How to Respectfully Approach an Unfamiliar Dog

A Good ApproachOn a regular basis I encounter or am intercepted by a person that demonstrably has little or no concept of how to approach a dog in a safe and respectful manner. I am not suggesting that these good people do so intentionally, but rather that they have simply not been privy to reliable information relating to this subject. Let’s each of us examine our approach from the dog’s point of view shall we.

Dog etiquette dictates that it is disrespectful and/or even confrontational for another dog to rapidly approach head on while making direct eye contact and exhibiting offensive body language.  That being so, how many times have you seen someone approach an unfamiliar dog, stride right up to it, and then with little or no hesitation reach out to pet the unsuspecting creature on the head? Most of the people guilty of this disrespectful behaviour are adults; many of them don’t even exhibit the courtesy of asking the person in care of the dog they are approaching, if it is permissible to do so. Far too often people will simply reach out to pet a dog, all the while getting all excited and fussing about how cute the dog is, yet giving no consideration as to how the dog may perceive their actions. Don’t be fooled by a dog’s physical facade. Even the most adorable looking dog can and just might bite, if it feels threatened or challenged.

When approaching an unfamiliar dog, the rules of canine protocol apply to adults just as they do for children. Would you allow your child to approach a strange dog without first getting assurance from the handler that it is safe to do so, and that the dog doesn’t mind being approached and touched by strangers? If the answer to that question is yes, then you must change your way of thinking.

The next time you are out in public and happen upon another person walking a dog, any dog, here are some “Do’s” and “Don’ts”

DO NOT  approach a stray dog. Stray dogs may bite for any number of reasons..

DO NOT  approach a dog being walked on a leash without first getting confirmation from the dog’s guardian that it is safe to do so.

DO NOT  approach the dog directly from the front (head on). The dog may view your direct frontal approach as a threat.

DO NOT  make direct eye contact with a dog. The dog may view direct eye contact as being a challenge or as confrontational.

DO NOT  bend over a dog. The dog may feel threatened by a stranger hovering over them. You are also putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

DO NOT  thrust your hand out towards the dog or reach over a dog”s head. The dog may view this as a threatening gesture.

DO NOT  move too quickly towards a dog.

DO NOT  move too slowly or act fearfully when approaching a dog.

DO NOT  put your face close to a strange dog’s face (the sharp end).


Always ask permission to approach and touch a dog.

Always wait for approval from the handler before approaching a dog.

Always approach a dog at a slight angle from the front (approach from the eleven or one o’clock retrodbonus position).  A dog is much more likely to view you approaching in this was as respectful and non-threatening.

Always  look over or slightly off to one side of a dog. In this way you will still have the whole dog in your line of sight but will not make direct eye contact. A dog is much more likely to accept this indirect approach as a friendly and non-threatening approach.

Rather than approach a dog in an upright manner, stop just beyond the length of the leash, kneel down (at a slight angle to the dog), and ask the handler to allow the dog to approach you when appropriate. By squatting down you are eliminating any perceived threat to a dog due to your height above the dog. Allowing a dog to approach and smell you allows the dog to come into your energy field on his terms. 

Always allow a dog to sniff you before attempting to touch him. When first touching a strangers dog, rather than reach over to pat him on the head or back, gently scratch or rub his chest. Touching a dog in this manner is non-threatening and will also keep you at a slightly greater distance from the dog than you would be if you reached over his head.

Always  remain calm and relaxed. No quick movements. Dogs can sense any anxiety you may harbour within.

Not only do I encourage you to practice these few simple yet largely ignored safety precautions, I ask that those of you with children, teach them to follow these simple safety tips as well. By adopting these simple precautions, not only will you be minimizing your risk of a dog bite but you will be showing the dogs the respect they so deserve. Far too many dogs find themselves in serious trouble due to the thoughtless and reckless actions of humans.

 To love a dog is to respect a dog!

The vast majority of dog bites could be prevented simply by showing the dog the same respect we expect others to show us. 

Larry Neilson  IACP-CDT

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