Dogs are the best people, so it’s only natural to want to smother them with affection when you greet them for the first time. Most of them are too nice to say it, but this is actually a terrible way to introduce yourself to a dog. Here’s a better way to make a good first impression.
Dogs are a lot like us: they usually don’t want to be hugged by strangers. If someone did the same to you, it would probably make you uncomfortable and it could even make you feel unsafe. Dog-training resource the Well-Heeled Dog backs this up:
Children (and adults too) often want to show love to dogs the way we show love to each other, through hugs and kisses. Dogs do not naturally understand this, or even enjoy it. Hugs and face-to-face contact can be very threatening to dogs.
In the video above, Kristin from Indy in the Hood explains the dos and don’ts of greeting a dog for the first time. Here are the basics.
Approach the owner: When you see a dog you want to meet — or you’re meeting a friend’s dog for the first time — ignore the dog and talk to the owner instead. A dog looks at his or her owner for emotional cues, and if a dog sees that its owner is comfortable with you, chances are, the dog will be comfortable with you, too. Plus, it’s just polite — some people don’t want you smothering their dogs either.
Position yourself side-by-side with the dog: Instead of coming right at the dog head-on, position yourself side-by-side and allow the dog to approach you.
Avoid eye contact: Eye contact can be threatening to dogs, so it’s best to find a neutral spot to focus on instead. Indy in the Hood suggests the dog’s chest area.
Let them sniff: With a closed fist, allow the dog to take a sniff so it can assess your scent. (A closed hand is less threatening than an open one.) If the dog sniffs and seems ok with you, you can probably pet it on the shoulder, chest or neck, which is less threatening than petting the top of the dog’s head or its butt.
If the dog backs away from you when you get near it, you obviously want to stop what you’re doing and move on. It’s just not that into you. Dogs will give you a sign when they’re done interacting with you, so take heed: If a dog moves or even turns away from you, it’s in both your and the dog’s best interest for you to say goodbye and move on.
How to read a dog’s body language
Keep in mind that even if a dog seems cool with you smothering it with love, many of them only just tolerate it, and some might even bite or snap at you if you get too close. Even your own dog might not want a hug or physical affection. Dogs aren’t shy about letting you know whether they want attention — you just need to know what signs to watch out for. This video from the Union Lake Veterinary Hospital in Michigan gives you a checklist of the warning signs a pup isn’t feeling approachable at the moment, but here are some basics:
- A tucked tail: Not all tail wags are happy wags. If the tail is wagging slow and stiff, the dog is probably alert, not excited. And if the tail is tucked and wagging, that’s a sign of fear and submission.
- Ear position: If a dog’s ears are erect and facing forward, they could be interested or aggressive. When the ears are flat against the head, they’re scared or submissive.
- Side eye: If the dog is showing the white parts of its eyes, that’s a common sign of stress.
And then there are the times you encounter a dog that’s too affectionate. If a dog greets you by jumping on you and taking over your space, try the “Be a Tree” method. It’s one dog safety experts teach kids to help them avoid aggressive dogs. Fold your “branches” (your hands), look down and stay still for ten seconds. Try it on the next overly affectionate dog you meet.
This article was originally published on May 1, 2017 and updated in July 2020. Updates included checking links for accuracy, performing a copy edit, expanding the section on reading a dog’s body language and adding a header photo.