By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Question: “My dog is great with people most of the time but sometimes when strangers rush up to him when we’re on our walks, he backs off and growls. The behavior seems to be getting worse. Why does he do this?”
Answer: The problem here is that people don’t know how to politely greet your dog. All would be well if humans heeded the two golden rules—never pet a dog without owner permission, and always let the dog make first contact. Instead, well-wishers approach too quickly, crowd too closely, or loom over like a thunderstorm ready to dump its load. Under this pressure some dogs will freeze or shrink, pretending it’s all a bad dream. Others take action—usually a reflex bark or low-level growl. A few successes here and the message is loud and clear: when strangers approach, growl and bark to keep them away. Pretty soon, your sweet, slightly insecure dog has turned into a mass of defensive rumbling.
Many humans can’t understand why Fido would be afraid of them when they’re obviously making friendly human gestures. Turn the tables around and the picture becomes clear. Say you’re afraid of spiders and your friend shoves her pet tarantula in your face. If she simultaneously reassures you, “She’s a friendly tarantula. See her amicable expression?” or “She can’t cause harm; she’s just an innocent baby,” would you suddenly feel safe?
No, in fact the only way you could get used to the spider is if you greeted it at your own pace. That means it would have to be on a table or in some location where you could control your distance from it. Then, when you were ready you could gradually approach for a closer look and to even touch it. The same goes for dogs. All dogs are not outgoing or used to meeting many types of strangers, especially if they were already shy when you adopted them or have received minimal supervised socialization with many types of humans. If you walk into a dog’s personal space or even stand and reach out to touch him, he may feel threatened or be unsure of your intentions. If, however, you stand straight up or crouch down on one knee while looking slightly away, then he can approach and sniff you at his own rate. Once he’s relaxed then you can calmly pet him under the chin and neck or on the side of the front half of his body. Offering treats that the shy Fido can choose to take out of your hand while you’re looking away will speed the friendship process and will teach Fido to associate unfamiliar people with good things.
Often, people manage to get through the initial greeting with Fido okay but then they make a quick or inappropriate move that scares him into snapping or running away. This is still similar to the situation with the giant spider. Even when you’re finally comfortable enough to examine and touch the tarantula, if it suddenly moves its mouthparts or waves one of its legs in the air, you might jump away out of fright. To you these movements may conjure images of the tarantula leaping at you and taking a bite whereas to the tarantula the movements may just be a subconscious change in position or even a signal that it’s your friend. So the trick to ensuring that you don’t frighten Fido even after the initial greeting is to gradually get him used to you in different positions. Avoid learning over him or reaching over his head or grabbing and hugging him so he feels confined. Instead, move slowly and smoothly in order to give him a chance to back away. Most importantly, always be aware of the signals he’s sending you with his body language. Is he tense and fearful with eyes darting back and forth or his gaze looking away while he’s cringing submissively? Or is he yawning, flickering his tongue in and out of the front of his mouth, or panting with his lips drawn way back to the sides? These are signs of conflict or anxiety. In all of these cases, make sure you give him his space.
If his pupils are hugely dilated or pinpoint and he’s suddenly stiff and completely motionless or giving you a hard stare, it’s a little late because he’s probably about to bite. But, if you still have time, you can calmly avert your gaze and back away out of reach.
The body language you’d like to see when greeting a dog is one that says this whole business is ho-hum. The dog should remain relaxed and his gaze should be steady and soft. His tail should either wag or hang loosely down. If humans would let dogs approach them at their own pace and would even make treats magically appear on the ground around them without pressuring the dog to allowing being petted, they would experience many good dog greetings and help Fido experience good greetings too.
For more information on dog body language, fear, and how to greet correctly while making the pet more comfortable:
Refer to the DVD and chapters 2,3,4,5 from Low Stress Handling and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.
Or watch videos about Why Dogs Bite
This is a revised excerpt from How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Sophia Yin
© 2004, 2010 TFH Publications