It’s hard to pass by a dog without a greeting because as dog lovers, we just love dogs! Some dog lovers like to talk to dogs, pet them, scratch their ears and fuss with them. That’s great as long as you know the dog, the dog knows you, and you have established this behavior as being acceptable between both of you. However, this can become a potential problem when you assume that all dogs will love the attention and assume all dogs behave like this; especially with a dog you don’t know. Your innocent actions could seem threatening to some dogs, so you need to be sure that you know how to act and behave around unknown dogs.
We must appreciate that the behavior and body language humans display is very different to canine behavior and could be regarded by canines as offensive and/or an attempt to threaten, challenge or control. Understanding that the behavior we show when greeting differs so greatly from a dog’s behavior is the first step towards making your greeting of an unknown dog, safe, respectful and polite.
How Dogs Greet
First, look at a greeting from a dog’s viewpoint. Well-socialized dogs, meeting for the first time, will be making assessments based on canine behavior. They see a dog and assess its body language from a distance. Then they may go towards the other dog and stop, still assessing its body language for signals to indicate whether it’s relaxed, friendly or anxious, nervous, wary or a threat. A dog is also assessing the threat level of the other dog by its stance. This could be tail up, ears pricked, head up, proud stance, hackles raised, or maybe tail down, ears sideways or down, head lowered and even looking away. Depending on the signals a dog is showing could mean the difference between a confident dog, a nervous or aggressive dog or a relaxed dog with no threat at all. Some dogs may use submissive signals such as immediately dropping to the ground and laying on their back or side. If that’s your dog, be happy that it is unlikely to get into trouble! The next step is that they sniff each other’s faces and then go head to tail to check each other’s signature smell from anal glands and genital areas. After initial greetings and assessments, they may either walk on comfortably, play, or one may show submissive signals, like lowering head, rolling over willingly, or even urinating (especially uncertain pups). The other dog will then usually indicate acceptance to the submissive signals and both will happily go their separate ways.
How We Greet
Humans do not greet in this way! Nor do we naturally recognize these forms of body language signals. Primate behavior involves meeting face to face, looking into the eyes of the other ‘person’, using vocal sounds (talking), and lots of use of the hands and arms (touching, stroking, hugging, kissing). If we use this behavior when greeting an unknown dog, we may be inviting an unwelcome reaction from the dog.
Of course, there are many dogs that are very well socialized with humans. They love having their head, ears and body ruffled and patted and will jump up and/or show happy wagging tails. Humans are good at recognizing that happy-dog body language and understand the dog’s desire for that type of greeting. The trouble is that we are not so good at recognizing the body language that tells us we are not meeting one of those types of dog!
How To Greet Safely
When thinking about greeting a dog on or off lead in the park, street, or in the dog’s home:
- Ask the owner for permission to greet their dog and the owner should bring the dog to you.
- Never approach a dog – always have the dog come to you.
- Watch the dog’s body language. If the dog appears to be uncomfortable, backs away, growls or snarls or its body stiffens…do not attempt to greet the dog.
With some planning and forethought, greeting a dog can be fun and safe—both for you and the dog. A proper greeting can provide one of the best forms of friendship possible and bring smiles to all.
Vicki and Richard Horowitz are dog behavioral therapists and trainers with Bark Busters, the world’s largest dog training company. For more information, call 1-877-500-BARK (2275) or visit www.dog-training-new-haven-ct.com.