For people who love dogs, seeing any new dog can feel like a chance to make a new friend and show every dog your affection. Dog lovers often walk up to dogs and pet them on the heads, get close to their faces and smile at them, squeal with delight, or even try to pick up a cute dog. While to humans, these are all natural expressions of friendliness and affection, to a dog these behaviors can be really threatening and scary – not the best way to start a friendship.
Friendly to us, threatening to a dog.
If you think about it, dogs are remarkably smart. Our dogs learn a number of human words, gestures and body language signals. They learn to read our faces and even our eye movements. Dogs have adapted to understand that human expression means different things than dog expressions. For instance, dogs learn that smiling in humans means we’re happy, but in dog language, showing teeth signals aggression.
When meeting a new dog, especially a super cute one, many people will smile, rush up to the dog with their hands out, lean down close to the dogs face and talk in a high-pitched voice. But consider the following:
- When humans smile and show our teeth, it means we’re happy. But when dogs show their teeth it can mean fear or aggression.
- When humans make eye contact, it means honesty and openness, but to dogs eye contact is seen as a threatening, or even a challenge.
- We like to hug to show affection, and sometimes dogs are just so cuddly we want to hug them tight! But dogs climb on each other or paw each others shoulders to show dominance.
- When dogs meet each other, they often approach from an angle, or curve around each other rather than approach directly, as that’s a bit rude in dog language. So walking straight up to a dog and reaching for their face is doubly rude. Similarly, leaning over a dog can feel threatening to the dog.
- Patting a dog on the top of the head is natural for us, but uncomfortable for the dog. Think about how you’d feel if a complete stranger came up to you and reached for your face. Would you shy away? You bet you would, and so will dogs.
Play hard to get.
When you want to meet a new dog, let the dog take the lead. Briefly glance at the dog, but don’t make eye contact. Stand up straight and turn slightly away from the dog, so your side is toward them, and you’re not facing them directly. Talk to the dog’s person and glance at the dog from time to time. Ask the person if the dog likes to meet new people, and if they say no, honor that. If the dog seems calm, keeps looking at you, or tries to approach you, then you can get to know them better.
Let the dog walk up to you – don’t reach for the dog. Hold out your hand, balled up in a loose fist, so the dog can sniff your hand.
If the dog approaches your hand, stoop or squat down to be more level with the dog. Don’t lean over them. Pat the dog lightly on the chest, not on their head or face. Speak softly to the dog, in a calm voice and keep petting them lightly. NEVER pick up a dog that you do not know very well.
If the dog wanders away, consider the meeting a success but now over. Don’t chase the dog or impose yourself upon them.
Learning some of the fundamentals of canine communication and letting the dog set the tone will help us to make many more canine friends.