Unfortunately for fearful and aggressive dogs, the manner in which most people introduce themselves to dogs can be threatening to them. While a well socialized dog may tolerate and even enjoy a hand reaching out to them, a face looming over them or eye to eye contact, the scared dog often cannot.
The Dog Gone Safe website has great information for helping anyone learn more about how to greet and interact with dogs.
The Liam J. Perk Foundation was created to help share information about the importance of understanding dog behavior, especially in relation to interactions with children.
It is best not to assume that any dog you encounter is a dog that is comfortable greeting a stranger. Even the most stable dog can be stressed in some situations and prefer to be left alone. Unless you consider yourself an expert on dog body language it’s best to let a dog initiate an interaction with you, rather than you moving toward them. Even a dog that approaches you for a sniff may not be saying, ‘hi! pet me!’ My own scared dog will frequently move toward people to get a sniff but will bolt away should they move or look at him. He is trying to see what he’s dealing with, not trying to deal with it.
Children are often taught to put their hand out for a dog to sniff. Again, not a problem for a ‘happy to see you’ kind of dog, but for a fearful dog that hand can be scary and for a dog that is aggressive, biting that hand may seem like the thing they need to do to protect themselves from it.
I’m sorry to say that the people who consider themselves to ‘good with dogs’ or people who would say that ‘dogs like them’ are often the worst when it comes to dealing with fearful dogs. They just cannot accept or believe that a dog would not warm up to them or enjoy their company. A fearful dog’s behavior should not be taken personally. Sunny is an equal opportunity fearful dog, as are many dogs like him.
Below are a few guidelines to follow when meeting new dogs.
- Do not approach a dog, especially if it is tied up or on leash.
- Ask the owner if it is ok for you to interact with their dog before you do it.
- Stand still if a dog approaches you for a sniff, leave your hands by your side and glance away from the dog.
- Squat down instead of bending over to talk to or pet a dog. Avoid staring at them, putting your face near theirs or hugging them.
- Do not reach over a dog’s head to pet it, instead offer chin scratches or chest rubs.
- Do not touch a dog that has rolled over.
- Ignore a dog that shows any indication of being timid or upset. Baby talk, reaching out with treats, or any attempt to connect with the dog can backfire and cause the dog to react fearfully or aggressively.
- Do not feel like every dog you meet needs to be handled. Watch a dog’s behavior and body language carefully. Learn about calming signals and other ways that dogs communicate their feelings. A dog that is not obviously happy to see you (open mouth, waggy tail and body) is telling you a lot about how they feel. If a dog is not inviting you to handle or interact with them, don’t.
Here is a short video of Sunny offering me lots of appeasement behaviors (i.e., grins, body curls, lowered head) when he greets me.