Nice to Meet You

Wanna play?
Wanna play?

Dogs are as individual as people; therefore, getting to know them takes time and happens on different levels. There’s a big difference in “knowing” someone you’ve met at a party or been introduced to over coffee by a mutual friend, and “knowing” a friend who’s been part of your life for years, right? The same is true with dogs.
It takes time to get to know a dog and identify his or her personality and behavior patterns, just as it would with a person. But what about when you meet a dog briefly, say, walking down the street or hanging out at a coffee shop?
When you meet a person with a dog, greeting the dog probably won’t get much more intimate than saying hello and maybe giving the dog a pat or a hug. You might note the breed or notice whether the dog seems friendly — but even at this level, you can look for cues from the dog about his or her personality.
Cali and Jana perfectly illustrate the polar opposites in terms of their reaction to new people.
Cali was put on this planet to greet every single human being and become his or her new best friend. She rushes toward strangers with her whole rear half wagging and a huge smile on her face. If we’re on the way back from the park, she’s also got a slobbery tennis ball in her mouth, ropes of drool dangling, a wet “bib” (from the drool), muddy paws and legs, and she feels sweaty to the touch. On really energetic play days, she’s also given herself a good all-over shake and has, in the process, managed to drool on top of her own head. Never mind. She doesn’t notice any of that, and neither should you. She greets each and every person we meet with enthusiastic joy, secure in the certainty that every single human will love her back. Of course you can pet this girl, hug her, take her home and play ball with her. She’s your new best friend, after all.
Jana stands back and watches this all with horrified disapproval. Sometimes she barks. Usually she stands behind me, ensuring that there is a large, solid barrier between the stranger and the nut-job puppy greeting the stranger — and herself. This is not a dog who is inviting or would welcome a getting-to-know-you pat. This is the dog who invented “no-touch cuddling”: when she’s feeling affectionate, she will agree to lie upon a corner of my bed, so long as we’re not touching. After a few minutes, never more than five, she, with great dignity, descends from the bed and gets on with her life. This is what counts as “cuddling” in Jana’s world.
OK, so when you’re encountering a new dog, the first thing to notice is whether the dog is approaching you or standing back? That’s easy. But most dogs just kind of stand or sit next to their owners. They are not as clear about where they are on the Jana‒Cali continuum as, well, Jana and Cali are. What then?
Most dogs, even the friendly ones, dislike being patted on the head and being hugged. Sadly for them, most humans do one or both of those things when meeting a dog. According to Turid Rugaas, a dog communication expert who has identified what she calls “calming signals” — subtle body language cues dogs use with each other — the best way to introduce yourself to a dog is to approach slowly and from the side.
If the dog is sitting next to the person, you can just pet the dog on the side — stroke his shoulder, say — or reach around (not over the head) to scratch his ears. Making direct eye contact, leaning over a dog’s head, or reaching for the top of his head can be perceived as threatening by a dog, so it’s better to use the sideways approach. You can always crouch down to be more at the dog’s level; you’ll be less threatening and the dog will probably see it as a friendly gesture. If you are face to face, rather than reach for the top of the dog’s head, it’s better to scratch his chest. In any case, a slow approach lets the dog get your scent before you actually touch him.
Most people aren’t very observant around dogs, and dogs’ body language cues can be very subtle. A dog that is constantly looking back and forth, between the owner and you, for example, is showing nervousness, as is a dog who constantly licks her lips. A nervous dog might yawn or show a “stress smile.” (See “Communication Goes Two Ways” for examples.) These dogs will be happier if you don’t try to pat them when you first meet them.
If your dog is particularly sensitive or will meet a lot of people, it’s a good idea to play a pat-the-puppy game — pat the dog on the head, then immediately praise him and offer a treat. This can revise his thinking about this unpleasant encounter and may even turn it into something he likes. It’s also a good idea to teach your dog to look at you when people approach. You can reward this focus with a treat. The dog may develop better associations with meeting people. The dog will also be learning to look to you when she is stressed, which is a good “default” behavior. Because the bottom line is, whether your dog is Cali-style friendly, Jana-style reserved, or somewhere in between, your job is to keep him safe — and that means running interference with strangers, whether human or canine.

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6 thoughts on “Nice to Meet You

  1. Well I just love dogs in ton. According to me dogs are the best pet anyone can have as they are faithful and good animal in every aspect. I too own two dogs and believe me guys the feeling is when I come to home after job they just me lick my face and I love that.

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  2. This was a great piece. BUt I also think there is so much more they can say to us, pets are so very intuitive. I have been reading a book on pets and animals and why they are here with us and what they can communicate, it’s quite good. It’s called Animal lover, and it’s by Ann Marie Hoff, her site is annmariehoff.com.

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  3. Terrific blog! Sometime when we are together, I’d like you to look at my settings. For some reason, if I try to leave a comment, I need to log into WordPress. WordPress and I are having a current disagreement about what my password might be. So, ultimately, no comment gets posted. Do other people post through Facebook?

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