We’ve all met that social butterfly… the boisterous canine who just comes right up and says “Hi, hi, hi!” And what about those lone dogs who surprise you off leash, and you are unsure if their owners are bring up the rear, or…?
There are many scenarios where we can find ourselves face to face with a canine we haven’t met before, and depending on the situation, it can be either a run-of-the-mill, or frankly, nerve wracking experience.
Most of the time, there is a good chance that these naturally social creatures are just approaching to say hello (and possibly are wondering if you want to play). However, if you aren’t sure, if there are children around (either of the two- or four-legged variety), or the canine displays signs of agitation or nervousness, you should take the time to work through a few steps before attempting contact.
It is always best to avoid approaching an unknown canine without their
caregiver’s permission. Assuming their caregiver is engaged and aware of their canine’s comfort level with new meetings, this is the best way to prevent a potentially dangerous interaction. I do know, though, that there are many instances when this simply just isn’t possible, so here are a few scenarios and steps that can be taken to minimize risk and ensure that, on your end, you are taking the proper precautions.
The basic on-leash meet and greet
- Stop and take a breath. First thing you can do, look for their caregiver. If they are on leash, that is an easy one. Ask them first if the dog is friendly and if you are allowed to approach it and say hello.
- If the owner says no, move out of reach from the dog. Do not make prolonged eye contact with the dog as that can be taken as a challenge. Allow the owner and the dog to move around you (versus you move around the dog) and continue on with your day.
There are some caregivers out there that seem to blind to their own canine’s “shortcomings.” Just like a proud parent, inappropriate behaviours can sometimes be overshadowed by love. The next scenario covers the instance that the owner says it is ok to approach but the canine appears to be not as comfortable with the idea or the environment they are currently in (potentially because of you or who you are with, such as a child, or your own canine).
The “uncomfortable canine” on-leash meet and greet
- Again, ask the caregiver or the person with the canine if it is OK to approach the canine and say hello.
- Ask the caregiver for the name of the canine. I always like to know the name as I feel like it helps “break the ice” with the canine.
- Begin by saying hello to the canine by using their name. Does their disposition change? Do they look more relaxed now? If not, just say “thank you, its ok, and have a nice day”.
- There are many factors that contribute to a canine’s current emotional state. Environmental factors such as noise, surrounding population density, and familiarity with the area all contribute. Internal factors such as current health status and underlying medical conditions, energy level, and previous experiences also all contribute. They are not just happy or sad, angry or melancholy, but rather composites of these states, just like we are.
(One to Avoid)
You might be wondering, how do I know if a dog is happy, or sad, nervous or fearful, or a mix? There’s a lot I can say about the nuances of canine body language, but here’s the bottom line: If you are unsure, it isn’t worth the risk. If you are experienced, well versed, maybe even specialized in understanding the dynamics of canine body language, you will be more confident with a larger variety of situations that come up. Either way, a cautious approach is always best with a new dog until you understand where the canine is coming from.
This is a generalized poster that helps demonstrate dog behaviours through their body language (click to enlarge). What is not shown here are the small degrees of change in language that occur between each of these visual stages. Modern Dog Magazine also tackled this large topic to help explain how different parts of the canine’s body language will change depending on mood, and also how they can be paired with other body movements to. The ASPCA also has a good resource to start your understanding that goes into each section of the body and what it could mean.
We can now discuss how to actually interact with a “stranger” dog that has approached you in a socially forward way, simply to say hello! The initial steps will all be same, but in this instance we will assume the dog is off leash so its approach is based on its own comfort or discomfort with you being there.
The off-leash “social butterfly” meet and greet
- Ask the caregiver what the name of the canine is. If the owner is not within talking distance, try to see if you can see their name-tag without reaching towards them, or approaching any closer.
- If you cannot see the name tag and being your social interaction by breaking the ice this way, you will need to rely on your body language skills. A neutral demeanor displayed by the dog (neutral stance, neutral height on the tail, neutral wide wags of the tail, and neutral positioning of the mouth and tongue) as all signs the canine is ok with you being there.
- Again try to avoid continuous eye contact. When canines meet other canines in a natural setting, they do not meet head on making constant eye contact. In their eyes, this is adversarial, not friendly. They circle each other and usually meet face to bum to start.
- Remain calm, and use a calming voice at all times. Lower yourself slightly to appear less forward, but always maintain an exit route (e.g. keep standing with bent legs versus, sitting on the ground where you cannot get up and move quickly if need be). Ideally you will have your body slightly turned to the side versus facing the dog straight on. Allow the dog to make the next decision. Likely at this point the dog will approach you and smell. Allow them to do this and give them time
- Outstretch your arm towards the canine slowly, maintaining a comfortable distance. Again watch their body language and allow the dog to make the next decision. That might be close enough for them, and they may change posturing or move away themselves. If they want to approach you, they will make the move. Likely at this point the dog will be wagging its tail in a big way and will wiggle towards you closer.
- Allow the dog time to sniff your outstretched hand before attempting to pet. Again, we give them the time and chance to either move to the next step or move away from the gesture.
- If their posturing remains neutral and playful then your first pet should be from around the side and not over their head. Standing over them and placing an arm over their mouth and head can be taken the wrong way and may make them feel challenged or anxious. A really happy and friendly dog will likely circle and wiggle their head away from you and give you the opportunity to pet their rump and back. Never try and grab their collar or around their neck as this is a challenge and can be an impediment to their freedom of movement, both of which can turn and friendly meet into a negative one.
- At this point their caregiver has likely caught up with their canine and you can then confirm their name and continue playing closer with them as you see fit.
The last scenario I will go through is just like the one above one, with the addition of small child or your own canine being with you at the time the unknown dog approaches.
The off-leash “social butterfly” + companions meet and greet
- Follow the same steps (1-4) as above.
- Before turning, lowering yourself and initiating a greeting, look at your own canine to see how they are reacting. They are the body language experts, and if your canine is well socialized and gets to interact lots with other canines, they will pick up on exactly what is being said much more quickly than you ever could. I trust Zoom’s understanding and ability to “read” other dogs so it’s a good start.
- If your own dog or child feels anxious by the presence of the unknown dog, then its time to leave the environment and continue on with your day. Set up for success!
- In the instance that you think its safe and OK to take the next step, have your child or dog wait to greet. I have found in my past “meet and greets”, if I break the ice being the one to “say hello” first, the canines with me will then also be more relaxed and willing to “say hello” when it is their turn. You are taking a risk here though and need to pay attention to the body language as you will be the first to find out if you misread something.
- If all seems well, follow steps 7 and 8 above.
- Once the canine has met you and you feel confident in your analyses that both dogs are neutral then invite a greeting between them. Use your calm voice and help coach them through the meet to start with… saying “good boy/girl” and “go say hello” are verbal cues that can go along way to help control a greeting and make it a friendly one.
- If you have a young child with you, wait until the unknown dog’s caregiver has shown up before initiating a greeting between the dog and child. Make sure that you ask if the unknown dog is OK with children and then use your mad parenting skills to then teach the child how to interact appropriately with the dog (e.g. avoiding the head, ears, and mouth region and petting the back and rump instead).
Getting approached by a dog can be stressful, especially if it catches you by surprise and is maybe a little too forward with their movements, but practicing these steps can help you make a positive situation out these moments and can help you make the right decisions and avoid a potentially dangerous outcome. Don’t forget to check out our post on The Yellow Dog Project to find out how easy it is to give others information about your canine when they meet them in their community!