3 Tips for Greeting a Strange Dog

person holding hand out for black dog to sniff

When you see a dog out and about, it’s easy to get excited and to be hit with the urge to pet them. If they are wearing something that identifies them as a service dog, it’s a clear sign that they should be left alone to focus on their job. But, it can be hard to ignore a dog without any identifiers, especially if they seem to be excited to meet you. Here are some tips for greeting a strange dog:

1. Ask the person with them for permission.

There is no question that service dogs or other dogs identified as working dogs, like police, military, or search and rescue dogs, should be left alone to be able to focus on their jobs when working. But, what about other dogs? You should never just reach out and try to pet a strange dog. If there is a person with them, it’s important to ask the person if you can pet their dog.

Even if the dog seems super excited to meet you, it’s still important to ask the person if it’s okay to pet their dog. A dog that seems friendly and excited may be in the middle of training and the person may ask them to sit first before you pet them to reinforce or stay consistent with training. Even if a dog is friendly, they may have certain triggers that you need be aware of when petting them. When you ask to pet someone’s dog, it’s important to respect their decision if they say no and to listen to anything additional they say if the answer is yes.

2. Pay attention to the dog’s body language.

Whether you’ve been given permission to pet someone’s dog or a strange dog is approaching you without a person, it’s important for you to pay attention to the dog’s body language. This will give you a good indication of whether the dog is comfortable or nervous. Or, in the case of a dog without a person, will let you know whether the dog is approaching in a friendly or aggressive manner.

Obvious signs of distress or aggression, like barking, growling, or baring teeth, should be a clear sign that you should not approach that dog and should definitely not try to pet them. Ears drawn back and tucked close to their head paired with a tail that is tucked close to the body and not wagging can be a submissive posture, but can also indicate that a dog is feeling nervous or intimidated. Either way, you want to pay attention to a dog reacting in this manner because their reaction could be unpredictable if you continue to make them nervous.

If they’re with a person, you can back away and ask for clarification on what’s going on in order to make the dog feel more comfortable. The person should be able to let you know whether this is normal behavior and whether it is okay to proceed or not. Dogs can be goofballs and develop some odd behaviors at times. The dog’s owner will be able to give you some insight into what is going on. If the dog backs away from you when you try to pet them, respect their space and do not continue to try and pet them. They’ve given a clear signal that they are uncomfortable with how you’re coming at them or don’t want you to pet them. Even if a person with them has said it’s okay to pet them, don’t force it if the dog backs away.

It’s important to remember that all dogs will have varying attitudes towards strangers and levels of socialization, which means they will all react differently to strangers. Some owners may give your permission to pet their dog because they perceive their dog as super-friendly because their dog is super-friendly to them, but still may not react as openly with strangers. Just because you love dogs doesn’t mean every dog will love you and want to receive pets from you. It’s important to pay attention to, and respect, the signals a strange dog gives you during an interaction.

3. Exhibit normal dog courtesies in your behavior.

If you’ve been given permission to approach and pet a strange dog, in addition to paying attention to their body language, you need to also consider your own body language through the eyes of a dog. Most dogs do not enjoy direct eye contact, direct face-to-face body placement, pats on the top of the head, or being leaned over by people or dogs they don’t know. So, don’t make direct contact with a strange dog as you approach. Stay relaxed, avert your eyes or focus on a different area of them, and angle your body slightly away from them as you approach.

Instead of leaning over them, stand up straight or crouch down to their level and let them sniff your hand as long as they are still relaxed and interested. They’ll wag their tails, start sniffing, stretch out towards you, or approach on their own if they’re interested. Then, instead of patting them on the top of the head, pet them gently on the shoulder, chest, or neck. Most dogs will make it obvious whether they want more interaction with your or if they are done.

If they want more interaction, which will usually be shown by staying in your space, continuing to wag their tails, perhaps trying to lick you, rolling over for scratches, lying or sitting on you, etc., then continue petting and giving them scratches by all means. However, if they try to back away from your hand or start showing obvious disinterest, then you should stop and leave them alone as those are clear signs that they are done with the interaction.

Although dogs are adorable and we love them, it’s important to remember that they are their own beings and should not be forced into interactions they don’t want with strangers. As someone greeting a dog you don’t know, it’s important to pay attention to the signals they’re giving you and to respect their space. With these tips for greeting a strange dog in-hand, you’re set to ensure the interactions stay positive and could result in more puppy-petting sessions in the future.