To Pet or not to Pet a Dog You’ve Just Met

Proper etiquette around dogs has been seriously lacking in modern society. Sure, we see puppies being cradled by eager owners as they browse the pet store, dogs in strollers coming down the greenway, and others in holiday attire walking the neighborhood. It’s tempting to approach the dog, but what is the right way? How do we know it’s safe to do so? At what point does an encounter impose too much on the dog and owner? 

Mind your manners 

Before engaging with a dog, even if you know them, it is vital to first stop at a socially acceptable distance, ask if you may pet the dog, and then wait for the owner to give further instructions. If you’re lucky, you will be greeted with a “sure,” or “go right ahead.” In this case, you are welcome to approach the dog.

Body language goes a long way 

Did you know, the wrong way to engage with a dog is by extending your hand, reaching over them, and petting their head? Many dogs consider this a space violation and may even feel entrapped. The correct way to greet a dog is to:

  • Allow the dog to approach you 
  • Stand sideways or crouch towards the ground (don’t hover over the dog) 
  • Lower your hand at your side, so the dog can initiate contact by coming towards you 
  • Touch the dog below the chin, working your way along the bottom of the neck and ending up on the side, back, or rear of the dog 

This approach gives the dog multiple opportunities to deny contact without threat, and it gives you a chance to assess whether or not the dog wants to be petted. Consent goes both ways! 

Not sure how to read the dog’s body language? A few clues to determine if a dog isn’t feeling comfortable or is feeling like they need space include: turning their head and/or body away from you, ears back, lip licking, hard stare, hackles up, low body posture, whale eye (whites of eyes showing), freezing, and general avoidance. If a dog is not eager to interact, do not force the issue! Respect the dog’s space and move on. 

A dog that welcomes attention and engagement will eagerly approach the stranger, wag their tail in a level position (tail up, or tucked under is an issue!), have a relaxed posture and soft expression, offer eye contact, be wiggly or free moving, have relaxed ears, and most importantly, they will come back for more affection if the attention is interrupted or paused. 

Keep in mind that not every dog enjoys the company of a stranger. Even if you have had dogs all your life and are used to them, you need to realize that some dogs may be wary of other people, some may feel threatened in the presence of other dogs, and others simply do not have enough impulse control (yet) to be greeting strangers. It is important we respect the owner’s wishes if we hear a “No, thank you” to a request for interaction, or if someone kindly requests that you ignore the dog, the polite thing to say is “thanks anyway” and be on your merry way.

Dogs need manners too! 

In an ideal world, owners would ask their dogs to “sit” as a stranger approaches, “stay” upon their arrival, and “check in” (establish eye contact with their owner) before being released to a greeting. This is extremely hard to do when strangers eagerly approach the dog without respecting the owner’s training plan. As you greet a dog, please let the owner control their own pet. Many well-meaning visitors try to blurt out commands in an attempt to help, however this can severely confuse the dog. If the owner requests that the dog not jump up on you, then please be mindful of this request. Do not condone unwanted behavior by saying, “It’s ok, I have a dog.” If you are genuinely invested in the interaction, please wait for the owner to give greeting instructions. 

Dog-dog greeting etiquette 

Most issues between dogs happen due to frustration, over-stimulation, and an inability to escape during confrontation. This is partially due to a lack of impulse control, poor training, and over-socialization. Yes, I said it, over-socialization. Puppies who get to play on leash simply expect to keep playing while they’re on the leash when they’re adults. These situations can be challenging for owners to handle as the dog matures because the dog also learns to ignore their owner in the presence of another dog. An appropriate greeting would mean two dogs approach on a loose leash, sniff for 2-3 seconds, and then be redirected by their owner saying, “Let’s go, this way” in order to redirect focus on the human. You can attempt multiple little 2-3 second greetings, or choose to put the dog in the “stay” position when speaking with the other owner. Do not let dogs play while on the leash; play time is for when they are off-leash and can move freely and further explore behavior. 

Not all dogs are the same 

It is the responsibility of the owner to set the dog up for success rather than failure. This is easier said than done in some situations. You may want to carefully consider your socialization environment if your dog is wary of strangers, does not have social skills around other canines, or is eagerly distracted by the environment. In some cases, dogs are tolerant of situations without eagerness to engage with other people or dogs. If you need help with impulse control, good manners, fear of strangers, or dog reactivity, consult with a certified trainer or behaviorist for further assistance. ϖ

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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