A veterinarian explains how properly greeting dogs will help you start all your canine interactions off on the right paw! Understanding how dogs view human body language and adjusting your approach will help a timid dog or new rescue decrease their stress and fear factor. If you have a dog afraid of men or upset by them, this article will help those greetings improve as well.
Dogs Prefer Quiet Communication!
Dogs do a tremendous amount of their communication with one another via quiet subtle body language. We humans miss the vast majority of dog communication because it is primarily very subtle changes in facial expression or body position. We tend to only understand the verbal stuff like whines, barks, snarls, and growls. Most everyone also understands the physically ‘aggressive’ displays as well – lunging, snapping, and biting.
By the time most dogs growl or bark, there was a wealth of attempted communication that humans never saw or understood. Dogs naturally escalate up a communication ladder to more obvious and forceful means to be heard if their usual subtle attempts are ‘ignored’. Most ‘aggressive’ issues with dogs come about because people are actually ignoring their more ‘peaceful’ attempts to communicate.
This makes it important for you to understand their subtle body language ‘tells’ for the most successful outcome in any interaction with a dog. If you do not ‘read’ their language, then you will distress them to some level no matter how kind you are when you try to greet them. Distressed dogs cannot learn to trust you. If you are not paying attention to what they are clearly saying …. how can they trust you? They can’t!
To improve a relationship with your dog, then you have to learn to read and understand that body language. To learn how to appropriately greet any dog and not cause them distress you have to do the same. This is especially important with a shy dog, timid dog, or frightened dog. The better you are at reading and understanding that wealth of non-verbal communication, the better your interactions with dogs will become.
People that seem to have instant connections with dogs are not magic or psychic – they simply understand dog body language well AND they know how to adjust their own to make a dog comfortable. We have an resource article devoted to helping teach the dog’s side of body language communication, Dog Body Language: Guide to Successful Communication with Your Dog.
In this article we will focus on helping you understand how to adjust your body language to improve greetings with your or any dog that you meet. If you have a new timid dog or a shy dog then learning how to approach them when greeting can go a long way to decreasing their fear and helping them relax and begin to trust you and your family or friends.
Greeting Dogs: What is scary?
So what do most DOGS consider to be a stressful greeting? Guess what – it is the exact thing that everyone always does when they meet a new dog. It is actually extremely bad dog manners to exclaim in a high excited voice, lean down and tower over a dog then reach out for its head. This is extremely rude if you are a dog. Crowding a dog and trying to physically hug them is also extremely bad dog manners. Trying to kiss the face of a dog you do not know well is the height of wishing to have unplanned plastic surgery.
Do most well socialized dogs tolerate these things? Yes. Some even grow to enjoy it from people they know and love. But there is a HUGE difference between what your own dog has grown to understand and tolerate or like or love and what a dog you have never met will tolerate. A shy dog or one that is fearful will NOT appreciate such a greeting. By insisting on greeting dogs so cluelessly, YOU are risking a dog bite. YOU may be the cause of a perfectly wonderful dog being put to sleep. Learning proper body language when greeting dogs is important!!!
How To Go About Greeting Dogs the Right Way
The best way to greet and interact with a shy dog is to ignore them. Yeap, the best way is to NOT force the interaction on YOUR time table. Most people do not want a random stranger that they do not know or trust to run up them and grab them for a hug and start touching them either – dogs are no different. A stressed out scared or shy dog is no different! The dog should always get the opportunity to initiate the greeting IF they want one AND their owner is in agreement.
Because body language is their primary mode of communicating with each other, our body positions are extremely important to be aware of when greeting dogs.
So, what about your body language while standing nearby an unsure rescue dog for instance? While standing, turn to the side so that you are NOT facing the dog straight on and do not stare at them with intense direct eye contact. Facing head on and staring is very challenging behavior in dog body language. So you stand with your side to them and primarily ignore them, calmly. If the dog wants further interaction then they will initiate it.
