The Do’s and Don’ts of Dog Greetings

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The Beacon Bolt is a publication of the student body of Northwest Christian University.

When you see a dog wandering around on leash or in somebody’s yard, what’s your first reaction? For many dog lovers, they “ooh and aah” over the dog and proceed to go to try and pet it.  For those who have more experience owning and being around dogs, perhaps you even ask the owner if it’s alright to pet their dog. As you pet him, that dog is trying to communicate something to you, whether you understand him properly or not. He may be happy to see you or  may simply be allowing you to pet him. After all, dogs’ strongest form of communication is body language, a language that is foreign to most people. Regardless, once this seemingly pleasant interaction is over, you head off and go on with your day.

What most people look at in this type of situation is the dog’s tail, maybe his face. We may say, “He’s smiling! He likes me!” Well I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but dogs don’t actually experience emotions in the same way that we do. What we may interpret as happiness in a dog could really be something else entirely. In fact, in the situation above, the dog isn’t smiling. Most likely, he’s panting which could be a sign he’s tired/warm or perhaps that he’s stressed. Panting is actually one of many nonverbal signs that a dog has to communicate that they are stressed.

So why is it so important to realize when a dog is stressed? Well, small amounts of stress aren’t a bad thing. However, larger amounts of stress (especially when coupled with negative experiences) can be a deadly combination. One example of this is what happened to 2-year old Lamarkus Hicks, just this last September. This young child was wandering, unsupervised, and found his way outside of his yard and into his neighbor’s. In this neighbor’s yard, where a large breed dog was chained up, little Lamarkus was repeatedly bitten and was later pronounced dead. In this case it may be easy to assume that something was wrong with the dog or it was aggressive. However, the dog was in healthy condition and had absolutely no history of aggression (Munson, 2015). Most likely, the boy simply went up to pet the puppy that, feeling trapped and potentially over-stressed, proceeded to protect himself. Tragic incidents just like this one occur on a regular basis.

From events like these, it’s important to reflect on why something like this had to occur. It’d be easy for us to blame the dog, the owner, or even the parent for what happened. But realistically, we should look at all the people involved. If people were generally more educated and more responsible when it came to dog ownership or interactions with strange dogs, events like Lamarkus’ death could be far less common. In order to accomplish this, we desperately need to have a better understanding of dogs, how they communicate, and how to best interact with them. One example of this could be a common, everyday greeting. In light of this, here’s a short explanation of how to properly greet a dog:

First, when you see a dog that you’d like to pet, ask the owner if it’s alright to pet their dog (this seems like an obvious step for some, but is ignored a surprisingly large amount of the time). Next, it’s important to listen to what the person says about their dog. If they say that their dog is shy, don’t force the interaction. Some dogs are learning to be calm around people (for instance if they were abused) and forcing this type of dog to be pet is unfair and potentially dangerous. After you decide to pet their dog, the best way is to reach out your fist first (so if the dog decided to bite, it wouldn’t get any fingers). This lets the dog smell you first which helps comfort the dog and give them the chance to approach you. In addition to this, if the dog is particularly shy, it’s helpful to turn your body to the side and squat down. It’s more intimidating to a dog to have you directly face them and bend over to pet them (you’d be nervous of someone 3-4 times your size leaning over to greet you!). When you do get to the point of actually petting the dog, it’s also much less scary for you to rub/scratch their chest. Not only are you not putting your hand all over their head, but you’re also pushing a pressure point of sorts. Rubbing a dog’s chest can help calm them and improve your interaction. Again, if the dog doesn’t want to be pet, don’t force it.

Following these guidelines can help to ensure a safe interaction with strange, unknown dogs. Continuing to spread the word to friends and family members of the importance of polite dog greetings can help to keep people informed and can hopefully prevent some dog bites from occurring. If you have other questions on dog body language or what to do in different situations with dogs, consult a local expert.



Munson, N. (2015, 10-15). No charges filed after boy dies from dog attack. Your 4 state. Retrieved from

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1 Response

  1. Doyle Srader says:

    Very nice! The only thing I’d add is, don’t make eye contact. You can look at the dog’s owner with a friendly, relaxed face, because the dog will notice that, or you can just look NEAR the dog but not directly at it. Even after you and the dog break the ice, avoiding direct eye contact is good dog manners.

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