Imagine how you would feel if a stranger came rushing over to you and grabbed you or started stroking your face or your hair. You’d be startled, shocked and most likely very uncomfortable. You would probably try to move away, and if that person persists you may even push them or slap away their hand. Yet our dogs have to deal with this kind of unwelcome attention a great deal, and it’s a testimony to their tolerance that most dogs don’t react by snapping – their equivalent of a “get off!” slap.
In my previous blog, about how to protect your dog from unwelcome attention, I described ways in which you can ask people not to bother your dog. But what can you do if you want to greet a dog without making him or her feel anxious? Here are some tips.
Always ask the guardian’s permission. If they say the dog is uncomfortable about being approached, move away. If permission is given you can proceed.
Move slowly in a curve. This is good manners as far as dogs are concerned; a fast head-on greeting is considered very rude and makes dogs feel under pressure.
Keep your voice soft and say hello, without touching the dog. Avoid looking the dog directly in the eye. Dogs reserve full-on eye contact for those they trust or for when they’re heading for a confrontation.
Check out the dog’s body language. Is he stepping or leaning back, or dipping his head, or closing his mouth, or panting, or turning his face away, or lowering his body? Can you see the whites of his eyes? Are his ears flattened against his head? If so, move away and give him space, because he’s telling you that he feels anxious and uneasy. Is he stepping towards you with a wagging tail, relaxed ears and a soft, open mouth? That means he’d like to say hello.
Making contact: Let the dog come to you, instead of invading his space. Wait for him to sniff your hand before you touch him, and avoid raising your hand to stroke the top of his head. Instead, softly stroke the front of his chest or along his side. If he wants more, he’ll make that clear by moving further towards you. If he steps away, then be polite and respect that the greeting has gone on for long enough as far as he’s concerned.
Some dogs enjoy attention, while others are more reserved. By being polite and respectful, you’re teaching each dog you come in contact with that they can feel relaxed around people.
It’s important for all dog-lovers to understand the rudiments of dog body language and learn to “speak dog”. The Dog’s BFF Award course has a strong focus on this, and the Dog Decoder smartphone app provides another easy way to learn how dogs communicate.