Where on earth did we humans ever get the idea that dogs like our hands shoved in their faces as a way of greeting? To us, a hand extended toward us for a hand shake is a polite and friendly gesture. But what if we all started walking up to strangers and sticking our fingers in their faces for them to sniff? I'm guessing we'd get lots of shocked and maybe even some annoyed responses. Now imagine if someone much taller than you did the same thing. How would you feel? Surprised, dismayed, angry, frightened? All perfectly normal responses to such a rude gesture.
I was down town last week helping a client work with her dog reactive dog. (meaning he has an emotional and usually loud/aggressive looking reaction to seeing another dog when he's on leash). Even though he's mostly comfortable with humans, I noticed right away that when strangers offered their hands for him to sniff, he chose instead to sit down and look at his mom. It was clear to me that he became increasingly uncomfortable the longer the extended hand was held near his face. At one point, I had an almost overwhelming urge to slap one persons hand away. In fact, there have been other times when I've done just that. I had a long time dog walking client that was so great with other dogs that I could put him in just about any group for walks. However, he did not like new people. While walking his group one day I met two women that loved dogs. He was already barking at them, but one of them stuck her hand toward his face. I instinctively pushed it away and said, ratherly loudly, "he doesn't like new people". To which she replied, "I could see that so I thought I'd let him sniff me so he could see that I'm okay". I was flabbergasted! You'd risk loosing your fingers to show a dog that you're "okay"!
I often think about this subject. Even the Doggone Safe program for kids teaches them to extend a fist for the dog to sniff if they are approached by an off leash dog. Albeit, not until after they've let the dog sniff them everywhere else while they're "being a Tree". Which is one of the safest things to do, but can't we just skip the extended hand all together? Especially since it's up to us to keep our children and our dogs safe.
So, now you know what NOT to do, let's discuss how to greet a dog. There's an amazing graphic artist named Lili Chin that perfectly captures the emotions that her dog Boogie is showing in certain situations. Click this link or copy and paste to your browser and you'll be taken to the Educational page of her website and you'll actually see her illustration of How NOT to Greet A Dog!
My advice to folks of all ages when they want to greet or are greeted by an unfamiliar dog, is stand still and let the dog sniff you. If they're comfortable, they will probably start at your feet and work their way up. This way, it's up to said dog if they want to greet you or not. And don't think that just because you love dogs that all dogs will love you. They may love you eventually, but if they are frightened they will probably respond defensively, especially if they are attached to a leash and can't run away. If and only IF, the dog seems happy about greeting you, (Signs of being okay with the greeting include a relaxed happy face with an open mouth, licking your hands, a loose wiggly body, maybe some dancing around you. (ignore the tail wag, or see Wagging the Dog), you're probably okay to pet the dog. However, reaching over her head to pet her is not the preferred way in which a dog likes to be touched. Yet, isn't that the way that we all do it? If you disagree, go back to the top of this article and re-read the part about hands in faces.
Believe it or not, the safest way for you to pet the dog and a more comfortable way for the dog, is to either reach under their chin and pet them on the neck/chest or pet them on the shoulder area of their side. It's very easy for a dog to bite your arm if your hand is extended over the top of their head. I don't recommend getting down to the dog's level at first because if things go south you'll want to be able to move away quickly.
This feeling of needing to greet every dog we see is pretty much an American phenomena. In most of the rest of the developed world, people ignore dogs that are out and about with their owners. Children are actually taught not to approach or bother someone else's dog. And, dogs are allowed in a lot more public spaces in other countries than they are here. Having a dog that doesn't get overly excited when he sees other people or dogs has been my goal for my newest pup. I've been teaching him since the age of 8 weeks, that when someone comes into his environment, he needs to look at me. If I stop walking he should sit, If I keep walking he should heel along beside me all the while giving me direct eye contact. This works great at sending the message to well meaning people that my dog is busy working and doesn't need to be greeted. And my dog thinks people are wonderful because they mean he's going to get lots of yummy treats whenever they walk by!