Preventing Dog Bites by Learning to Greet Dogs Properly

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By Dr Sophia Yin

                                                      

Download the How to Greet a Dog poster here.

The consensus among animal behavior professionals is that the major cause of dog bites to humans is related to failure of owners and dog bite victims to recognize when dogs are fearful and know how to approach and greet dogs appropriately. But what exactly is the correct approach and why do so many people fail to do it?

 

One issue is that we humans have an instant gut reaction to the cuteness of some dogs. It’s the same reaction we had as a child when we saw a cute teddy bear or other stuffed animal. As a result we treat pets as if they are cuddly toys. While many dogs are friendly, cute, and love interacting with humans, they are definitely not toys. In fact, when you think about it, dogs are a bit like humans in that the same types of inappropriate greetings that would cause a human to be afraid or irritated would cause a dog to become fearful and even aggressive too. Here are some examples:

Appropriate and inappropriate approaches: You’d probably feel threatened if someone randomly walked up to your car and stuck their hand into the window to reach for you. Similarly dogs may feel scared or violated if you reach into their safe space. It’s best to stand out of the dog’s safety/ threat zone and even look away so it’s clear you’re not some bad guy trying to break in.
Appropriate and inappropriate approaches: People frequently see a cute pooch and want to rush up to pet him. Just as you might feel scared if a stranger or even an acquaintance ran right up to you, a dog may feel uncomfortable too. It’s best to approach slowly—at a leisurely walk while watching the dog for body language signs of fear (Download this poster showing fearful body language in dogs)

Appropriate and inappropriate approaches: It’s mostly kids who rush up uncontrollably to pet a dog, but even adults encroach threateningly. For instance, suddenly reaching out from nowhere without first asking parents or the owner can lead to bad results.  Even children are nervous of strangers approaching, and rightly so. We shouldn’t expect our dogs to be more comfortable with stranger danger than our kids. That’s why it’s important to always ask owners if it’s OK to greet their pets.  It’s up to the owner to know their pet well enough they can inform others if it’s safe to pet their dog and if the dog will enjoy the interaction.

Appropriate and inappropriate approaches: Starting in childhood, we were all told to avoid staring. It’s rude, and even creepy. So even if a dog’s owner says it’s OK to greet Rover, avoid approaching head-on and staring. Instead, approach offset or sideways and look using your peripheral vision.

Appropriate and inappropriate greetings: Have you ever seen a toddler or young child visiting Disneyland or some other theme park to see their favorite beloved cartoon character? But when they see Mickey Mouse or Yogi Bear he’s gigantic in size and looming over them and they get scared. The same thing happens to dogs. They may seem friendly and happy as you approach, but if you loom over them, especially if you’re facing them head on, you can cause them to have a meltdown. That’s why it’s better to stand facing slightly sideways and remain outside their personal space or bubble. Note that the size of the bubble varies from dog to dog. Then let them approach at their own rate if they feel like it. If they don’t feel like approaching, then just admire them from a distance. For little dogs you can squat down to their level. But be careful to do so from far away and face sideways so that when you are shorter your face isn’t right in their face.

Appropriate and inappropriate greetings: Although you’ve probably heard that you should greet dogs by letting them sniff your hand, reaching out to their face is actually pretty rude, especially if you’re facing them or staring. Imagine if someone was standing near you and they reached a hand out towards you. It’s best to let the dog approach at his own rate and avoid putting pressure on him by reaching out.

Appropriate and inappropriate greetings: Some kids have phobias about clowns or certain types of people. Similarly some dogs are afraid of some types of people or people wearing or carrying certain objects or in various environments. Even if you’ve followed all of the appropriate greeting rules so far, some pets may still feel uncomfortable. So if you see signs of fear, discomfort or tension (link to the dog body language/ dog bite prevention-the one from Friday’s blog), even if the dog comes up to sniff you, still avoid petting him. Instead just admire the pet from nearby.

Appropriate and inappropriate interactions: Lastly, remember that some interactions are just not appropriate or aren’t as fun for the animal (or for children) as you think.  For instance, most kids don’t like being pinched on the cheek even if they will put up with it. Similarly most dogs dislike being hugged even by family members even if they allow it. Imagine how a dog who dislikes hugging might react if they are hugged by someone with whom they’re only mildly familiar. When interacting with a dog, especially an unfamiliar one, avoid hugging, patting or petting in an overly familiar way. Instead pet in a calm, gentle, relaxed manner.

 

While many humans routinely greet dogs inappropriately and many dogs put up with this socially inappropriate behavior, if you stop and think about it, correct greetings are common sense. We should be respectful of dogs instead of assuming they should be friendly and polite even when we humans are not.

