Last Updated on September 20, 2023
Imagine you’re walking in the park. You see a dog that’s so adorable, you feel like you’re going to regret it if you don’t say hello. You approach with a high-pitched voice and gush over the dog like a kid in the candy store. However, this approach can be extremely dangerous. And things could quickly go south from there. If you’re lucky, the dog would be very welcoming and won’t feel threatened at all. But for some, they’ll be going home not without a few stitches.
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people approach other people’s dogs incorrectly. One mistake most often people do is approach the dog like they are not strangers. Making eye contact, reaching out, and greeting them with excitement. Didn’t our parents teach us about stranger danger? It’s the same for our dogs.
It’s okay to be enthusiastic about them. However, in the dog world, there are rules on how to properly say “hello”.
How to approach a dog
Approach slowly and leisurely.
Picture yourself in the park. You see the most adorable dog you’ve ever seen, a few feet away from you. You feel a bubble of excitement in yourself. Do you run in excitement towards the dog? Definitely not.
Imagine somebody rushing towards you. Would you find it weird and scary? I know I would! Similarly, dogs would find people approaching with excitement uncomfortable. Walking slowly and calmly towards the owner without making eye contact with the dog is the best approach.
But isn’t not making eye contact rude? In human language, yes. But for dogs, it’s different. I’ll expand more on this later. For now, let’s do this step by step.
Always ask the owner for permission.
It’s not just common courtesy, but pet owners know when it’s safe for a stranger to pet their dogs. Remember: you are asking for permission to say “hello” to their dog. If they say no – also a completely acceptable thing to do- do not get offended. It’s nothing personal. Their dog just might be fearful of new people, is an anxious dog, is in training, or they just don’t have the time to stop for a greeting.
For dogs tied outside of a shop without their person, it’s best to leave the dog be. The same goes for dogs a bit behind on the walk. Do not approach the dog without the permission of the owner. Trust me. It’s for your safety.
Now, assuming that the owner says you can say “hello” to Max. (Let’s call him that.) It’s time for the next step.
Stand or squat sideways.
For small dogs, squatting is a good way to go down to their level. This is important as it’s frightening for dogs (and humans) to face someone twice their size. For larger breeds, standing without looming over them is a polite way to introduce yourself.
Why turn sideways? You might wonder. Turning sideways is a method to keep you from making direct eye contact with Max. In Max’s world, eye contact is a sign of aggression. Other dogs may also get excited and forget their training when you stare at them head-on. Avoiding eye contact gives Max the impression that you aren’t someone dangerous nor someone who they can jump on. Remember: you have your own personal space. And dogs aren’t short of understanding this concept either. I’ll elaborate more on this in the next step.
For fearful dogs, avoiding eye contact is extremely important for them.
Give him his space.
Imagine your personal space take form into a bubble. Picture everybody else with it as well. That’s the safe zone for each one of us – our dogs included. Most people thrust a hand in the dog’s face to let him get a whiff of their scent and proceeds to pet their head. This is not the proper way.
You have to respect Max’s personal space just like you would to any human. Put your hand to your side and let Max come to you. Or you can put out a hand just a little bit but be careful not to invade their personal space. This is a subtle sign of encouragement to come to you. Read more on how to train your dog to come here. If he does, good! If not, that’s okay too. It’s their choice.
Dog Body language.
Another advice I’d like to give is to know how to read a dog’s body language. A happy dog that’s welcoming of you would show these signs:
- Relaxed ears
- “Soft” or kind eyes
- Open mouth
- Relaxed body
- Leaning on you
- Seeking out your touch
An unsure and fearful dog, on the other hand, would show these signs:
- Closed mouth
- Lip licking
- Backing away or hiding behind their person
- Wide eyes
- Shaking or trembling
- Ears flat against its head
If the dog shows any of the latter signs, it’s best to leave him be. But for most owners, they can easily spot these signs and inform you that their dog is not comfortable with you. If this happens, just simply thank them for their time and get back to your walk.
Instances like these, however, are pretty rare. Dogs love attention and are more than happy to get some scratches from you.
Now, comes the exciting part: rubs and scratches!
If you followed the previous steps, it’s most likely that Max is now asking for scratches. But where exactly should you scratch? Contrary to what people mostly do, the top of the head is not the best spot. Max cannot see your hand when you reach out to scratch his head, he may feel intimidated. His shoulders, chest, neck, and chin are a safe zone. You can try petting in the same direction as his fur as most dogs love it. Also, avoid hugging Max. As much as we want to, he won’t appreciate being hugged by someone he is not very familiar with.
On some occasions, the dog you are approaching might jump on you. This is bad behavior and must not be encouraged. Don’t say or do anything when he does this. Some owners may also instruct you to turn away and ignore the excited dog. He or she might be training his dog how to properly greet humans. You can contribute to his training by listening to the owner’s instructions. More information on how to train your rescue dog here.
Know when to stop.
Max will let you know when he had enough scratches from you. If he turns or moves away from you, it’s time to stop scratching. (Aw, it’s over so soon.) However, you must respect Max’s decision.
Before you go, don’t forget to thank or compliment the owner for his time.
A lot of dogs tolerate inappropriate approaches from humans. While we demand that they be good and sociable most of the time even if we aren’t. It’s important to learn how to approach them the way you want to be approached – with respect.
Properly approaching dogs is much like any other human interaction. It requires respect on both sides. Remember that not all dogs can be your friend even if you’re a sworn dog lover. Respect the dog’s boundaries and let him come to you at his own time.
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