Remember when you thought that you should put your hand out and let a dog sniff it before you pet the dog? Oh, I'm sorry were you still thinking that was how you greet a dog? Read on . . .
I see person after person reach out to pet dogs on the head. And even when a dog pulls away and avoids the person, they continue to try and pet him, or worse they try to coddle them and make friends, "It's ok. I'm a dog lover . . . come here . . ." Dogs are social animals and domestication has made them very dependent on us, but that doesn't mean that every dog loves to be patted and pet by strangers any more than we want every stranger on the street to give us a hug and a kiss.
If you really want to impress a new dog and convince him that you are a really great human, follow these basic rules:
RULE #1 - Never approach a dog first. Always let the dog approach you, no matter how friendly it looks. Why? Because this allows the dog to interact with you on his terms, which is going to put you high on his list of cool humans. Many dog owners are amazed at how quickly their shy dog takes to me. The only trick is that I sit back and let the dog decide when and how to interact with me.
RULE #2 - Don't crowd his space. We love dogs so much that we have a tendency to want to get really close when we're petting...as close as possible. But imagine meeting a new person and they immediately bent over the top of you, put their hand on your head and brought their face right up to yours. Would you feel at ease with that person?
No reaching over the head. Reaching over their head is intimidating. Dogs much prefer when pets come from underneath, such as a soft rub under the chin or on their cheek.
Stay out of their face. What is it that makes us think that dogs love having a stranger get really close to their face? Do we like it? No! A simple rhyme for children holds just as true for adults: Two feet of space can save your face.
Don't bend over the dog or approach head-on. It is much better to kneel down and turn your body slightly sideways to a dog. You would be amazed at how many dogs turn to mush when you offer them this polite greeting.
Do not offer your hand. The dog will come to you if they want. A hand can be seen as threatening. It is an old myth that letting a dog sniff you is a way to make fast friends.
Letting the dog decide how and when to approach you can make all the difference.
RULE #3 - Don't stick your hand in their face. I know that somewhere along the line the advice was given to present your hand to a dog so they can sniff it. Considering dogs have 250 million scent receptors compared to our 5 million, they can smell your hand just as easily if it remains at your side. Dogs much prefer to sniff our pant legs and, yes, even our groin area much more than our hands, and they certainly can be put off by a hand thrust into their face. This is the equivalent of your friend shoving a carton of milk under your nose and saying, "Does this smell bad?"
RULE #4 - Don't try to convince a shy dog that you are friendly. How many times have you seen a human pursue a shy dog, while repeating "It's okay, don't be shy"? Well-meaning dog lovers have a hard time with this one. Our fragile human egos just can't seem to take it when man's best friend doesn't immediately fall in love with us. The truth is, the more you pursue a shy dog, the more it convinces them that you are scary...and quite rude. Back off and give him a chance to get to know you on his terms.
RULE #5 - Just because he's sniffing you, doesn't mean he wants to be pet. And for that matter, just because a dog doesn't bite you doesn't mean he likes you! Again, let the dog sniff you and then see where he goes from there. Does he sniff you and then back away or does he sniff you and then start with the whole body wiggle?
Dogs who really love to be pet by strange humans don't keep it a secret. They come in very close, lean into you, wiggling their whole body with their tail. Their eyes look "soft" and even a little squinty, and you may just see that sweet little grin.
Finally, if you are the owner of a dog who is shy or just a little reserved with strangers, it is up to you to help him by running interference from over-zealous dog lovers. Don't be afraid to stop people from accosting your dog. The more negative interactions your dog has with people, the closer you get to having a real behavior problem on your hands, shy dogs can turn to fear-aggressive dogs fast. And if they think you are rude for not letting them pet their dog, who cares? You and your dog are just fine without them!