 

Question: Have you ever been bitten because you’ve greeted or approached a dog incorrectly?

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26 responses to “Preventing Dog Bites by Learning to Greet Dogs Properly

  1. I have a shy dog. He’s not at all aggressive, and he’s never bitten anyone – I can count the times he’s even growled on one hand. But if you reach out to pat him on the head, he will cringe and back away.

    If you reach around and calmly stroke his neck and back, though, chances are he’ll be your friend for life.

    I love dogs, and I don’t worry much about getting my clothes dirty, so I will often sit on the ground when I meet a dog I want to pet. They’ll climb right into my lap most of the time. As you said, I’m not invading their space, looming over them or restricting them. It’s fun, too.

  2. This explanation is so great… after watching the news interview in your last blog I’ve been thinking along these exact lines. We do tend to think of dogs as if they are inanimate stuffed toys. And most of us would be horrified if an unfamiliar person came up and did to us what is routinely done to dogs! People can better understand the problem if they can relate to it directly and these explanations and drawings make that connection.

    Back when I had one of the most tolerant dogs in the world, I was sad that so many people were afraid of him – and of all dogs.

    Since living with a fearful dog, I have been sad that people seem so often to fail to recognize our blaring body language that we do NOT want to them or their dog to come running up to our dog.

    I hope some day there will be the happy medium you’re talking about where people aren’t so much afraid of dogs but aware of the fear that dogs can feel and recognition that they’re neither all the breathing equivalent of stuffed toys or wild killers. They’re dogs. With feelings and fears and individual personalities and needs.

  3. Excellent explanation and diagrams!!!
    Lili Chin is a wonderful artist and excellent at depicting dog/human interaction.

  4. I just love this article AND the poster! Having had meek dogs — WigglesBlue Heeler; see his Facebook page and http://wigglesblueheeler.blogspot.com and Good Boy, a senior blind Australian Cattle Dog / ACD / Blue Heeler that is very timid — I understand implicitly how the wrong signals can be sent, which in the case of a blind dog, are heard, felt and smelled. A loud, Type-A voice, jingly jewelry, strong perfume, etc., can really stress out a blind dog, where a quiet, nonthreatening voice and slow movements will foster confidence, not fear. God bless you for your wonderful work, Dr. Yin!

  5. This is an extremely well done article and is very helpful by helping us to understand how powerless a dog may feel when approached in situations it cannot control.
    I would like to see this poster at the vet’s office…I plan on forwarding it to my vet clinic.

    The cartoon clips are amazing. I can identify how the dog may feel as soon as I see the cartoon characters interact, and the small children can understand as well.

  6. Wonderful blog post! I love the comparisons to human-human interactions, and the great images. Thank you for this!

  7. I think this a wonderful and educational cartoon series. And great fun! I would like to comment on the ” don’t approach the dog if he is tied up. Dogs who are tied up do show different behaviors of frustration – it is in fact a great way to teach a dog to bark, should you need a dog to do so on command. The fearful tied dog cannot flee and may feel forced to fight But in regards to safety, I would also have concern about approaching a strange dog that is loose in public, especially when it is not attended by a responsible human. This is better left to more experienced handlers, not novices and children.

  8. I love this post. I was once bitten by a small dog after I politely asked its owner (from about twenty feet away) if the dog was friendly and if I could greet him. Yes, she replied to both questions. I approached slowly and held out my hand. (I bet I made eye contact, and made a few other faux pas. It was a few years ago, and I have learned a bit since then, I hope).

    The dog ran to the end of its long leash (12′ or so) and bit my hand! I was really surprised.

    It turned out that the dog had a history of biting, which the owner knew. I still can’t imagine what possessed her to tell me all was well.

    I still love to meet dogs, but I try to be more careful now in my approach. I also have a fearful, shy dog, and it’s a hard call to socialize her while knowing that so many people greet dogs carelessly–as I perhaps did myself that day.

  9. Dear Tricia, it sounds from your very well-said recounting of the event, that the small dog’s owner was totally aware of her little biter, and chose not to share that important information with you. That’s sad, because it casts a pall on dogs, when it should cast said pall on such dogs’ “owners.” I, too, have a fearful, shy dog — rescued from an animal shelter less than 3 months ago — and am extra-careful about socializing him during this extra-important time of trust-building.

  10. Great article but another tip is to not pet their heads right away and sometimes not at all. The motion over their head sometimes makes them think that you are about to hit them. My dog was abused before we got her so only me and one other person does she feel comfortable enough to pet her head (and she loves it, she just doesn’t trust others). Just something else to avoid so as not to scare a dog.

  11. I wrote about this on my blog as well, but I like yours MUCH better. Sharing much of your stuff. Thank you!!! I’m glad I found you.

