A window into Wagsmore Dogcamp's world of dogs

How to greet a new dog by speaking dog!

on April 30, 2013

When I was younger, I was always drawn to dogs.  I would go up and pet any dog that I saw, never for a single moment thinking that a dog might be unfriendly.  Looking back now, especially as an owner with a dog who does have reactivity and aggression issues, I can sincerely appreciate the importance of knowing how to approach a dog in a polite and non-threatening manner.  In daycare, we get dogs with a variety of histories, personalities, and past experiences.  Some dogs come in, as bold as your morning espresso, ready to rock all day and play until they drop!  Other dogs are more introverted, and need time and conditioning to help them realize that their time spent at Wagsmore is actually a fun and enjoyable place to be!  Some dogs are fearful their first few times.  It’s an amazing experience for us to get to see the fearful dogs transform into happy, confident dogs at daycare!

As staff, our approach of the dog is vital to their first impression of us.  For humans, it’s natural to approach each other directly, making eye contact.  We’ll have a big smile on our face and throw a hand out for the other person to shake.  Now, I want you to consider, for a moment, how this might translate to a dog.  You’re 20-30 lbs, you haven’t been exposed to too many different situations in your life, and you have a history of being fearful.  Your owner has you on a leash, and you’re walking into a new place.  This unknown human comes walking up quickly to you, staring deep into your eyes (think of a cougar hunting prey, the intensity of that stare).  Well, that feels fairly threatening to you.  Now, the human continues his very direct approach, bends over and bares its teeth, and shoves his hand into your face.  You’ve already been put on edge by the human’s approach so far, and this hand quickly moving towards you  along (for you to smell) with his bared teeth (smile) is DANGEROUS!  So, you snap at it and give it a quick fear bite.  The hand retracts, the person quickly retreats, and you’ve managed to keep yourself safe.

All you wanted to do was pet the dog!  What happened to make it turn into an ugly, aggressive situation? When you approach a dog that you’re not familiar with, it’s important to look at what the dog is telling you with their body language.


Is Allegro wanting anybody to approach her right now? Take note of the tension in her body and face, her ears are pushed back, and her tail is slightly down. She definitely would not appreciate anybody disturbing her personal space right now. If you did try to pet her, she may react with a snap!

There are some key things you will want to take note of before you go to approach a new dog.  How relaxed is its entire body?  Are his ears forward and relaxed, or pinned back to its head (this, of course, may vary from breed to breed)?  What about the tail? Is it casually wagging, tucked between his legs, or straight up arched over his back wagging quickly and stiffly? These are a few of the methods the dog will use to convey to you how they feel about your approach.

Some dogs have absolutely no qualms about being approached by a stranger.  They spot you, and immediately, their tail starts swooshing back and forth, their tongue lolling to the side  and they’re just waiting to smother you in their signature dog greeting!  These dogs are pretty easy to spot!  They look relaxed (if not excited), and there’s nothing to suggest anything threatening about them.  But let’s say for a moment, you’re walking down the street and you see the cutest dog ever, and you want to give it a pet.  First things first, ALWAYS ask permission from the owner if you can pet their dog.  This is true for any canine walking on leash.  Owners of frightful/timid or reactive dogs will appreciate the fact that you would like to keep their dog feeling safe and comfortable.  So you ask if you can pet their furry friend, and they give you their permission.  It’s very important not to approach a dog in a direct manner.  So if it’s not possible to approach the dog in an arc, turn your shoulders so you’re not square to his head.  Keep your gaze shifting, looking from him, to his owner, to him again.  You can even use a calming signal and blink frequently and slowly.  Dogs will blink to each other to demonstrate a non-threatening intent.  If the dog is starting to avoid you, pulling back and hiding behind it’s owner, it would be best to wish them a happy rest of their walk, and carry on your way.  If he continues to watch your approach and looks relaxed about what’s going on, you can squat down (again, avoid being square to his head) and see if he willingly approaches you.  If so, then awesome!  Give him a scratch if he’s comfortable with it, and praise him for his bravery, and thank the owner for the chance to interact with their dog.  If not, no harm done!  You’ve remained non-threatening to that dog, and have actually provided him with a positive human interaction.

Now let’s say you see a mystery dog in your backyard.  You have no idea who he belongs to, or if he’s friendly or not.  You’d like to try to approach him to see if you can get any identification of him.  You walk out to the backyard, approaching him in an arc.  You notice that while he’s staring at you and doesn’t move, his body posture tenses considerably, and he slightly looks away.  This dog has just given you three specific distance increasing cues that your approach is NOT welcome.  First, he’s directly staring at you. Just because he doesn’t move doesn’t mean that your approach is welcome.  If you see him tense up, in combination with that direct stare, this is definitely something that could progress into unwanted behaviors.  Third, he gave you a look away (a slight turning of his head away from you.  He may or may not break eye contact with you during this).  A look away, in this case, is letting you know that he is not comfortable with your approach.  You stop, lower and turn your head, lower your body and give him a BIIIIIIIIGGGGG yawn.  You blink your eyes slowly and deliberately, and lick your lips.  He stares at you a moment longer, and starts sniffing the ground beside him. After a few seconds of sniffing, he starts scratching at his neck, and reciprocates your yawn.  Congratulations!  Your efforts to convey your non-threatening intent have been successful!  When he started sniffing the ground, this is what’s known as a displacement activity.  When there’s a stressful situation, a dog might feel that he needs to keep busy or find something to do, and will often begin sniffing the ground around them.  It’s similar to a person trying to fill an awkward silence with excessive chatter.  Scratching himself was a calming signal.  It was his way of telling you, I recognize the fact that you don’t mean to be threatening, and I’m accepting that.  When he yawned, this was also a calming signal.  So, since this dog has given you a couple of calming signals, you can squat down and see if he’s willing to approach you.  He comes towards you slowly, sniffing and licking his lips (another calming signal).  When he’s close, you can try touching him on his rear end, or his shoulders.  Avoid going over his head or being too invasive, as this can be threatening to a skittish and shy dog.  At this point, you can try looping a leash around his neck to secure him.  Success!!  You have just had a complete conversation in dog and successfully conveyed your intentions to a new canine!

Happy Legos

Allegro is ready and waiting for your attention! Her ears are relaxed and forward, her tail wagging from side to side. Her mouth is also relaxed, and her body posture isn’t conveying any sort of tension

It’s important to remember that a vast majority of bites can be avoided by properly approaching a dog!  Being equipped with some basic canine language knowledge, you can help to keep yourself safe, as well as provide dogs you meet with positive and safe feeling experiences!


2 responses to “How to greet a new dog by speaking dog!

  1. Rhonda says:

    Well written, Sarah! Very helpful information — lots to think about while I’m out on walks this summer and meet up with various canines. Leggos is smiling at me in the bottom photo. 🙂

  2. bcfurkids says:

    I wish more people would educate themselves about dogs body language! It’s so important and crucial to establishing a good relationship with them.

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