Dogs and humans have lived side by side for thousands of years, and obviously we all get along quite well for the most part. To a great extent, these peaceful relations between humans and dogs are a product of dogs’ adaptability to human behavior patterns and interaction styles. After all, humans (and other primates) have very different ways of interacting with each other than do canines, and rather than taking it for granted, I find it quite impressive that dogs tolerate us humans as well as they do! And it all starts with something as seemingly simple as how to say hello.
Humans and canines differ dramatically in their greeting styles within their own species. When we humans are meeting new people or greeting those whom we know, we often make lots of direct eye contact (although this varies across cultures and across individuals, of course), expecting a certain amount of personal body space but also touching one another with hugs, pats, and handshakes, and baring our teeth wide in a friendly smile. These human behavior patterns are not observed when dogs greetat all among dogs greeting each other. In contrast, dogs
In contrast, dogs tend not to make direct eye contact during a friendly greeting. In fact, they often go full circle and move their noses around to each other’s back ends instead. When eye contact is extended, it tends to signal aggressive intentions and can be perceived as a threat. There is no equivalent of the canine “hug” as a common greeting style between dogs, and often the initial sniffing part of the greeting will break into friendly play or relaxed tolerance if there is otherwise no tension or aggression between dogs. And when dogs flash or bare their teeth with one another, it’s not typically to communicate friendliness at all. With such different styles of greeting among humans and dogs, it’s pretty amazing that we all get along as well as we do.
In some cases, however, our styles clash enough that we end up on the receiving end of a bite or growl, or our dogs developend up developing increasing tension or fear of people. As determined by the combination of any individual dog’s genetic tendencies (whether by breed or family line) and his or her behavioral history (that is, socialization and training experiences), some dogs are much more resilient in handling these “strange” human greeting patterns than others. So, what can you do to help ensure a positive start to your interactions with dogs you meet?
Of course, you should always ask the dog’s owner whether you can approach or pet any dog you meet. However, some owners are not aware of their dog’s discomfort or miss the signs of increasing tension, fear, or defensiveness. So you should also gather some information from the dog herself in the moment. Look for signs of friendly approach from the dog — is she coming toward you with open mouth and tongue lolling out, eyes soft and tail swishing happily along with her back end? Or is she still, watching you but with tail held straight (upright or tucked), neither approaching nor retreating? In the latter case, even if there’s no barking or growling, you might have a dog who prefers her own personal body space and doesn’t want you to reach over and pat her head or crouch down and put your arms out to her.
We often assume mistakenly that all dogs should love all people and want to be petted by everyone they pass on a walk or meet at the park, and this simply is not the case. Like humans, some dogs are much more physically affectionate with people they know thanand with strangers, andwhile others are more reserved or may save physical affection for family members only. So your first step in being a better dog greeter is allowing the dog to come to you for a pet. I often like to let the dog make this choice and because she has no words, I must rely on reading her body language to indicate her preference.
Petting comes in different forms and dogs generally much prefer to be petted under their chin, on their chest, or on the side of their neck rather than the old pat on the top of the head, which you will notice often causes a dog to flinch or pull back a bit. I’ve always had the impression that dogs no more like being thumped on top of the head by way of greeting than we would! Eye contact can also be quite off-putting to dogs, so be careful when you are greeting a new dog to keep eye contact brief. Give a friendly hello, then turn to the side or stand in a relaxed way without staring into the dog’s eyes as you give him some time to be near you and then make his approach for petting. If an owner has treats on hand, he or she may ask if you’d like to give one to the dog, or you might start walking with the owner and dog together, helping the dog to see you are part of a group moving together in tandem.
In the end, take heed of the owners’ instructions and description of their dog’s friendliness but also look for signs that the dog really wants to interact with you rather than just assume he does. Due to their long-evolved adaptability to humans, most dogs graciously tolerate our human greeting styles, even when we look right into their eyes or thump them heartily atop the head. But why present any potential challenge or threat to an animal you don’t know when it’s just as easy to give the dog a little wiggle room?