Robin and I were at a new Home Dog Training session in Gainesville last week working with an eighteen-month-old Field Spaniel named Daphne. We were called out by Daphne’s owner because she always wanted her way, pulled on the leash every time they went for a walk, never listened to them, and took food from the table in the middle of their meals.
Simply stated, Daphne was convinced she was the boss of the household. It took a few hours, but we got things under control. She ultimately understood that it was her job to pay attention to our client and his family. They were the ones deserving her undivided attention and respect.
A lot of you might think that this change of events would make Daphne sad. The truth be known, the direct opposite is true. After our session, Daphne was far happier because she finally saw herself as part of a strong family group with a leader that will keep her safe, happy, and well.
As we were finishing up, our client had one more question. It wasn’t directly about Daphne. It was concerning how our client should interact with other dogs. Our client adores dogs and always wants to actively greet every dog he sees in the neighborhood, at the grocery store, at Lowes, etc. Our client said he understood that there are “right and wrong ways” to meet a dog. Did we have any suggestions.
Since we love dogs, it is simply natural that we would want to engage and interact with them. When we encounter a dog in the street, our first instinct is to go right up and “introduce ourselves” to them. This may be fine for humans interacting with humans. But, let’s consider what could happen if the other “human” is a dog…
You are walking down the street and you see a wonderful dog. You really want to go over to him and give him a loving pet. Naturally, you saunter right up to him, lean over, and give him a pet on his head.
WRONG! Do not, let me exclaim again, do not do that! You may not know it, but the cute doggie that you want to greet, and pet might probably believe that you are being aggressive. You have placed him in a classic “fight or flight” mode. Since he is on a leash, the “flight option” is no longer available. When a dog only has the “fight option” at his disposal, it normally ends up in someone (i.e., you) being bitten!
We offered our client the following tips:
DO NOT DIRECTLY APPROACH A STRANGE DOG. Very similar to you and me, dogs are the sum of their experiences. If they have been mistreated by strangers in the past, your direct and uninvited approach could place them in a fearful and aggressive posture. You will probably get bitten or the dog will aggressively lunge at you.
ALWAYS ASK FOR PERMISSION BEFORE YOU APPROACH AND ENGAGE WITH A DOG. The dog’s owner is always the most appropriate “human” to decide if their dog is ready for a “meet and greet”. Coolly stand between six to ten feet away and calmly ask if you can pet the owner’s dog. If the owner says no, you are done. If you try to approach after the owner has told you not to approach, the owner’s pensive body language will indicate to his dog that something is wrong. Here comes that nip, bite, or lunge!
HAVE THE DOG WALK OVER TO YOU. Even if everything looks great and the owner has given you permission to meet his dog, nobody has asked the dog. Ask the owner to slowly approach you with his dog on a short, but loose leash. If the dog does not want to greet you, his body language will clearly communicate that. Things to watch for are lowered ears, a tightly clinched muzzle, or the bearing of teeth. He could also be pulling away on the leash, giving a low-volume growl, or excitedly jumping. All these things are telling you that the dog “does not want to accept visitors today”. If that is the case, this meet and greet is not a good idea.
DEMONSTRATE CONFIDENCE BUT DON’T BE AGGRESSIVE. Dogs have no problem if you show a dominant posture. This clearly tells them that you are confident, firm, and consistent. These are “good qualities” to a dog. So, when the dog comes up to you, stand tall and calm. Place your hands by your side. Do not extend your hand over the dog or bend over the dog. Your display of this “appropriate posture” gives the dog time to “size you up”. Since you are now close to the dog, you have a better opportunity to observe his demeanor
ALWAYS MAINTAIN DIRECT AND UNBROKEN EYE CONTACT. It is essential that you and the dog maintain eye contact. This is a crucial aspect of your open communication. Never move your arm or hand in front of the dog’s face. This not only blocks the dog’s view of you, it also can be interpreted as an aggressive act.
DON’T PLACE YOURSELF OVER THE DOG. Body language is crucial in a dog’s communication hierarchy. If you are right next to a dog and suddenly move over him, it could be interpreted as an overt act of dominance. Since the dog doesn’t know you, his natural need for safety will have him assume the “worst case scenario”. He will assume that your dominant act is really an aggressive act.
Most people often bend over a dog when they are about to pet them. You cannot do this. Remain in front of the dog, keep your back straight, and use your knees to slowly lower yourself to a position where you can easily pet him. Again, you must never start to bend over him.
SHOW THE DOG THE BACK OF YOUR HAND. You have finally got to the point where you are ready to pet the dog. Since you do not know the dog, you do not know if he was ever abused and hit. The last thing a dog sees before they are struck is the palm of a human’s hand. You do not want to replicate a possibly frightening and painful experience.
Gradually move your hand towards the dog’s chest (below his face) with the back of your hand exposed to his sight. This will allow you to maintain continued eye contact, not move over him, and introduce your hand in a safe and nurturing manner.
CALMLY AND SERENELY PET BY RUBBING. Most of us pet a dog as if we were tapping a small boy on the head. Bang. Bang. Bang. It is really a hit and not a pet. Once you have positioned your hand at the dog’s belly, rub his fur gently. This will imitate a grooming action that dogs use between each other to show a sign or respect and safety.
CONTINUE THE “PETTING EXPERIENCE”. As the dog continues to display a calm demeanor with your petting of his chest, you can slowly reposition your hand to his neck and back. Be sure that you don’t move your hand in a direction that will block his vision of you.
HAVING A CONVERSATION. It is fine if you want to verbalize with the dog while you are petting and even approaching. Speak using a calm and soothing tone. Use terms like “Good Doggie” and “Happy Puppy”. Chances are the dog has heard those phrases before at times when he felt safe and secure.
TIME TO GO. Ending the encounter is simply the reverse process of entering the encounter. Slowly stand up by backing away from the dog. As previously mentioned, never move forward and over the dog as you get up. I know that this is the natural way that many of us stand up, but it does not send the appropriate signal to the dog. Keep your back straight and move away as you stand.
DEPARTING. Stand tall and remain still as you ask the dog owner to slowly move off with his dog. This assures that the dog owner regains his dog’s complete focus and takes charge as their walk continues.
I completely understand that this sounds like a lot of work. Trust me, this will become second nature to you after you have done it a few times. When you follow this process, it will allow you to meet many wonderful dogs while you are out and about.
Please call Robin or me at (770) 718-7704 if you need any dog training help. We are blessed to have been your local dog training professionals for over seventeen years. We have trained over 5,000 great dogs and loving families and are ready to help you.