There are lots of things in life that fall into the category of “no-brainers,” and meeting an unfamiliar dog, for most folks, is one of them. We all know how to do it ... right?
The world is full of dog lovers, and many of them can be found right here in Jackson. I spend a lot of time working with dogs in the town setting — socializing puppies, working on manners with dogs or just keeping my own up to snuff in complex situations. So I have been a part of a good number of people greeting an unfamiliar dog, most often visitors who are terribly missing their own furry friend at home.
Most people abide by one of a handful of traditional strategies when meeting an unfamiliar canine: Leaning over and sticking their hand or fist at the dog’s nose, or immediately reaching out to pet on top of head are the most frequent ones I’ve seen. Some will even stare into a dog’s eyes, want to grab to hug or kiss the dog, squeal in excitement or rush up to an unfamiliar canine.
Which of these would you consider appropriate and which not? Which would you allow someone to do to your dog?
Unfortunately, none of these typical greetings are really ideal, and, in fact, can signal a threat to a dog.
While dog-loving folks are generally well intentioned, they usually are in the human mindset. When we as people greet a friendly but unfamiliar human, both cultural and instinctual norms dictate that we generally face them directly, lean forward, reach out and over to shake hands, make direct eye contact, and show teeth. Hugs and kisses are also signs of affection. Humans consider this politely affiliative behavior, and are nothing but well-intentioned when greeting a dog in that manner.
Add to this that dog-loving humans generally find talking to, looking at and touching dogs rewarding — and assume the dog will find it rewarding, too. “If I love petting dogs, they must love it too, right?” Often meeting a dog means touching the dog, even though many dogs (just like many people) don’t actually like being touched by strangers.
Think about how a socially appropriate dog typically greets another socially appropriate unfamiliar dog: They circle around, sniff rears. There’s no direct approach, no direct eye contact, no reaching out or over, certainly no squealing, hugging or showing of teeth.
So perhaps greeting an unfamiliar dog isn’t quite a no-brainer. To do it well, in fact, requires quite a bit of observation, understanding and restraint — and not just for you. Teaching our kids to meet dogs politely means safer kids and more empathetic dog lovers in the future.
Here’s the three steps to appropriately meet an unfamiliar dog:
1. Ask the owner.
The good news is that the majority of people seem to be doing this these days. But remember: No means no, regardless of how cute the puppy is. If the answer is yes, move to step two. If no owner is present, leave the dog alone.
2. Ask the dog.
Orient yourself with your side to the dog and keep your hands to yourself. This can work well to convey to a dog you mean no harm.
If the dog seems indifferent to you, turns away from you, backs away, moves behind his person, seems tense and rigid, barks or growls, the dog is telling you no. Even if the owner says yes and tries to get the dog to engage with you, if the dog says no, respect its wishes and stop your attempts to engage.
If the dog approaches you all waggy and relaxed, if the dog touches you gently and seems comfortable and interested in meeting you, if the dog throws himself on his back with a big grin and asks for a belly rub, the answer is yes. Proceed to step three.
3. Interact with the dog.
Dogs have a blind spot on top of their head and don’t really like being touched there. They also don’t love being tapped on. Instead, scratch under their chins or on the chest, or slowly stroke along their back or sides. Or their belly, if there’s a belly rub solicitation!
Although most folks are unaware of how best to greet a dog they don’t know, in my experience most are quite happy to take a little coaching. Be your dog’s advocate when out and about; offer direction to dog greeters and don’t allow any inappropriate behavior from the humans.
Also watch for the signs from your dog that she isn’t really interested, and don’t force her to endure meeting people if she’d rather not. Even social dogs can tire of being petted, so learn to spot when your outgoing dog has had enough. If you have a dog that isn’t into meeting strangers, politely refuse greeting requests right off the bat.
A little education can go a long way. I like to think that every person who meets a dog I am working with learns something that will make the world a little better for dogs — those they meet in the future, and perhaps even their own. And that dog, meanwhile, is learning its feelings will be respected.
It’s a testament to the superbly forgiving nature of dogs that blundering human offenses are tolerated, again and again and again. But it isn’t necessary to test the patience or good nature of a dog you don’t know. To be a true friend of dogs, rather than just a dog lover, learn how to properly greet dogs you don’t know, and show them the world is full of trustworthy and understanding humans. ￼