Approaching Dogs Properly: Insights to Help Keep You Safe

Category_Dogs Category_Informational Category_Safety Writer_MaryBeth_Bittel

Sparky Steps - Approaching Dogs Properly: Insights to Help Keep You Safe

Approaching Dogs Properly: Insights to Help Keep You Safe

It’s a statistic that really makes you stop and think about what's safe and what isn't safe. Data from the CDC and other sources indicates that several million dog bites happen every year. In fact, according to the website, more than 750,000 human victims seek medical attention annually for some type of canine bite. Many animal behaviorists will tell you that animals can try to bite when they’re feeling threatened, vulnerable or fearful. Here at Sparky Steps, we care for dogs every single day. One thing we know for sure is that fearful canines communicate their uneasiness without hesitation. The trouble is, some of their signals can be fairly subtle — and people don’t necessarily recognize them until it’s too late. That’s why understanding how to approach a dog safely is absolutely crucial. Sure, most pups are endearingly fluffy and adorable. But it’s always important to remember that a canine is not a cuddle toy. So consider a few of these observations next time you’re tempted to rush over and greet a dog you don’t know very well.


Respect Sensory Preferences

Picture the way your dog investigates the world. He cocks his head and listens. He also sniffs, a LOT. Our pups normally assess new situations using their superior sense of smell, and their sensitive hearing. Touch is not terribly high on the list of canine sensory communication. But when we humans meet, what do we do? We often shake hands, hug, or clap one another on the back. Dogs don’t necessarily share our propensity for touch-based salutation right out of the gate. And can you blame them? After all, be honest: If an unfamiliar person randomly walked over and reached for you, wouldn’t you feel somewhat alarmed as well?


Respect the Leash

Leashes exist to help protect our pups from worldly dangers they may not understand or anticipate. But don’t forget — when you rush right over to a dog who’s leashed, he may feel cornered and/or helplessly tethered in place. That can prompt a terse self-defense reaction.


Respect Size Differences

Some dogs are big; some dogs are small. But to almost every dog, a human still appears fairly sizeable. That perceptual difference can work to our disadvantage when we approach a pooch to say hello. Hulking over the top of an uncertain hound is one potential way to provoke a self-protection response.


Respect Personal Space Preferences

Okay, it’s not necessarily something we humans want to hear. But certain reports seem to suggest that not every dog enjoys a big bear-hug. Sure, some pups may absolutely adore it. But unless you know the canine well, you’re taking a pretty big risk by putting your face so close to his mouth.


Respect Visual Cues

Western culture subscribes to the idea that making eye contact represents good manners. But for the average canine, uninterrupted gazing is the equivalent of a hard stare — and in the dog world, that indicates aggression or an outright challenge.


The Signs

Of course, it’s easy to recognize distress or aggression in a pooch when signs are over-the-top. It probably goes without saying that you should always avoid a dog who is barking repetitively, snarling, snapping, growling or lunging. But you should also be on the lookout for these subtler signs of anxiety and tension:
  • Whimpering
  • Excessive panting
  • Eye-rolling
  • Submissive urination
  • Pacing
  • Unbroken staring
  • Stiffened body posture
  • Tight, closed mouth
  • Raised hackles


Some Tips

Under the right circumstances, even tail-wagging can be a pointed warning sign. According to Psychology Today, a wagging tail does not always indicate a happy-go-lucky hound. With all that in mind, how should you approach a dog to maximize safety for everyone? We suggest the following tips:
  • Move at a very slow, relaxed pace.
  • Keep a constant eye on dog body language.
  • Always ask the owner/handler if it’s okay to interact with the dog.
  • Avoid continuous, head-on staring.
  • Approach facing slightly sideways, viewing the dog peripherally.
  • Crouch down a few feet away, then stop completely.
  • Allow the pup to make first contact — don’t reach out.
  • If the canine doesn’t approach willingly, greet from a safe distance.
  • Avoid hugging, scratching or energetic patting until an animal knows you well.


Safe and proper canine greeting is all about respecting a dog’s individual space and temperament. Some dogs will tolerate having their “bubble” invaded rather swiftly, but others won’t. The latter scenario can lead to some extremely serious injuries. Using these prudent greeting approaches can help every canine feel more comfortable and secure.


Written by Marybeth Bittel



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