This week we have been talking about bite prevention and proper interaction with dogs. A high percentage of dogs bites to children are caused by inappropriate approach to a dog. The belief among animal behavior professionals is that the major cause of dog bites to humans is related to failure of owners and dog bite victims to recognize when dogs are fearful and know how to approach and greet dogs correctly. What is the appropriate approach and why do many people fail to do it?
One issue is that humans have an instant gut reaction to the anything cute. It’s the same reaction we had as a child when we saw a cute teddy bear or other stuffed animal. As a result we treat pets as if they are cuddly toys. While many dogs are friendly, cute, and love interacting with humans, they are definitely not toys. In fact, when you think about it, dogs are a bit like humans in that the same types of inappropriate greetings that would cause a human to be afraid or irritated would cause a dog to become fearful and even aggressive too.
You’d probably feel threatened if someone randomly walked up to your car and stuck their hand into the window to reach for you. Similarly dogs may feel scared or violated if you reach into their safe space. It’s best to stand out of the dog’s safety/ threat zone and even look away so it’s clear you’re not some bad guy trying to break in.
People frequently see a cute pooch and want to rush up to pet him. Just as you might feel scared if a stranger or even an acquaintance ran right up to you, a dog may feel uncomfortable too. It’s best to approach slowly—at a leisurely walk while watching the dog for body language signs of fear.
It’s mostly kids who rush up uncontrollably to pet a dog, but even adults encroach threateningly. For instance, suddenly reaching out from nowhere without first asking parents or the owner can lead to bad results. Even children are nervous of strangers approaching, and rightly so. We shouldn’t expect our dogs to be more comfortable with stranger danger than our kids. That’s why it’s important to always ask owners if it’s OK to greet their pets. It’s up to the owner to know their pet well enough they can inform others if it’s safe to pet their dog and if the dog will enjoy the interaction.
Starting in childhood, we were all told to avoid staring. It’s rude, and even creepy. So even if a dog’s owner says it’s OK to greet Rover, avoid approaching head-on and staring. Instead, approach offset or sideways and look using your peripheral vision.
Have you ever seen a toddler or young child visiting Disneyland or some other theme park to see their favorite beloved cartoon character? But when they see Mickey Mouse or Yogi Bear he’s gigantic in size and looming over them and they get scared. The same thing happens to dogs. They may seem friendly and happy as you approach, but if you loom over them, especially if you’re facing them head on, you can cause them to have a meltdown. That’s why it’s better to stand facing slightly sideways and remain outside their personal space or bubble. Note that the size of the bubble varies from dog to dog. Then let them approach at their own rate if they feel like it. If they don’t feel like approaching, then just admire them from a distance. For little dogs you can squat down to their level. But be careful to do so from far away and face sideways so that when you are shorter your face isn’t right in their face.
Although you’ve probably heard that you should greet dogs by letting them sniff your hand, reaching out to their face is actually pretty rude, especially if you’re facing them or staring. Imagine if someone was standing near you and they reached a hand out towards you suddenly and unexpectedly invading your space. It’s best to let the dog approach at his own rate and avoid putting pressure on him by reaching out.
Some kids have phobias about clowns or certain types of people. Similarly some dogs are afraid of some types of people or people wearing or carrying certain objects or in various environments. Even if you’ve followed all of the appropriate greeting rules so far, some pets may still feel uncomfortable. So if you see signs of fear, discomfort or tension, even if the dog comes up to sniff you, avoid petting him. Instead just admire the pet from nearby.
While many humans routinely greet dogs inappropriately and many dogs put up with this socially inappropriate behavior, if you stop and think about it, correct greetings are common sense. We should be respectful of dogs instead of assuming they should be friendly and polite even when we humans are not.
Question: Have you ever been bitten because you’ve greeted or approached a dog incorrectly?