Let’s face it: It’s hard to resist the fluffy cuteness of a dog running near you at the park. Just as hard not to greet that dog sitting at a café or saying “hi” to a friend’s pup when you visit her home. But just because you find the pooch irresistible doesn’t mean she feels the same way about you. After all, would you be okay with some stranger approaching you out of the blue and trying to grab you, hug you, or touch your head?
While some super friendly dogs might welcome your over-the-top excitement, others may prefer to be left alone. Giving dogs the choice to interact with you or not will keep everyone stay safe and much happier. (Remember: Even the friendliest dog can bite if she’s surprised or feels threatened.)
Here are some tips for meeting, approaching, and petting a dog so everybody’s happy with the outcome.
Wait For the Dog to Approach You First
As a general rule, it’s always best to let a dog approach you rather than you going to them. “Not all dogs like the attention of strangers and getting into an unknown dog’s personal space can be confrontational and may not give you the loving reaction you desire,” explains Petrina Firth, canine behaviorist, certified separation anxiety trainer, and owner of The Pet Coach. “Humans can be enormous and loom over dogs, making them frightened or defensive, so always get low to the ground and don’t lean over a dog when saying hello.”
The “wait for the dog to make the first move” is an especially important rule to teach children, but it works for adults as well. Don’t approach dogs that are lying down, sitting in a place where they could feel cornered with no way to escape (such as under a table), or sleeping. In a friendly environment (think: dog park), you can talk to a dog at a distance and see if she responds by approaching you — but don’t force the situation.
Ask the Dog Parent if Okay to Say ‘Hi’
If you see a dog in a public setting, like on a walk or a cafe, is it ever okay to approach to say “hi”? It depends.
Firth points out that it’s important to remember that dogs are not participants in a petting zoo — they belong to the dog parent and are not public property. The polite (and safer) thing to do is to always ask the owner first.
“The dog may not like the attention of strangers or may be learning to ignore strangers,” Firth explains. “My French Bulldog is a terrible social butterfly. People coming up and interfering with her means she then struggles to ignore people because ‘everyone wants to be my friend’ in her world.”
Instead of reaching down and touching a dog you don’t know, Firth says the best way to start an interaction is to ask the owner if it’s okay to say hi. “This gives the owner the option of saying ‘yes, sure they love people’ or alternatively ‘I’m sorry no’,” Firth explains. “Please don’t feel offended if they say no, there will be other dogs who would love to say hello another time!”
If the owner says it is okay, the next step is to squat down on the floor facing sideways and offer your hand out to the dog so that she can approach you and sniff you, gathering crucial information about who this new person is, Firth says. “Meeting a dog face on can be confrontational, side on is less of a threat,” she adds.
If you’re going to pet the pup, Firth points out that dogs generally prefer being touched on their front chest area and on the sides of their body.
“Going in for an overhead stroke means you can end up covering their eyes temporarily blinding them or making yourself too big and potentially crowding them – some dogs may also jump up at this point, to sniff your hand or as an appeasement behavior, where they’re asking you to stop,” she adds.
Knowing When to Step Away
Even if the owner says it’s okay to approach their dog for a hello, you should pay attention to the animal’s body language. If the dog is wagging, seems excited to meet you, or acts curious, then go ahead. “If the dog pulls away or moves backwards this is a clear indicator that she doesn’t want you interacting with her,” Firth says.
“If the dog lets you touch her, try stroking her for just a few seconds — no more than five — then taking your hands away,” says Firth. “If the dog approaches again and initiates more stroking then you can continue. This type of consent test is generally a nice indicator as to whether the dog is happy enough with the attention.”
If, after the first touch, the dog freezes, moves away, mouths at your hands, shows the whites of her eyes, or growls, Firth recommends taking your hands away. “Some dogs can feel conflicted about physical attention, so they might like it at first but quickly become overwhelmed and frightened, or over excited and aroused,” she explains.
Meeting a Dog on Her Own Territory
If you’re visiting somebody’s home with a dog, it makes sense you will want to greet the furry resident as well. But as with meeting dogs outdoors, there are some rules to follow for a successful interaction.
“When going to someone’s house ask the owner whether the dog likes people and how they would like you to interact with them,” says Firth, adding, dog parents may ask their pup to sit before being petted.
In some cases, dogs may feel threatened or territorial when you come into “their home.” “For these kinds of dogs it’s best to avoid eye contact and interact with the owner more — no need to approach a dog who is already wary of your presence. Let the pooch warm to you and have the chance to check out your smell,” explains Firth. “They will approach when they’re ready, or maybe they won’t, either is fine!”