Ask before touching
It should be mandatory; required reading of a written protocol on how to approach and interact with dogs that you do not live with. There is infact much information on the subject but unfortunately most of the general public do not read it; nor would they adhere to the knowledge once found. When speaking about strange dogs; meaning dogs that you do not live with, this fact alone is the most important to consider. Dogs allow a great deal more touchy feely from their pack members (those humans who live with the dog). In this blog I am strictly speaking about interactions with dogs that you do not live with.
When you approach a dog; you should remain neutral and non threatening. I am often called out on submissive peeing, displays of aggression or general fear behavior. When we sit down and start the discussion about these unwanted behaviors it is often with strangers. Strangers are strangers; people who the dog does not live with. There are degrees of strangers; some are placed in the friends category, some are acquaintances and then there are the real strangers. It is the dog who will display the differences towards these humans; the humans should stick to the protocol. Once in (the dog's circle); the dog will then set down the rules of what is wanted or unwanted. The humans cannot make advances without first considering the dogs wishes. And those wishes can be clearly seen in body language.
Let's face it; for many humans, dog language is completely foreign. They don't watch it and even if they did they cannot deceifer it. My basic protocl is as follows.
- Do not engage with a dog when you first approach. Volumes of information will be received (if you are watching) simply by your approach.
- Let the dog sniff you; watch the interaction closely but do not give direct eye contact.
- If the dog seems comfortable with your presence then a touch under the head or neck is where to start. After that there is no need of any further touching.
- If the dog backs away then leave it at that; do not approach the dog. The dog who moves away is not comfortable with your presence and surely does not want you closer.
- Never hug a strange dog. If you have made it into the friend category, then you are more than likely going to be accepted for a greater degree of touch, but don't push it.
- Never, ever pick up a strange dog. I have only once ever picked up a strange dog and that was because I was protecting this particular dog from a very large aggressive dog. Even though it was for a very specific reason and in an emergency; it was still not at all appreciated from the little dog and as a result I was given alot of dirty looks after it.
Usually even very fearful dogs can tolerate presence if there is no eye contact.
Just the other day I had an amazing example of proper and improper approach to a strange dog. I met someone with a large breed dog; I approached making an imaginary semi-circle, not a direct line. As I got closer I sort of walked up to the side of them without looking at the dog. Later a man approached the same dog; he made direct eye contact and was coming straight at the dog. What happened next was textbook; the dog growled, it was very low and deep, but clear. The dog meant no harm, he was not being aggressive; he was simply stating "that's far enough, I don't know you." The dog then moved away.
The back-off or move away are clear messages of a dog's comfort level. This is often where it all goes wrong and it is no way the dogs fault. It is completely a human blunder; our nature is to convince, right? "It's okay; I won't hurt you" as we get even closer. Or the people who will not be swayed in their belief that all dogs love them. Typically these are the people who are growled at or bitten; the ones that push. Dogs are not humans, they cannot be persuaded that they want to meet you in an up close and personal type manner.
Another great example is from a dog that I'd been working with. This dog was a large scent hound type; he was a rescue and not long in his new home and a bit sketchy about my presence. We had worked together for probably 3 weeks before the incident. On this day I walked into the home; we had a very casual greeting, nothing direct. I sat down in a chair to talk to the owner when the dog felt sure enough to come and smell me. The fact that I was sitting in a chair made me less threatening and I was directing my attention to the owner, not the dog. But because I was in a chair I was lower when he approached and he smelled the side of my face; that's close. I talked to him as he continued to check me out at close range when I turned to say something to him. Everything changed in a instant; by the turning of my head ever so slightly I was now looking at him. His ears went up; his pupils dilated and all the skin around his mouth moved forward just before he gave a huge warning bark right in my face. Instantly I turned my head in a calm manner and completely defused the situation.
Dogs say so much before ever needing to vocalize. In our human world many are accused of not listening; in the dog world you must watch first and listen second.