Recently I was working with a German Shepherd Dog in a local park and had an encounter with some high school students that got me thinking: perhaps people could use a little instruction when it comes to greeting unfamiliar dogs. Two girls saw us walking at heel and asked if they could say “Hi” to my dog. I said, “Yes, just a minute.” I came to a stop and the dog immediately sat in heel position. The girls thought that must be their cue to approach. I told them to stop and they stopped. I suggested that the best way to conduct the greeting was for them to stay where they were, a few feet away from us, and let the dog approach them. They agreed and the “hello” went off without a hitch. Moments later a very tall young man approached who also wanted to greet the dog, but rather than waiting for the dog to approach, he stepped forward, bent over her, and gave her a big hug. A lesser dog might have bitten him in the face right then and there, but fortunately she trusted that I had the situation under control. I don’t know if any of them noticed me exhale when he straightened up.
We like to say that dogs are “man’s best friend,” but many dogs regard only their own family in that way. It is not safe to assume that all dogs would like nothing better than to have you greet them in a familiar and exuberant way. Yes, some of the most popular breeds like Labs and Golden Retrievers are often like that, but even with those breeds it isn’t a sure bet. In human culture we tend to greet each other straight on, extending our hands and making direct eye contact. Dogs often view such an approach as a challenge or at least as unfriendly. A typical friendly dog greeting involves passing side to side, sniffing, and avoiding direct eye contact. Don’t underestimate the eye contact thing. Avoiding direct eye contact puts both fearful dogs and aggressive dogs more at ease. For an interesting discussion of canine behaviors and their meanings, check out this article in the Wall Street Journal.
So here are four simple rules for successful and safe dog greetings:
1. Always ask the owner if the dog is friendly toward strangers and if it’s okay to “say Hi.” (wait for and listen carefully to his or her answer)
2. Learn to observe dogs using your peripheral vision rather than direct eye contact.
3. Let the dog approach you and take a sniff. If you don’t stiffen and bristle at this, as an unfriendly dog would, then the dog assumes you are probably friendly and will usually reciprocate.
4. Pat the dog on the chest or shoulder where he or she can see your hand. The top of the head is a poor choice with a dominant dog.
Now that it’s almost summertime, there will be many more people with dogs out and about, so enjoy them and stay safe!