  12. I would like to give this poster along with the Body Language of Fear in Dogs to my vet tech students in the behavior course I teach. I love the cartoons – so easy to read!

    I would sure like to see something similar on cats – it is hard to find good resources on cats and they are harder to read than dogs!

    Pat

  13. Sarah, your comment regarding head petting is spot on; I’d forgotten to mention that — it is so true, especially if the dog has been abused.

    Pat Cutler, I also hope someone will write something like this article (and do a poster!), on cats.

    Update on my sweet lil rescue dog, energetic, visually challenged older formerly abused and/or feral Australian Cattle Dog aka blue heeler, Good Boy: This small cattle dog — 34 pounds — continues to bloom and thrive on a steady diet of love and care! He’s now 35 pounds and we get in 1 to 2 miles of brisk walking almost every day. He still doesn’t show any interest in toys, but has learned all about the delight of yummy food and good-for-him treats. He gets the best food: no corn or wheat in it. His coat is sleek and his entire countenance has undergone a transformation!

  14. This article and poster are spot on! And they describe it and provide pictures in a way that anyone, even children can understand. I am so happy to have found this. As a member of the Boston Terrier Club of Western WA and the French Bulldog Club of Puget Sound we participate in public education events. This poster will be added to our hand outs at all of our public education and responsible dog owner events.

    Thank you Dr. Yin!!

  15. Thank you!!!
    My dog is supposed to be at the Keehond booth for Meet the Breeds … He is well-socialized, but … every dog has his limits!
    Imagine my surprise when I heard someone bent down and KISSED him on his head a few years ago.

  16. I have a shy, non-aggressive dog. She cringes or gets startled by most people that try to pet her but she never bites. I’ve even had kids (and adults) who chase her and grab her for a hug. She runs off mostly or will occasionally growl… but then gives in and accepts all the loving. Her previous home was abusive in their training and had toddlers that jumped all over her, but never once turned to bite. Everything in the article above has been so right on with other dogs I’ve had or met, but for some reason this dog I have now is a complete mystery when it comes to her shyness. I’ve been bringing her around people more and more hoping to get her past that point of having to warm up or be force loved. hehehehe

  17. I have found that the approach of getting down to a dog’s size, squatting, sitting or in rare occasions, lying down helps a great deal regardless of the size of the dog. I volunteer at our local shelter and always get down on floor or ground so the dog doesn’t feel threatened. If the dog is scared, I just sit for a while and will talk to them. If they are curious after that then I will slowly offer my hand for them to smell. If more people would understand the difference between fear aggression and trained aggression, I believe there would be fewer bites. Even if they would just learn to understand a dog’s body language would help a great deal.

  18. I have never had an aggressive dog or biter until now. I also have never been bit by a dog. I always introduce myself and follow dog’s cues on how to respond. If dog continues to respond negatively I will back off. My daughter and I have this dog that I am at wit’s end to know what to do with. Out in public he seems fine with adults. A child walked nearby, but not close (maybe 8-10 ft away) and dog tried to bite her. He also doesn’t get along with dogs in dog park…owners will leave with their dogs. At, home it is a different story. Immediately, will attack any child, but with others will be fine one second and may attack the next. I am trying to figure out what the action is that precipitates the response. There is no growling or anything just all of a sudden a bit on the leg. He is a sweet dog, but I am terrified of someone getting bit. We had a friend come over and went to hug us and Oreo bit him…that I understood. I am going to try the suggestions of giving treats to friends and having them ignore while giving treats and try to get them to interact with him like they are happy to see him. There have been some people that came over that he has taken to immediately and cries when they come over even if it has been months and is so excited to see them. I am not sure why some strangers are awesome and some are not and why children are a complete NOT!

  19. I have 2 dogs, a husky and a lab mix. The husky is really good but the lab has been abused by kids in the past. While walking the dogs I see almost EVERY mother tell their kids “go pet the puppy”. I tell them no, the dogs are NOT toys.
    As a result the parent are angry their kids was not allowed to play with the toy.

    Parents are the issue, with the age of entitlement parents think their kids are allowed to do whatever they like.

    And it’s the dog who decides whether she wants to be petted/interact with other persons, no-one else.

  20. I have a 3 year old cocker spaniel, very cute , but for some reason hates kids whatever d age n doesnt make friends easily vth adults either, somehow doesnt trust anybody other than his fanily members. I always get to hear from people that ur dog is so cute but so unfriendly, dnt know how to correct him. Everytime v have visitors at home v put him in room

  21. I so agree! Learned something I’ve known to do myself but not told others approaching my dog…forget the hand sniff..If my dog comes to you, it’s then okay for you to pet (under the chin).

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