The Right Way to Approach a Dog You Don’t Know

Certain tried-and-true advice is the opposite of what your dog wants.


How many times have you seen someone try to make friends with a dog they don’t know by closing their hand into a fist and letting a dog sniff it — or telling their child to use that tactic before trying to pet the animal? It’s not a good idea.

A lot of people believe a fist held up to a dog’s nose before stroking the animal’s face or body will make a stranger seem less threatening. But a fist to the nose is perceived by a dog as potentially aggressive, which is why you might very well see her try to move away when the person then tries to start petting. Other moves that a dog you have never met might see as aggressive, or at least off-putting:

  • Petting right on the top of the head.
  • Approaching very quickly.

It’s also not enough to ask the dog’s owner if it’s okay to pet the dog. You have to ask the dog, too. How?

First, check her body language. Has she shifted her weight away from you? Is she licking her lips, or looking from side to side rather than forward? These are all signs that she would rather not interact, and her preference should be respected. Her emotional comfort is more important than your desire to pet her.

If the dog does seem relaxed about your presence, drop your hand down next to your side. If she approaches, give her a little stroke. Then stop and wait to see if she wants more. If she doesn’t, let it go. That’s much more respectful than forcing her into a meet-and-greet she does not want. Imagine if strangers kept forcing you to shake their hands on the street or insisted on stroking your back.


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