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Pet Column: How to introduce yourself to unfamiliar dogs

Elle Williams and her demo dog, Olive, show the wrong and right ways to meet an unfamiliar dog. Photo provided by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider  

As a professional dog trainer, I teach an advanced obedience course that heavily focuses on teaching appropriate behaviors in public. There is a certification any dog owner can test for called Canine Good Citizen, CGC, and that’s the standard I base my advanced class on.

Everything from being groomed by a groomer, to walking by another dog, and yet I cringe when it comes time to accepting pets from a stranger. Why? Because from a dog’s point of view, it goes against what most dogs prefer, which is having a choice to interact with a new person. Yet, here I am instructing owners to have their dogs calmly sit and wait for pets after a stranger asks if they can pet their dog. The dog has no say in the matter. But that’s the society we live in, one where people want to pet unfamiliar dogs.

Let’s think of the most common way a dog lover meets a dog for the first time. They look straight at the dog, move up close into their personal space, shove their hand in the dog’s face, and excitably talk to the dog. If you’re lucky, the person would have asked to pet your dog first, but so often people don’t. 

Here are my dos and don’ts when it comes to meeting a dog for the first time:

  • Don’t assume every dog wants to interact with strangers.
  • Don’t approach head-on and invade both the dog owner’s and dog’s personal space.
  • Don’t use an overly excitable voice.
  • Don’t present an open hand to the dog.
  • Don’t reach over the dog’s head to pet them.
  • Most importantly, don’t ever look an unfamiliar dog in the eyes!

  • Do ask the owner first if their dog likes to meet new people and if you may pet it.
  • Do let the dog make the first move and go to sniff your legs, feet, or cupped hand.
  • Do present your side to the dog. For smaller dogs, do get down to their level.
  • Do give the dog a scratch under the chin once the dog has warmed up to you.
  • Do read the dog’s body language.
  • Do be respectful. If the dog seems scared or the owner says “you may not pet my dog”.

If you look at Olive’s body language in the photo, you’ll see two very different responses. In the picture marked with a red crossed-out circle, Olive’s body is leaning back and she is more alert and less involved with investigating me, which is a clear sign that my approach made her a bit nervous. In the photo marked with a green check mark, Olive is leaning forward. Her tail and ears are more relaxed and she wants to smell my hand. This is a clear sign that she is much more comfortable with how I approached her.

If you come away with anything, it’s this simple rule: no talk, no touch, no eye contact with the dog until it gives you clear signals that it wants to interact. Honestly, the more you ignore an unfamiliar dog, the more likely they are to trust you. Even when looking at dogs in public from afar, don’t look a dog straight in the eyes. In dog language, a stare-down is conflict. Even the sweetest dog will bark to alert their owner about someone staring them down. Because of this, many owners believe their dog is unsuited for social interactions in public.

Maybe if humans were more aware of how dogs prefer to socialize, we could have more confident owners giving their pups opportunities to get out of the house and into society.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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