Dogs are some of the most important parts of our lives, so it’s always special when we meet new ones. Sometimes those introductions go really well, and other times they don’t go anything like we’d planned.
I do a lot of pet sitting, so I know that dogs need time to get to know new people, be they pet sitters, friends or family members. But even if you think you know dogs, be sure that you know how to greet those you’ve never met before.
I reached out to animal behaviorist Peter L. Borchelt, Ph.D., CAAB, to talk about how to correctly introduce yourself to new dogs — and what to avoid.
Back Off, New People
Dogs have different personalities, just like people do. Some dogs are comfortable with meeting new people, but others may be shy, nervous, scared and stressed when someone new comes into their territory.
It’s tempting to rush up to cutie-patootie dogs you’ve never met, I know, but they need time to adjust to the new scents, mannerisms and sounds that have invaded their space. Having unknown humans swooping into their faces, picking them up or putting their hands all over them is a bad idea for a first meeting.
“People rush right up to dogs and scare them,” says Borchelt. “[But] it’s almost like dating — you want to go slow at first to get to know each other. You don’t want to push too far where it gets too intense. You need to let them come to you at their own pace.”
Often people don’t realize they’re being scary instead of loving when it comes to meeting new dogs. So instead of making a beeline for the dog, allow him to come to you.
“If a dog is friendly to me, I’m friendly back,” says Borchelt. “But if the dog is afraid, I just ignore them and make sure I don’t escalate that fear.”
Give It Time
A dog may not warm up to a new person for several meetings, so expecting instant rapport is the stuff of dreams.
In their book Decoding Your Dog, Drs. Debra F. Horwitz DVM, DACVB, and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB, explain: “The more afraid or uncooperative your dog is, the more slowly you will need to work through the process.”
A slower approach ensures that a dog is comfortable and doesn’t feel he has to resort to aggressive behaviors to defend himself. According to Borchelt, signs of these behaviors include:
- Ears back
- Head down
- Tail lowered
- Licking lips
- Gaze aversion
As an example of how to act around new dogs, Borchelt explained a likely scenario he may encounter on a house call with a new client: “Say we’re sitting at the kitchen table. I’m left-handed, so my notes would be in my left hand. I might have my right hand just dangling, letting the dog come up and sniff. If he seems OK with that, I might gently touch his nose.”
It’s important to be aware of the signals dogs make when they’re stressed. For example, some breeds, such as dobermans, have had their ears cropped, making it difficult to tell if their ears are meant to be standing straight up or back. If you know you’re meeting a new dog ahead of time, prepare by reading up on the breed’s general behaviors.
Do you know what this Doberman’s body language says? Take the video quiz to find out:
Meeting New Dogs 101: Best Practices
If you need a short list of things to remember when meeting a new dog, here are some important highlights:
- Speak calmly to the pet’s human before making contact with the dog, and allow the dog to greet you first.
- Give the dog some time to adjust to having you in his space (this may take several visits).
- Stay alert for any signals that the dog is stressed or upset. Cease contact if body language becomes aggressive. Or, if someone unknown to your dog is petting him, tell that person to stop and move away as soon as you see your dog is uncomfortable.
You love dogs, so it’s understandable that you want to shower them with pets and hugs, even if you’ve never met them before. But it’s also important to recognize when a new dog sees you as a threat and take it upon yourself to avoid making a potentially threatening situation worse.