I see it all the time — kids and enthusiastic adults running up, in an erratic and surprising manner, extending their hands right into a dog’s face and hovering there, squealing something about how much they love dogs. What can pet parents do in that instant, crucial moment to avoid disaster? Jump in and shove treats into your dog’s face and tell her how brave she is! Then, with the immediate crisis averted, begin to educate the (human) greeter.
Teaching people, especially children, how to greet dogs in a safe and respectful manner is similar to cuing dogs. In dog training, we present the cue before the behavior happens. Similarly, we can guide well-meaning dog lovers that when asking if you can pet someone’s dog, it is essential to wait for the guardian’s response before reaching out to pet the dog! This is one way to prevent something unforeseen, such as a snap or a bite, from happening.
It’s understandable and actually quite sweet when kids are enthusiastic to see and pet dogs. After all, humans are animals too and we get excited. However, when approaching dogs, or any animal, it is wise to be very mindful of our movements and teach others to do the same. Our enthusiasm might startle a dog, especially if they are not expecting our approach. When pets are startled, their first response is often to choose between fight or flight. And if they can’t flee (due to being confined or on a leash), they might feel they have to fight in order to put distance between themselves and the scary threat approaching them – and sadly, that can lead to a bite.
Learn to Speak ‘Dog-lish’
So, although asking guardians for permission to pet their dogs is a good first step, ultimately it’s up to the dog; that’s whose permission is most important. But how can you tell if a dog is consenting to a greeting or feeling scared? This is where reading dog body language is a great skill to have and to share with family, friends and neighbors. For dogs, signs of discomfort or conflict can include (but are not limited to) turning away, a lip curl, lip licking and even yawning. If you see any of these signs, it could mean that your furry friend is feeling uncomfortable about something and is not sure what to do. It’s our job here to respect the animal and do all we can to try to improve the situation for him so that he can feel safe and calm.
On the other hand, if the body language you are seeing seems to indicate that the dog is comfortable with you greeting him, it’s a good idea to allow him to approach you, giving him control of the greeting. At that point, you might like to offer a nice scratch under the chin or (if it’s okay with the guardian) hand your new buddy a treat with an open palm, face up so he can take it from you if he wants it. Please note: Many dogs feel uncomfortable with someone they don’t know reaching over them to scratch or pat them on the top of the head. To be on the safe side, it is best to avoid greeting in this manner.
Understand Resource Guarding
Lovingly teaching humans how to greet dogs politely can go a long way in helping to prevent dog bites. Another preventive measure is to understand resource guarding behavior in dogs. Resource guarding is a common, instinctual behavior in all animals, including humans. If we don’t take care of our stuff, our valued resources could easily be lost or stolen. So, naturally, we try to avoid those outcomes. Now, back to your dog. Can you tell if your dog is happy about sharing stuff? Has he or she been showing signs of conflict or stress over ‘sharing’ resources? (This is where paying close attention to dog body language, especially the more subtle signals, plays an important role.) Even if we don’t want that nasty bone or toy, a pet dog might not understand that. If your inquisitive canine is not fine with sharing, or you have any concerns, consult a professional, force-free dog trainer or behavior consultant. Together you can work on teaching dogs that it’s okay – perhaps even rewarding — to share. And the humans in the household can learn management strategies aimed at keeping everyone safe.
Always Use Humane Training Methods and Pet Gear
Whether addressing resource guarding, or any other behavior, why choose a force-free trainer? “Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury,” according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists’ Position Statement on Humane, Effective and Evidence Based Training. That is why at the Inquisitive Canine, we are are committed to using a gentle and humane approach to help pet parents and their pups build and maintain a loving, joyful lifelong relationship.
Additionally, for the safety of both dogs and the public, we recommend choosing humane walking gear designed to keep pets secure and comfortable during outdoor adventures.
This month, during Dog Bite Prevention Week, please share these tips with dog lovers far and wide. And thank you for being an inquisitive dog guardian and doing your part to ensure safe, pawsitive interactions between pets and people!