People Greeting Dogs

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People Greeting Dogs

People Greeting Dogs

A few months ago we looked at how dogs greet each other on leash, or better yet, how they shouldn’t. We did not, however, address how you should greet dogs or ask people to greet your dog when they are on a leash. Earlier this week, I worked with a dog who is a little head shy, meaning he does not like people reaching for him by placing their hand over his head or rubbing his head. This is not uncommon, as predators dogs have their eyes facing forward for the most part, which means they cannot see anything once it is over their skull. This can be especially scary for nervous dogs or dogs who do not love attention from strangers.

Everyone is taught at some point to approach new dogs by walking up and holding out their palm to be sniffed and then petting the head or ears, and sometimes the chest. Is this the best way to greet a dog? Possibly not. You might already know that your pooch loves their rump rubbed or their ear scratched, and that many dogs approach each other at an angle. Does any of that sound like the ritualistic way you were taught to approach a dog?

So, how should you approach? Well, I always start by stopping a few feet away, well out of reach, and looking straight at the owner (not the dog) and ask if it would be okay to say hello to their dog. By looking at the owner instead of the dog, you are avoiding a direct stare and leaning naturally towards or over the pet. Both are behaviors which can feel threatening to the dog. If the owner says they’d rather I didn’t, I thank them and walk away. I never say that dogs love me, or that I’m not scared, or even that I work with and train dogs. I simply respect their decision and disengage. The last thing I’d want to do is set back someone who is living with or dealing with a nervous or overly excitable dog.

If the person says sure or agrees, I always turn a little bit sideways, bend my knees slightly and see if the dog will approach me now that I am as non-threatening as possible. I don’t crouch or turn completely, but a slight posture shift makes a huge difference if the dog is the slightest bit unsure. At this point, I let the dog sniff whatever they want. I stand with my hands naturally at my sides, but I am ever surprised by the number of dogs who would rather smell my pants or shoes. Only after a good sniff or some other social interaction on the part of the dog, do I waggle my fingers or stroke their side to see if they redirect the petting to somewhere more comfortable. I let the dog be as interactive and engaged as I am in making any physical decisions. All of this sounds complicated, but it really takes only a couple of seconds. It’s a great way to allow the dog to choose every step of the way – whether to approach, where to sniff, where to be touched, etc. It is a great way to make the greeting process fair for all. I highly recommend you try it the next time you want to pet a gorgeous dog out on a walk.

Now in reality, most people will not approach your dog this way. Most people will completely ignore you and go straight for your dog no matter what you say. If your pooch does not appreciate this sort of interaction, feel fee to be a little rude. Protect your dog. I am not advocating punching anyone, but you can turn and walk away while shouting a response or simply block your dog.

If your dog does like this sort of stranger interaction, you can take a few steps to ensure every interaction is a positive one so that your pooch can continue to appreciate new people. First off, be sure you respond quickly and don’t allow these greeting to ruin your dog’s training. If you would like your dog to sit to say hi, you can politely ask the person to wait because you are in training. Almost every dog person will understand this and many will launch into their own training story or advice. If you don’t care about the sitting part, don’t worry about it. Do whatever is best for your dog. Secondly, you can carry treats if your dog takes treats nicely from people and likes treats. This way, even if the person pets your dog in a less than preferable way, your pup is still getting some sort of reward and will still enjoy the interaction.

The most important thing you can do for your dog is to make them people-proof! Many people focus on how people should approach and greet dogs, but in the real world your dog will be the one blamed if an incident occurs, even if it was technically a humans fault. This is especially true of children who are still learning how to follow directions and may be too excited to listen. The safest thing for your dog is to teach them to like all sorts of humans and all sorts of human touch through basic desensitization.

This is actually pretty easy. Think of the three most annoying ways people will touch your dog: probably patting their head, picking up a paw, or rubbing their head or ear. Now take your dog’s favorite reinforcers (peanut butter, meat, cheese, a ball, etc.) and pair them together. The undesirable stimulus needs to be only slightly undesirable and needs to occur before the reinforcers. If your dog really hates their paw grabbed, start with lightly touching their leg or paw and immediately rewarding. Once your dog is easily tolerating that sort of touch, you can work your way slowly towards a full paw grab. If you practice desensitizing your dog, you can actually teach them to enjoy being touched oddly. At some point, you do want to introduce another person into the mix. It’s one thing for your dog to let you pet them strangely, but it’s totally different for someone else to. Enlist a training buddy! If at any point your dog seems uncomfortable with people, be sure to stop and talk to a trainer. Some dogs do not like being touched or approached by strangers and that’s okay. Keep your pet’s best interest at heart, even if it means disappointing someone else. Your dog is your responsibility.

Happy Training!

Tamar Paltin
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator