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We have all heard that first impressions are important. Presumably they are just as important the first time you meet a dog, as the first time you meet a person.

How should I approach a dog for the first time? What body language is the dog looking for and what does it mean to them?

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We have several related questions, about specific scenarios but I did not find a generally overview. –  James Jenkins Aug 3 '14 at 9:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I know this is an old question, but I feel I needed to correct some things.

I'd add that you shouldn't look directly at the dog either, as that can sometimes be interpreted as a challenge. – Cucamonga Aug 3 '14 at 17:39

Dogs are pack animals. In that sense, they're very much like humans. Just like you wouldn't stare at a stranger, you wouldn't want to stare at a random dog. However, the reverse is also true. If you're interacting with a person and that person doesn't look you in the eyes (at least for some moments), that other person may creep you out. The same goes for dogs.

For a child who stares at dogs in amazement and who can not regulate his staring, that advice of not looking at all may be appropriate, but that advice is not appropriate especially if the child starts interacting with the dog.

  • When you're about to touch a dog, you want to be looking into their eyes.

When touching something, we only look at our hand when we're afraid of the thing we're about to touch. Imagine how a child would try to touch a potentially burning stove, he would be looking at his hand the entire time ready to flinch away as soon he felt any kind of heat on his fingers. Now imagine that same child trying to touch a random dog, he would be looking at his hand ready to flinch away precisely because he's afraid of getting that hand nipped or bitten by the dog.

And just like you wouldn't want to pet a dog who is afraid of you. A dog doesn't want to get petted by people who are afraid of it. Fear in one only provokes fear in the other.

And now building on Danny Bainbridge's already excellent list:

  • Approach at a moderately slow pace, a bit slower than a walk

I would add:

  • Make sure the dog sees you, sees any of your friends around it, and sees your hand before you approach it.
  • Do not surprise the dog. Do not approach the dog from behind.

Do not think that you can get away by petting the dog quickly and by surprise to let the dog know that you're friendly. It doesn't work that way. Anything that dog doesn't see could potentially scare him, even if it's just one of your friends approaching it from the other side, while you're trying to pet him.

  • If the dog's body language implies that it's afraid of you, pull back slowly (do not flinch away).

Pulling back may actually change the dog's mind, so be sure to monitor the dogs body language and act accordingly. Do not wait for the dog to bark at you. Body language can be very subtle. This advice is also just as valid for human interactions.

  • No loud sounds, no teeth, just approach 'naturally'
  • If the dog doesn't see you, or hears you approaching. Announce yourself softly, or make a small noise before you come near it.
  • Place your hand out in a loose fist or fingers pointing down, so the back of the palm is facing the dog
  • Move the hand towards the dog's mouth/nose so he/she can sniff you out. Fingers down or curled will protect them from being nipped.
  • If the dog seems to get nasty you can walk back and away
  • Otherwise let the dog sniff/lick/muzzle further and give a few scratches under the chin or behind the ears
  • You can let the dog smell your hand, but be sure to get permission each time from the owner before you scratch it under the chin or behind the ears.

A dog may bite you, or yelp in pain, if you're unintentionally touching a fresh scar or an ear infection. I know the odds are low for that kind of thing to happen, but if you consider a child who loves dogs. An incident like this is likely to happen if that child tries to touch dogs every time there is one near him.

And finally, children can be needy creatures.

Even if they can read the subtle negative body language of a dog (after you've taught them all the signs), they may still move to pet a dog that shows those warning signs anyway. The main cure for that is to have more than one dog for the child to choose from (and not puppies obviously, a protective mother dog is another thing human children need to be warned about).

That being said, there are other dynamics that could go wrong with more than one dog. For instance, one dog may attack another dog because it thinks it's getting all the attention, and a child could get caught in the middle, but I think that option is still a less dangerous one for the child than having that needy child only having access to one dog to meet/touch/pet/stalk.

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The way I was taught is:

  • Approach at a moderately slow pace, a bit slower than a walk
  • No loud sounds, no teeth, just approach 'naturally'
  • Place your hand out in a loose fist or fingers pointing down, so the back of the palm is facing the dog
  • Move the hand towards the dog's mouth/nose so he/she can sniff you out. Fingers down or curled will protect them from being nipped.
  • If the dog seems to get nasty you can walk back and away
  • Otherwise let the dog sniff/lick/muzzle further and give a few scratches under the chin or behind the ears

The reasoning behind this method is you assume the dog is slightly afraid and you want to approach in a non-aggressive, non-combative manner, building enough trust for touch to occur and trust to be established.

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I agree on all points. I'd like to add that, as a tall person, I tend to be intimidating especially to smaller dogs no matter how I walk up to them. I find it's almost always more effective to approach until they notice you, then squat down to make yourself small and wait for them to approach you. Extending your hand and presenting the back of it (as Danny's answer suggests) is best. Also, if you want to vocalize, speak softly and in higher pitches. Finally, if the dog shows no interest, approach further with caution - disinterest is sometimes out of fear. –  talrnu Aug 3 '14 at 17:06
    
I'd add that you shouldn't look directly at the dog either, as that can sometimes be interpreted as a challenge. –  Cucamonga Aug 3 '14 at 17:39

As a complement to this other answer, for a very fearful dog or a dog that is intimidated by your kind of person (tall, bearded, etc.) you can apply the same techniques, but letting the dog come to you and back up if he wants.

That way the dog might feel more confortable and/or not feel trapped or cornered.

There is an excellent article Preventing Dog Bites by Learning to Greet Dogs Properly by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinary behaviorist. The explanations are well illustrated with some cartoons (I reproduce one here).

enter image description here

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If we approached dogs the same way we approach members of the opposite sex, 4/5 of the population would have to be drunk before they could talk themselves into approaching a dog. –  corsiKa Feb 14 at 0:34

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