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San Diego Humane Society

Greeting Dogs Appropriately

Meeting a new dog — whether a friend’s or neighbor’s pooch or one you’re interested in adopting — can be a fun and exciting occasion! However, did you know that many of us accidentally scare the dog? We come looming large, leaning over them, reaching out, showing our teeth, starting them right in the eyes.

Think about it from the dog’s point of view. A scared dog can react and harm you or others, so it’s important to know the signs of a stressed dog and how to approach them in a non-threatening way.

This is crucial for people of all ages, but especially important for kids, since they engage in certain behaviors that make them targets for dog bites (e.g. screaming, running, hugging and making fast motions). Dogs can’t always differentiate between adults and children, and they see these unpredictable or loud behaviors that invade their space as a threat. Even a good, well-behaved dog, can bite if they are put in a stressful situation.

Signs of a Stressed Dog

When we meet another person, we smile, look them in the eyes and will often offer a handshake or hug. However, all of these behaviors can be interpreted as a challenge to a new dog and can cause discomfort or stress. When this happens, dogs may react by doing any of these behaviors:

  • Lower head
  • Pant
  • Pull away
  • Flatten ears
  • Lick lips
  • Squint eyes
  • Tuck tail
  • Lift paw

These signals clearly say to you, "I'm really not enjoying this." It’s best to end the introduction if you see any of these signals, or the dog may become more fearful and do any of the following:

  • Freeze
  • Growl
  • Lunge
  • Snap
  • Bite

The Best Way to Approach a Dog

To avoid stressful encounters, always ask permission from the owner or handler AND from the dog before petting them. Simply ask the owner/handler, “Is it alright if I pet your dog?” Once you receive an affirmative response, ask permission from the pup:

  • Turn your body sideways.
  • Use relaxed body language and a calm tone.
  • Crouch down to their level, at a safe distance away (avoid leaning over them).
  • Let the dog come into your space and say hello. Some may come say “hello” right away with a sniff, tail wag and loose body. That’s a good sign that the dog has given you permission to pet them.
  • For shy dogs, they may ignore you at first or turn away. This is OK! Simply stay crouched down, talk in a calm tone and wait for them to approach you. Patience and respecting their private space is key!
  • Once the dog seems comfortable, you can slowly offer the back of your hand for them to smell.
  • If they smell your hand and don’t show signs of stress, it’s OK to pet them on their shoulder or sides. Avoid petting on the top of their head.

More Tips for Dog Interactions

These are important to keep in mind for new dogs and those you know well:

  • Most dogs don't like hugs. Dogs may learn to tolerate hugs and even welcome them from people they know and trust. But this doesn't mean they will welcome the same from all family members and certainly not from strangers!
  • Parents should instill a "no hugging any dog" rule for their children. If you make sure children respect all dogs' personal space, including the space of their own family pets, they will be less likely to be bitten, as the dogs they interact with won't need to correct them.
  • Wrapping your arms around a dog's neck is dangerous. This is usually viewed as an unwelcome and threatening behavior when it comes from a stranger, but it’s really a no-no because it puts your face right near the dog's teeth!
  • Another common and dangerous behavior for children is laying on a dog. This gives the dog no avenue for escape. Though this gesture seems harmless from the child’s perspective, it can lead even a calm or well-behaved dog to react negatively.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society Adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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