What is the right way to approach and greet a strange dog?
The short answer is – don’t.
It’s always better to let a dog choose to approach you rather than force a greeting on an unknown dog. Whether it is a friend’s dog who you “know” to be “friendly” or a strange dog on the street or at the classroom, it is always better to be patient and let the dog’s comfort level and initiation be the barometer of when you should increase the level of contact.
Knowing the right way to greet (or not greet) a new dog is the best way to avoid being bitten by a dog. Here are some tips to help keep you safe when greeting a new dog.
Let the dog decide – it is always better to stay where you are and let the dog decide to approach you rather than approaching a dog, particularly one that is cornered, tethered, or behind any sort of gate or fence.
Turn your body sideways – when friendly dogs greet a new dog, they generally approach to the side or rear to sniff another dog, avoiding face-to-face greetings until the dogs have gained sensory information about each other through their noses. Keeping your body turned sideways will make you seem less threatening to a new dog. Be sure to watch the dog carefully through your peripheral vision field – is his body language loose and friendly or stiff and uncomfortable?
Avert your gaze – avoid looking a strange dog in the eye. A dog may view this direct eye contact as a threat or sign of imminent confrontation and may feel threatened. Hey, wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable if a stranger walked up to you and stared you down? Keep a close eye on the dog through the corner of your eyes, again relying on peripheral vision.
Get low! – if the dog is approaching you without signs of fear of discomfort, you may want to crouch down low to the ground, still keeping your body turned sideways from the dog. This makes you smaller and often less intimidating to a strange dog. Once you are crouched, do not move toward the dog, look at the dog directly, or try to touch the dog. Be patient, and wait. If he wants to greet you, he will approach you, sniffing.
Hands – Once the dog is approaching and sniffing, I may drop a few treats on the ground near my feet. My movement is slow and deliberate, and I never want to hit the dog in the head with food raining from my hands – I always try to place my hand lower than the dog’s head. I will be honest, I never try to touch a dog until the dog is rubbing up against me. When they are comfortable enough to solicit tactile contact, I will place my hand low toward the ground (always under chin level, always moving slowly and deliberately) and hold it still. Usually, the dog will sniff my hand. If the body language is friendly, I may lightly and slowly touch the dog briefly underneath the chin or on the chest area. If at any point the dog backs away from my hand, I simply stop moving it. The dog can back as far away from my hand as he wants.
If the dog begins showing signs of discomfort – if at any point the dog begins showing signs of stress or discomfort, I generally like to throw food away from the dog and myself. I don’t throw food at the dog, and always try to keep the tossing movement underhand so as not to make the dog more nervous. As the dog goes to retrieve the food, I very slowly right myself to a standing position and slowly back away, keeping my body sideways.
If the dog is showing minor signs of stress, I may just freeze, staying where I am, allowing the dog to retreat. Sometimes we cycle through this a lot – the dog approaches, gets a little nervous, retreats to a comfortable distance and decides to reapproach when s/he is comfortable.
Calming Signals – I also really like giving the dogs calming signals during this process, frequently mirroring their body language – she licks her lips, I lick mine. She yawns, I yawn. She turns her head away, I turn mine away. She scratches her ear, I scratch mine. Calming signals are the mechanism dogs use to communicate with each other the critical concept, “I’m no threat to you,” and indicate non-aggression and many of them can be used by humans in this same manner.
To learn more about calming signals, pick up a copy of Turid Rugaas’s fantastic book, On Talking Terms with Dogs – Calming Signals, available in both print and electronic versions.
For more on bite safety prevention, visit Doggone Safe. This site offers people a wealth of information on how to help humans and canines live more safely together and includes content on a variety of canine body signals, signs of an imminent bite, support for dog bite victims, and more tips on how to safely greet dogs and minimize bite risk in both strange and unknown dogs.