If the dog seems to want more interaction and the person wants further interaction then the person should sit down or kneel. Stop being tall and leaning and towering over the top of the dog because it is scary and disconcerting to most dogs! Get low: Sit or kneel. If the dog is still reluctant, then you continue to ignore them and do NOT face fully toward them (sit with your side toward them).
Recall NOT lean over a scared dog or reach for a timid dog until THEY seem comfortable and have approached you. If the person speaks, they should use a normal calm conversational tone – not a high energetic frantic greeting that ends up just being a bunch of unwelcome noise that is not all assuring when greeting dogs. Have you ever heard someone trying to calm a spooked horse? If you need to speak, do so in that fashion, low, calm, modulated tones.
When and if the dog seems comfortable and has nudged or come forward for more interaction, the person should NOT reach for the top of the head first. Initial touches are usually better aimed under the chin on the neck, or low on the chest or side. You will need to watch and figure out what THEY like versus not like. Careful caring observation will inform what touch they enjoy, if any, versus what touch will heighten their anxiety.
In short, you go about greeting new or anxious dogs low, slow, and calmly.
Other Common Problems In Meeting and Greeting Dogs
Men: Be aware that men (or tall people in general) can be frightening whether they intend to be or not. People constantly announce that their new rescue MUST have been abused by a man if their new dog is scared of men. That is seldom the real issue. The issue is more commonly that many dogs are not well socialized to meeting new men. Men can also be inherently a touch scary to a timid dog especially. Check out this great article on Why Some Dogs Fear Men for more information on that topic.
The most common issues regarding a dog afraid of men are related to body language. Men are usually tall (towering over a dog is scary), their voices are generally louder and deeper (both also scary) and their arm span is also generally longer. Arm length matters on how close a shy dog or unsocialized dog is willing to get to a person, especially if the man is an animated speaker.
Sometimes some dogs dislike animated speakers that use their hands a lot. Frightened dogs are remarkably more observant than the average happy go lucky dog AND they get more hypervigilant the more nervous they become. So minding your own body language is an extremely important key to interacting well with them.
A frightened, stressed, or shy dog tends to respond better to people who do not actively try to engage them (meaning leaning over them from above and reaching for them). Super friendly people that just have to speak rapidly and with a squeal while leaning over and trying to entice the dog or reach and grab for the dog are THE most unsettling people to frightened or shy dog. Such people are also much more likely to be bitten by a stressed dog during such a greeting.
A Final Word on Canine Communication
Again, take the time look over some of the many awesome resources in our article on dog body language. You need to be able to interpret the subtle signals of stress that are almost always exhibited before a frightened or shy dog growls or barks, etc.
If you recognize major stress points when getting to know an anxious dog then you can avoid pushing the dog too far past their comfort zone. Understanding their stressed body language will really help you figure out what tends to distress this particular dog the most. If you recognize mounting stress then and only then can you can start to walk back your interaction and defuse the situation earlier and/or better.
Please understand that a growl is a good thing if it happens. A growl is a beautiful thing in fact!! A good sign of dog making every effort to use the least damaging tools in their toolbox to let their person know that things are not right for them. I never fuss about a growl. I stay calm, happy, and speak soft and low, and STOP doing what I am doing. Give the stressed dog a chance to breathe and chill and process the situation.
Once you have been warned with a growl, then realize you have stepped up close to one of their personal boundaries. Do not just keep pressing them. Pressing clearly stated boundaries causes dog bites. Always allow a stressed dog the space and time to decompress fully before you try again if you have been warned.
A final point to be aware of – a surprising number of dog bites happen either as someone leans over and reaches for the unsure dog OR when the person finishes and begins to stand back up and rise. A frightened dog may sit there flooded by fear and tolerating the touch while they are towered over only to take their opportunity to communicate their unhappiness and fear when the person finally pulls away. It is safest to many scared dogs to bite AFTER there is enough space to get back and potentially away from the person interacting with them.
Cattle Dog Publishing also has a nice article from Sophia Yin on the subject of our body language and theirs with some great dog body language links to learn from:
Do you have a very anxious dog, and need guidance on building trust bonds? Check out our article on Rescue Dog Support: Best Trust Building Blocks to Help Your Dog Thrive