If you're a dog lover like me, it's very tempting when you're walking down the street and you see an adorable dog walking with its owner to want to go greet the dog with some baby talk and affectionate pets. I will always notice the dog, my heart will skip a beat and I just want to go squish its cute little face! Most of us have been told we should at least ask the human first if we can pet their dog and extend our hand for the dog to sniff before going in for the pet.
However, after having a dog that does not enjoy greeting strangers, I've become much more sensitive to what the dog is telling me rather than the human, and I rarely try to pet strange dogs anymore unless I am 100 percent confident the dog is giving me the green light and literally begging for a pet! That's because I've learned to read dog's body language and respect what they are telling me. Believe it or not, most dogs don't actually want to be touched by strangers. It's important to greet an unfamiliar dog with caution and respect the dog's space. Here are some guidelines to help you determine if it is safe to pet an unfamiliar dog.
Ask the owner for permission: Always ask the owner for permission before approaching their dog. Some dogs may be anxious or aggressive, and the owner knows their pet's temperament best. I can't tell you how many times I have had to ask someone not to pet my dog multiple times and even pull my dog away as the person continues to approach. For some reason they think that because they love dogs that all dogs love them. It doesn't matter how much of a dog whisperer you are, you are still a stranger to a new dog and you should always listen to the owner if they ask you not to pet their dog! Back off and give the dog some space. Don't stare at the dog or keep talking to it thinking you can sweet talk your way into some affection. You are only making an anxious dog more anxious by doing this.
Approach slowly and calmly: If you get reassurance from the human that their dog is friendly towards strangers, move slowly toward the dog, avoiding sudden or jerky movements. Speak in a calm and gentle tone to help reassure the dog. Don't rush in and start vigorously petting the dog. Even though you may be able to do that with your own dog, an unfamiliar dog could be very uncomfortable with that kind of intensity!
Avoid direct eye contact: Direct eye contact can be perceived as threatening by some dogs. Instead, keep your gaze soft and avert your eyes slightly.
Allow the dog to approach you: Instead of reaching out to pet the dog right away, it's actually better to let the dog come to you if they are comfortable. Extend a closed fist for the dog to sniff before attempting to pet them. I'll usually just put my hand out and if the dog wants to be pet, they will put their chin in my hand and I will give them a little scratch. That way I know I'm not imposing myself on the dog and that the dog does, in fact, want to be pet. It's important to understand that just because a dog does approach you, doesn't mean they always want to be pet. Dogs use their noses to gather information about their environment, so if a dog is sniffing you, it's to get information about you and not necessarily an invitation to be touched. Consider this. When you meet an unfamiliar human, even though you may have a pleasant interaction with them, you aren't usually interested in being touched by them. They are still a stranger, after all. This is the same for many dogs. In fact, if you walk through an off-leash dog park, you will notice that many dogs will walk up to you and give you a sniff, but if you just observe them, most of them will sniff you and then move on without showing any interest in getting pet by you. We are the ones that reach down and try to pet them while they are just investigating us through our smell.
Use proper body language: Stand sideways to the dog rather than facing them directly. This can be less intimidating for the dog. Avoid looming over them. Crouching down to their level can make you seem less threatening.
Be mindful of body language: Pay attention to the dog's body language. Signs of distress or fear may include a lowered head, tucked tail, or ears pinned back. If the dog is avoiding looking at you or if they are moving away from you or hiding behind their human, these are signs the dog really doesn't want to be pet at that moment. If you notice these signs, it's best to give the dog space.
Pet gently and in safe areas: Once the dog seems comfortable, you can pet them gently on their back or side. However, be cautious not to go over the dog's head to pet them. This is very intimidating to most dogs. Approaching from the side is better or under the chin. Avoid sensitive areas like the face, paws, or tail unless you know the dog well.
Respect the dog's boundaries: Some dogs may not be in the mood for interaction. If the dog seems disinterested or anxious, respect their boundaries and give them space.
Remember, every dog is different, and it's essential to be mindful of their individual temperament and comfort level. If you're ever unsure, it's better to err on the side of caution and avoid direct interaction with unfamiliar dogs. You may have to practice resisting the urge to go pet every adorable dog you see and learn to admire them from a distance, but you will be a much more respectful dog person because of it!