How to Greet a Dog

On a walk recently with my two dogs, a woman rushed up to us with her arms outstretched to greet my dogs.

She was screaming in a high pitched, loud voice, “Oh my gosh, your dogs are beautiful!” I could see Bashir, my almost 12-year-old Australian Shepherd, tensing. He rolled his eyes back at me as to find out what I wanted from him. At the same time my 3-year-old English Shepherd, Bones, backed up a little. When he stepped on my foot he relaxed. Now both of my dogs are well-trained, well-socialized, and friendly. Both, in fact, are certified therapy dogs. But this woman was rushing at the dogs far too quickly and she was loud. Seeing the dogs were uncomfortable, I stepped in front of both of them and with one hand out stretched toward her, I said, “No!”

She stopped immediately, thankfully, but looked shocked. “I love dogs,” she said. “And dogs love me.”

I responded, “I prefer people ask me before they pet my dogs and I also prefer they do so slowly and kindly.”

When she continued to argue with me, after a few minutes I decided she wasn’t going to listen to anything I said and my dogs and I just walked away from her. She was still protesting as we walked away.

So if my dogs are friendly, why did I stop her? She obviously does love dogs and as a dog enthusiast myself, I understand her joy. However, I’m hoping later, when she calms down, she’ll think about our encounter. Otherwise, one day she may rush up to a dog who doesn’t like that kind of behavior and she will get bitten. That will be disastrous for her, for the dog, and for the dog owner.

Any Dog, Every Dog, Can Bite

I doubt very much my dogs would have bitten her, but had I allowed that type of greeting to happen on that day and again in the future, I would have put my dogs in an uncomfortable position and after too may of those, one day, one of my dogs might bite someone. After all, any dog, every dog, can one day bite. I hear from many dog owners who say, “But he’s been petted (or greeted or treated) like that often and he’s always been so good.” And I reply, “Until one day he isn’t.” The owners are shocked, that their well loved dog has teeth and knows how to use them.

Every dog, just like every person, has a certain amount of patience, but at some point that patience will run out. Perhaps the dog will be climbed on by one too many kids, or the person who greets him manhandles him too roughly. If the dog is lucky, all he will do is growl. Hopefully, his owner will hear the growl and realize the dog has had enough and will protect him in the future. It’s vitally important, then, for good human and canine relationships that people greet all dogs appropriately (their own dogs as well as those belonging to other people) and that we teach children the right way to greet dogs.

©istockphoto/Saso Novoselic

©istockphoto/Saso Novoselic

Pay Attention to Body Language

Dogs communicate through body language and they are very good at it. For example, a happy dog will be wiggly, moving, with a smiling face, soft ears, and usually with a wagging tail. He will probably move towards you. This dog will probably love to be greeted by you if he doesn’t greet you first.

There are significant variations of this, of course. Individual dogs will have their own means of communication, as do some breeds. Dogs without a tail, such as Australian Shepherds and Pembroke Welsh Corgis, can’t wag their tail. Instead, they tend to wag their whole back end.

Dogs who are still, stiff, up to their tip toes, or head down and back arched, or hiding behind their owner all need to be left alone. If the dog’s eyes are wide open and the whites are showing, leave him alone; he’s stressed. Lip licking, ears plastered to his skull, and a tucked tail are saying this dog is anxious; leave him alone.

A good rule to remember is if you’re not sure how to read the dog’s body language, don’t approach the dog.

Always Ask First

Even if you and most dogs are the best of friends, always ask before approaching someone else’s dog. The owner knows the dog better than you do. Perhaps the dog you want to pet is afraid of men, women, kids, or people wearing hats or sunglasses.

Many people don’t want strangers to greet their dog; perhaps the dog jumps on people and they are trying to change that bad habit. The dog may have a medical condition. My Bashir has arthritis in one shoulder and if people pat him to hard, he’ll whine because it hurts.

While most people will probably say it’s fine to greet their dog, there are many reasons why a dog’s owner doesn’t want strangers to touch him. Just ask for permission first and if someone says no, don’t be offended.

Approach the Dog Calmly

Just as few people like to be greeted by a stranger running up to them quickly, neither do dogs. A dog who feels threatened or is startled can react negatively, as could a dog who feels as though he needs to protect his owner.

Instead, walk up to the dog calmly and quietly. Look at the dog’s body language as you approach him. Has his body language changed as you approached him? Is he calm and relaxed? Are his ears relaxed? Does he look as if he’s asking you to pet him? If he is, pat the dog gently, rub his ears, and stroke his back. All should be fine.

If the dog is stiff, looks nervous or anxious, or if his tail is tucked and ears are back against his head, leave him alone as he’s worried about you. If the dog is standing still, up on his toes and he’s staring at you, if he’s stiff and his tail isn’t wagging, keep on walking. This dog isn’t happy about you at all and you’re not going to change his mind.



Let the Dog Approach You

If the dog looks uneasy when you approach him, stop approaching him and take a couple steps back from him. Then let him look at you, sniff, and think about you as you talk to his owner. If he comes up to you, fine; even better if he leans up against you.

However, if he doesn’t approach you, then leave him alone.

Stand at an Angle

When you walk up to a dog, don’t walk straight up to him, face on, and then loom over him as that can be intimidating. Instead, as you approach him, turn so you’re standing at a diagonal to him. When standing at an angle, the dog sees you as less threatening and sees a potential escape route if one were to be needed.

You can stand upright for a large dog or crouch down for a small dog, then reach out to pet him. If he leans into your leg, awesome.

Look with Soft Eyes

When we talk to people we know, we look at the person’s eyes, mouth, look away, glance at their clothes, and then look back at their eyes. To us, staring is rude and potentially aggressive.

The same applies to dogs. A soft look, blinking your eyes, looking at the dog then away, is a non-threatening look.

My dog Bones has one blue eye and one brown eye. Even though this isn’t that uncommon, people tend to stare at his blue eye, so much so he usually turns away from people when they’re staring. Often, he’ll turn his back to them and while people think it’s rude, and some will even say so, I’ll explain they were being rude while staring at him.

Be Calm and Gentle

One of the best skills you can have when greeting dogs is to be calm and gentle. If you’re calm, gentle, and don’t force a relationship with the dog, you’re won’t be putting the dog in a position where he may think he needs to react. Calm and gentle; that’s it. Of course, this often works with human interactions, too, including dog owners.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to

How to Keep Your Dog From Getting Heatstroke
Dog Training: Using the Leash for More Than a Walk