strange dogs safely and politely so you can more easily interact with any dogs you meet.
Always Ask Permission
Unlike people, dogs can’t tell you if they would rather you leave them alone. They rely on their owner as spokesperson and guardian to protect them from unwanted attention. You should always ask permission from a dog’s owner before greeting their dog. Something as simple as, “Can I say hello to your dog?” will do the trick. If the answer is no, respect that and let the dog be.
All too often, well-meaning people press on after a no. They rush toward the dog, stating, “It’s okay, I love dogs.” This can be unsafe. First, the owner’s concern was for their dog, not for you. Second, just because you love dogs doesn’t mean every dog will love you. A frightened or reactive dog isn’t going to suddenly change their emotional state just because of how friendly you are. You could end up bitten by a dog that feels threatened by your unwelcome intrusion. Trust the owner’s judgment and keep away.
But what if the dog looks friendly and seems to be soliciting your attention? It’s still important to ask the owner. It’s not enough to read the dog’s body language. There could be many reasons why the owner would prefer you stay back. Perhaps they are working on their dog’s bad habit of jumping on people and don’t want you interfering with their training. Maybe their dog has a sore spot they don’t want you to inadvertently pat. Or their dog might get aggressive when strangers come too close to their beloved owner.
Let the Dog Approach You
Once you’ve asked for the owner’s permission, it’s time to ask for the dog’s. Rather than sticking your hand in the dog’s face or reaching out for pets, wait for the dog to come to you. If the dog approaches you, they are saying they want to meet you. If they hang back, respect they simply aren’t in the mood, despite what their owner said. Not all owners accurately read their dog’s emotional state and some mistakenly believe their anxious dog will get over their fear if enough people say hello. Let the dog have the final word.
To make yourself appear as friendly as possible, turn your body slightly to the side and look at the dog with your peripheral vision. In dog language, head-on approaches and direct eye contact are threatening, so avoid them if possible. You can also kneel down to the dog’s level so you aren’t looming overhead. However, if you are in any way uncertain about the dog, stay standing. After all, kneeling will put your face at bite level.
Dogs don’t shake hands like people do, they use their nose to say hello. So, hold your hand in a fist so they can approach and sniff if they choose. Don’t thrust your hand at the dog. They can smell you just fine from a distance, and the sudden movement could startle them.
Greet With Dog-Appropriate Actions
Once the dog approaches, it’s finally time to greet them. But, be sure to do so in dog-appropriate ways. Restrict your pats to the dog’s side, neck, back, or chest. Even better, ask the owner if their dog has a favorite spot for petting. Avoid reaching over the dog’s head as that is frightening. And don’t hug or restrain the dog in any way. Most dogs dislike pats on the head and hugs. They might tolerate them from their family members, but strangers are a different story.
Go slowly at first and keep your movements calm and steady. This dog is just getting to know you after all. You don’t want to startle them. Read their body language to see whether they’ve had enough after a few moments or if they’re interested in further interaction. Hopefully, it will be clear if you’ve made a new friend.
Use Caution With Dogs on the Loose
Dogs are adorable whether they are being walked by their owner or running free on their own. In fact, you might feel even more compelled to greet a lost dog because you want to reunite them with their owner. However, you need to be cautious when you first encounter a loose dog. Let them come to you and keep your body language calm and non-threatening. This is particularly important for children.
All kids should know the “Be a Tree” technique for whenever they encounter a dog on the loose. Be a Tree refers to standing still, with your arms tucked into your sides and your hands folded in front of you, while you look down. This is the safest posture for kids around a loose dog because they aren’t doing anything to threaten or spook the dog like making eye contact or triggering the dog’s chase response with movement. Practice this posture with a friendly dog until it comes naturally to your child. Once you and your child know Be a Tree and all the rules for greeting on-leash dogs, you can confidently and safely greet any new dog you encounter.