I once had an incident where someone decided it would be ‘funny’ to simply stop and stare at the dog I was walking. Staring directly at the dog coupled with the man’s odd behavior caused a response that could have been easily avoided by simply looking away. Instead the continued direct eye contact elicited a protective and very explosive reaction.
In most cases this isn’t a problem and the dog will move on, unconcerned.
This made me wonder though – how many people truly know how to approach a strange dog? You’d like to think that most dogs are friendly and have no issues with you approaching them to give a friendly greeting. Most of the time – you’re probably right. However these days with less and less people training, and more dogs coming from shelters with unknown pasts – you never know exactly what you might be walking up to. This isn’t saying that you should be wary of every dog, but just more to pay attention.
People and dogs in a communication sense are as different as apples and oranges. People like to smile, showing their teeth – dogs see this as a snarl, warning, or aggressive action. People, like to meet face to face with eye contact – dogs see this as a direct challenge or a dominant action. There are a large number of cases each year where humans are bitten by dogs – all because we weren’t paying attention. We may ignore the owner’s signals, or even the dog’s. We always have to think about the communications differences between our two worlds. They may be man’s best friend but they’re still instinctually animals.
The first thing when approaching a strange dog is to pay attention to the owner’s body language. Do they look comfortable? Is the leash slack? Does the dog look friendly and willing to accept attention from people? Usually if the owner is relaxed, the dog is as well. If you approach someone that has a tight hold on the leash, doesn’t look comfortable or is trying to avoid people – most likely the dog isn’t going to be comfortable either. They may be giving you space out of courtesy or they could be aware that their dog isn’t comfortable or has other behavioral issues. In any case – always ask first before petting a strange dog, it goes a long way in making the owner comfortable which in turn will make the dog comfortable as well.
Before you pet any dog, always be mindful that there are certain ways to approach a dog that can make them either like or dislike you. A stranger should never run up to a dog, crouch down to meet their eyes, or pet them on the top of the head. The best way is to allow the dog to sniff the back of your hand while you speak with the owner. If the dog nudges your hand or seems to be friendly to the attention then pet them along either the side, under the chin, or on the chest. If the dog backs away or seems uninterested then give them their space and do not initiate any contact. They may not bite, but they’ve clearly told you they’re not interested.
Though crouching down to the dogs level is indeed a good thing – meeting their eyes, throwing your arms around them, or asking for kisses are all things that should be avoided. Meeting their eyes is a dominant gesture in canine communication. In some dogs this may not cause any reaction other then the dog looking away or the dog maintaining eye contact with no reaction at all. Or it may, as mentioned above with my client, a sudden protective or aggressive display that can make a situation spiral out of control.
While it may be something you do at home with your own animals, throwing your arms around a strange dog can make it feel trapped. This also puts your face and arms in a vulnerable position should the dog decide that it doesn’t like or want your attentions. The same is true with asking for kisses. Placing your face directly in front of a dog’s face is doggy talk for dominance and can be taken as a threatening gesture.
A dog’s breed can also be used along with their body language to determine if a dog may be receptive to a greeting or not. Guardian breeds bond closely with their owners and are very observant with strangers. These dogs will often be aloof towards you and watching their owner for signals that you’ve been accepted. Once they see this acceptance the dog may then be more receptive to your greeting. This is where offering the back of your hand and friendly, casual talk with the owner gives the dog enough time to evaluate the greeting and make its own decision on whether it wants to say ‘hi.’
Most hunting and gundog breeds were bred to be very receptive and biddable with people and as a result are extremely open if not exuberant about meeting new people. With these dogs you may see a brightness in their eyes, a slight upward curve in their lips like a smile, and an excited wag that indicates they’re more than happy to say hello! But always defer to the owner as they may not want your greeting to encourage their overly friendly behavior as part of the dog’s training.
With smaller dogs, as cute as they may be, they often can be very possessive of their owners. This coupled with some owners treating these small dogs as their babies can make them intolerant of strangers.
As always every encounter with a dog should be treated as they are individuals. There are well behaved Rottweilers that are more than happy to say hello to strangers, and more anxious Labradors who aren’t always keen on meeting new people.
Just remember that while we hope that all dogs are lovely social butterflies that love everyone – there may be that one that just isn’t. Always ask for the owner’s permission before you interact, approach new or strange dogs in a calm and low key manner, and respect the body language of the dog and the owner. If you follow some of these basic rules you’ll have a more enjoyable time with the dogs you’ll meet on the street!