This is what our dogs face when we take them into public places. And they feel about it pretty much the same way you would. But strangers often ignore dog body language that shows signs of discomfort, and even a well behaved and calm dog may escalate into growling or other dangerous behavior if the stranger continues to push their luck.
We're all guilty of ignoring correct procedures when meeting a new dog. But try to see the situation from their perspective, and it's easy to imagine how unwanted contact can lead to aggressive behavior. Learning how to greet a dog is especially important for small children. Kids commonly break these rules, and the consequences for them can be severe. Follow these steps for a happy and successful encounter that will enrich the experience for you and your new friend.
1. Approach the owner, not the dog.
Offer your hand and allow the dog to come to you.
Dogs don't respond well to direct eye contact, which may make them nervous, aggressive, or both. As you approach, just ignore the dog. It's the polite canine thing to do!
2. Ask the owner.
A good owner knows their animal and how they behave around new people. And remember, you are also invading the owner's space. If the owner says no, respect that and walk away. They may be trying to save you or your child from a bite. DON'T pet the dog without asking first. DON'T ask to pet a service dog. They are working.
Owners, be aware of how your dog reacts to strangers, and watch for body language that indicates fear or aggression. Don't assume that your dog will never bite. If you are uncomfortable with the situation, don't be afraid to tell someone they cannot approach your pet.
3. Use neutral, non-threatening body language.
Crouching sideways is a good way to appear non-threatening
Continue avoiding eye contact and keep your body loose. Turning the body slightly to the side with the head facing away from the dog will make you seem less threatening. Stand straight or crouch down, still with your knees and face turned to the side. DON'T bend over the dog. Would you like a large stranger looming over you?
4. Let the dog come to you.
If the dog wants to greet you, they will come to you, not the other way around. Position yourself close enough to the dog that they notice your presence, but not close enough to be in their space. If the dog doesn't come to you after a few moments, you can try softly calling the dog's name, but don't push. If the dog doesn't want to meet you, the interaction is over. It must be the dog's decision. DON'T place your body so that you are blocking the dog into a corner, against a wall, or even against the owner's legs.
5. Touch the dog.
If the dog has approached you, sniffed you, and given some other sign of approval (wagging tail, soft eyes, remaining close to you), it's ok at this point to slowly put your hand out to be sniffed. Keep your palm down and your fingers gently curled in. Once the dog sniffs your hand and is still relaxed, pet the dog's shoulder, neck, or upper chest. These are nice neutral places to touch. DON'T touch the top of the head or the dog's back end, especially if the dog isn't looking in your direction. Some dogs are threatened by this type of contact.
Be aware of body language - this says HANDS OFF!
6. Ignore the dog.
Once this initial interaction has been successfully completed, allow the dog to decide if they want to continue. Go back to ignoring the dog - chat with the owner. If the dog likes you, they'll approach for more affection. It's then ok to increase the intensity of the contact with the dog. But be aware of the dog's body language. If they back away or show other signs of discomfort, DON'T continue to attempt to engage them.
Every dog is unique. Some will be jumping all over you at the first sign of friendliness, while others may want to have nothing to do with you at all. Many "bully breeds" are perfectly friendly, while "family breeds" can be fearful or aggressive. Don't assume that a Pit Bull is dangerous or that a Labrador is harmless. Approach all dogs with cautious respect.