Do you know how to say “Hello”?
A daft question, right?! We are however talking about saying hello to a dog, a domesticated and familiar, yet entirely different species to us, and you’d be surprised at how often we see people get it wrong. Read on to find out how you shape-up and the correct way to introduce yourself to ensure a stress-free encounter for all …
Picture the scene. You’re out enjoying a walk and you see a cute dog. You want to go and say hi! How many of us have wandered over, big grin on face, and simply offered our hand for the dog to sniff, before going in for a pat on the head and a “aren’t you a gorgeous boy / girl”? Guilty? Many of us are.
To the dog, this encounter is not always pleasant or welcome. Just as some humans don’t want to be talked to / touched by people they don’t know, not all dogs enjoy being fussed over or touched by strangers. In fact, to some it can be really quite scary.
The classic gesture of holding a hand out to be sniffed is a habit society has been taught, without properly understanding what it is we’re doing. It might make sense in a human brain, but dogs are entirely different. Plus, a dog’s nose is infinitely superior to our own and they do not need a hand right under their snout to get a good whiff!
When offering a hand, you are entering a dog’s personal space at very close proximity and forcing an interaction. This is at best rude and at worst threatening. They are unaware of your intention, have no relationship with you and are not being given the time to help make a judgement. Essentially you are using body pressure AT them and, especially if on lead, they may not be able to move away; this may result in them feeling threatened and this is when a growl or snap may happen. Alternatively, they may shy away or shut down; you may still have the satisfaction of petting them, but at the expense of the dog’s comfort and stress levels.
So, how should you approach a dog you want to say hello to?
- Approach the owner and ask if it’s ok to interact with their dog. The answer may be no for a number of reasons, such as the owner already knows the dog will not be receptive, the dog is in training or they don’t have time to stop – don’t take it personally!
- If the answer is yes, allow the dog to approach you. Stand up straight and relaxed. Do not stare intently at the dog, lean in towards the dog or offer your hand (i.e. don’t try to force an interaction)
- If the dog wants to know you, they’ll approach and have a sniff. They may then move away again and come back for more. Many dogs are friendly and may wag their tail and nose at your hand, a positive indication they want to interact.
- If all is positive and relaxed, you can try giving them a few strokes on their side, back or the area under their chin. NEVER REACH FOR THE TOP OF THEIR HEAD, this is all too commonly seen but is a dominating gesture to the dog; in general, try to avoid bearing down or looming over them which, again, can feel dominating. After an initial stroke, stop and see if the dog still appears receptive. If so, both of you can continue to enjoy saying hello.
Although it may be irresistible to want to go straight in and cuddle a cute pup, it’s important to remember that dogs do not exist solely for our entertainment, and we are not entitled to their attention. When wanting to say hello, take the time to make sure both you and the dog have an equal say in the matter, for a stress-free positive encounter.