Different human cultures have different ways of greeting people. In Japan, you bow. In Spain, you kiss on the cheek. In the US, you shake hands.
Understanding the appropriate way to greet a stranger is key to avoiding social and cultural faux pas. The same goes for meeting new dogs. We’ll go over why it matters to greet dogs politely, how to do it, and some common mistakes.
Having your own dog on leash with you while greeting a new dog adds another whole level of complexity to this issue.
This article will primarily focus on how a human should greet a new dog. As a general rule, don’t introduce your dog to another dog on leash without being in clear communication with the other owner first.
You know that one aunt of yours who hugs you a bit too tight for a bit too long, and then pinches your cheek? Yeah. You probably don’t love it when Auntie Muriel comes over. Or what about that socially awkward guy in middle school who stood a bit too close when he talked? I bet Albert wasn’t very popular.
Greeting others impolitely is a great way to fast-track yourself to being avoided. If you want dogs (and their owners) feeling comfortable with you, it’s best to learn how to politely greet new dogs.
There are many reasons that it’s key to get your canine greetings down correctly:
I take my dogs to local parks around Denver to work on training as we’re getting better at new skills. The last thing I want is strangers coming up to meet my dog when we’re practicing ignoring people and focusing on me! The distraction is too much and it sets back our training back. Just because we’re at the park doesn’t mean I want my dog to meet new people right now.
If you greet a dog inappropriately by coming up too fast, staring, or hugging, you can frighten them. Even my human-loving lab gets uncomfortable if a random person comes up behind her and tries to hug her.
We all love dog cuddles, but the truth is that hugging a stranger is just plain rude (regardless of whether they have two legs or four).This action can frighten the dog, and scared dogs can bite.
Some days, I only have 30 minutes for our daily walk. I simply can’t stop every 5 feet to let strangers meet my dog - these stops will mean I can’t get my dog the exercise he needs!
It’s not that I’m unfriendly, or that my dog is unfriendly - we’re just on a tight schedule. Asking permission before meeting a dog avoids forcing the owner into an awkward situation.
Some dogs aren’t very comfortable with strangers. Even if you do everything right, some dogs might not want to be near you (I know, it hurts, but that’s life).
Respecting a dog’s comfort level is important - some dogs simple prefer the company of their owners over new faces
This might be the most important reason to ask permission and be polite when approaching an unfamiliar dog. We all should know by now not to pet a seeing eye dog or dog wearing a service dog vest. Even if you don’t see a vest, though, a dog could be doing important work. Coming up to greet it, especially inappropriately, may ruin the dog’s focus for the whole day!
Greeting dogs politely is key to staying safe. It lets working dogs work, and training dogs train. It lets owners in a rush continue on their walk and it keeps uncomfortable or frightened dogs inside a safe bubble.
Remember that just because a dog is outside doesn’t mean you have the right to approach it.
Now that we can all agree that greeting a dog properly is important, let’s talk about how to do it. This diagram from Sophia Yin hangs on my refrigerator.
It’s great because it reminds us that many of these behaviors are totally unacceptable for human adults or human children. This makes it even easier to remember to not do them to dogs!
Let’s go over the components of a how and how not to greet a dog, in the order they appear on her poster.
Why It's Bad: The dog might perceive this as a very real invasion of their space. They could bite to protect their space and their stuff.
Try This Instead: If a dog is confined, give it its space. This includes dogs in parked cars, behind fences, or inside crates.
Why It's Bad: Running up to greet an unfamiliar person would be pretty weird. Dogs may perceive this as scary. Other dogs might get overly excited and jump up. You might be undoing lots of training that the owner was working on to break a bad habit!
Try This Instead: Approach dogs at a relaxed walking pace. Ideally, approach the dog in an arcing motion. Then kneel down with your shoulder to the dog, and look ahead of you - away from the dog.This is the least threatening way to approach a dog.
Why It's Bad: It’s always a good idea to ask before greeting an unfamiliar dog. They could be skittish, in training, or working. Their owner could be in a rush, or maybe they just don’t feel like stopping their walk to watch you greet their dog.
Try This Instead: Always communicate with the owner about whether or not it’s ok to meet their dog. Most will say yes! They’ll appreciate you asking, though. This goes for “asking” the dog, too. Give them a chance to interact with you.
Why It's Bad: This is pretty threatening for most dogs. Other dogs might find it so exciting that they forget their training. Staring is very rude for dogs and can even be considered an antagonistic threat!
Try This Instead: Approach dogs slowly in an arc. Offer your side, get on their level, and let them come to you.
Why It's Bad: This is pretty scary. You’re putting your face right above theirs, so if they jump up you might get hit in the head! When you loom over a dog, you become all they can see. Even well-adjusted dogs (or humans) find this rude or scary. Imagine a man standing right over you on the subway in hopes of petting your hair. That’s not ok!
Try This Instead: Get on their level. I recommend squatting or kneeling down with your side facing the dog. Let them come to you. If they don’t want to, don’t take it personally!
PRO TIP: If you want a fantastic photo of your dog (or baby), get down on their level! Squatting down or getting on your belly is the best way to get great photos of pets and kiddos!
Why It's Bad: Reaching towards a dog, even if you’re just offering your hand for them to sniff, could break their personal space bubble.
Try This Instead: It’s best for the dog to approach you. You can put your hand out for them to sniff, but don’t thrust it in their face! Give them a foot or two of space so they can go at their own pace.
Why It's Bad: If a dog looks nervous or tense, give them their space. Dogs show that they’re scared by lifting one paw, tucking their tail, staying still, leaning away, or pinning their ears back. Listen to their body language!
Try This Instead: Let the dog approach you at its own pace. Pet them if they lean into you and they stay close, keep petting. If they move away, respect that.
Why It's Bad: Remember Auntie Muriel? Being handled roughly or too closely by those you don’t know isn’t pleasant.
Try This Instead: Pet the dog gently when they approach you. Most dogs like petting in strokes along the same direction as the fur.
Here's a quick video of Doggy Dan (one of our favorite online video dog trainers) demonstrating some of the lessons we highlighted above.
While this article primarily deals with humans approaching dogs, without canines of their own, there is one quick word I have to say on the subject.
As the former foster parent of an extremely dog-aggressive dog, I can’t say this enough - it’s not acceptable to let your dog pull you towards another dog while yelling, “It’s ok, she’s friendly! She just wants to say hi!” Be respectful of the needs and wishes of other dogs and their owners. Even if your dog is friendly, the other dog may not be!
In my experience greeting dogs, I’m much more likely to run into a jumpy dog than a scared one.
If your neighborhood is like mine, you might be reading these guidelines thinking that they don’t apply to you; a dog that’s rushing to meet you and jumping up on you is the one who’s invading your space, rather than the other way around.
If a dog is jumping up on you, the best option is to stand still. Don’t say anything or do anything. This sort of attention rewards the dog for its bad behavior! Listen to the owner if they ask you to do something specific. You can be a human good citizen by helping the owner train their dog! Just following their protocol will help immensely.
Just because a dog is in a public space doesn’t mean it’s public property.
Remember to ask permission, approach dogs slowly and in an arc. Kneel down and offer the dog the side of your body. Let them approach and only pet them if they lean into the petting.
Just being polite and respectful of the dog and its owner can help prevent all sorts of problems for you, the dog, and the owner!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.