One of the toughest things to witness is someone innocently approaching a dog that they do not know with the intention to shower the dog with lots of love while the dog is trying to say, “Hey!, I’m not sure I like this” and the human is oblivious to what is really happening. We all know how hard it is to see a dog walking with its owner down the street or into a pet store. Our first heart reaction is to run to the dog, throw our arms around them, and squeeze them saying, “I just LOVE you soooo much and I wanted to let you know how adorable you are!” Unfortunately, that may surely land us in the looney bin or with a bite.
We are all guilty of the slow hand approach where we reach our hand out towards the dog in a very slow and awkward movement. It’s as if we want to touch the dog, but at the same time make sure the dog isn’t going to bite. This approach could not get any worse and is a sure way to get bitten. Dogs assess the situation and often times view this scenario as a possible threat and may assume that your intent is to harm them. I mean, if someone you didn’t know did that to you, how would you feel?
Sure, we have all used the slow hand approach with dogs and the dog sniffed us and licked our hands and everything was great. So, what’s the big deal? Dogs put up with a lot from us humans. We hug them, shove our faces in theirs, kiss their little doggy heads, and hold their little doggy paws. If you observe dogs, they do not interact the same way with each other. Sure they rough house and lay next to each other when falling asleep, but they do not constantly hug, kiss, and hold paws. These actions would be considered to be more of a primate tendency. Primates interact on a different level by hugging and holding hands, but dogs, not so much. They do learn to live in our world, that’s the amazing part. Ever notice how your dog can look into your eyes and make you feel guilty for not taking them out for a walk? Direct eye contact is not a normal dog behavior, but a learned behavior they picked up from spending time with their best bud, their human friend. This is also the case when we throw our arms around our pets and they seem to enjoy the interaction, they have learned to coexist with humans faster than most animals. It’s pretty darn exciting and there is a lot of research out there that delves deeper into this subject, but for now we will stick to the correct way to approach and interact with a strange dog.
So, Fido is at your local pet store and you just have to meet this guy. The best way to approach the dog is, first, to ask the owner if you can, obviously. It’s also a good idea to ask if the dog likes to be pet. The next step is to relax, do not stare the dog in the eyes or lean over the dog and then reach for them. This can be intimidating to the animal. It is always best practice to allow the dog to come to you. It doesn’t hurt to have treats on hand as well, but remember to ask the owner before giving any food to their dog.
Another quick approach would be to squat down and to face the dog from your side. This allows the dog to approach you and to feel less threatened by your towering, primate nature. Remember, not all dogs will like you and it’s important to understand canine body language. Lip licking, whale eyeing, and a tucked tail could all be signs that the dog is not comfortable with you petting them. Often time’s dogs will exhibit these behaviors while people insist on petting them. The dog puts up with it and may realize after a few moments that you are o.k. and continue to let you pet them, but it’s those few moments that that can mean the difference between being o.k. or being bitten. Educate yourself about canine body language, ask before approaching a strange dog, and remember that dogs have feelings too.
Sara Hamburger, Behaviorist and Director of Enrichment
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