Always ask permission first. The dog’s owner is your first line of defense against potentially aggressive or fearful dogs; a responsible dog owner will tell you if their dog prefers not to be touched by strangers. However, this should never substitute your own education on dog body language and how to approach a dog. My sister and I found this out the hard way when we were little. After receiving permission from the dog’s young owner, my sister proceeded to try to pet her dog. Moments later the dog lunged and bit my sister in the chest, requiring stitches. I have no doubt all the warning signs were there but unfortunately none of us knew them. I’ve found the best practice is to teach children not to pet strangers’ dogs without parental supervision.
Let the dog come to you. If the dog does not approach or seems worried as it approaches, be patient and don’t force it. Don’t confuse a dog’s desire to smell you with a dog’s desire to be pet. Pay attention to the dog’s body language, it will tell you whether it is comfortable with your affection. Never restrain your dog and force it to accept contact from others. Remember the “fight or flight” response; if you take away the opportunity for flight, your dog’s choices are limited.
Slow down. Slowing your approach has three major benefits. It allows you time to implement polite greeting behaviors, it gives the dog a chance to respond calmly instead of reactively to your approach, and it assures that you have a chance to notice and respond appropriately to any signs of duress in the dog.
Turn to the side. For us, good manners usually dictate that we meet others face-to-face and make eye contact. For dogs, however, this sort of behavior is rude and can be perceived as a threat. Instead keep your body turned partially or completely to the side; even turning your head to the side will make a frightened dog feel less anxious.
Avoid staring. A direct stare is a threat in the animal world. It is perfectly fine to look at the dog; just soften your expression and don’t “hard stare” directly into their eyes. For best results, look at their feet. Never allow children to put their faces near your dog’s face or to stare into their eyes.
Don’t hover. Leaning over a dog can cause the dog to become afraid and possibly defensive. A better way to approach a dog is to get down on their level by squatting or sitting down close to him. Don’t put yourself directly in his face, but keep in mind that you’ll be less threatening if your not towering above him.
Pet appropriately. Approaching dogs by patting them on the head is ill-advised. Envision the interaction from the dog’s point of view; a palm approaching from above can be alarming. It’s not that dogs should never be petted on top of the head, but that head-patting (or petting over the dog’s neck, shoulders, back, or rump) should not be used as an initial approach. It is wiser to make a fist, hold it under the dog’s nose to allow it to sniff, then pet the dog on the chest, moving gradually to the sides of the face and other body parts, assuming the dog is comfortable. Likewise, a hand moving in quickly to grab for a dog’s collar is more potentially fear-inducing than a hand moving slowly to a dog’s chest, scratching it, then moving up to take hold of the collar.
Watch Your Tone of Voice. Deep, low voices can be intimidating to a dog. Try to talk to the dog in a higher pitched, happy tone of voice. If your a man with a deep voice, try just speaking more quietly. A quiet, reassuring tone of voice can go a long way in making a nervous dog more comfortable.
Stoop, don’t swoop. Small dogs in particular are often swooped down upon when people want to pick them up. Fast, direct, overhead movements are much more frightening than slow, indirect ones. To lift a small dog, pet the dog for a moment, then gently slip your hands under its belly and chest, and lift.
Watch your smile. While humans interpret a smile as friendly, a dog might not be as fond of seeing your pearly whites. A show of teeth is a threat in the animal kingdom.
Lick your lips and yawn. Look for calming signals like lip licking, yawning, rapid blinking, and sniffing the ground. They may be calming but they indicate stress. Avoid approaching dogs that give off these signals.
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