When Is It Safe to Pet an Unfamiliar Dog?

Greeting a new dog should be mutually enjoyable, but not all dogs want you to pet them. Use these tips to make sure you don’t touch the wrong dog.

By: ocean yamaha
Rushing up to an unfamiliar dog might get you nipped at or bitten. By: ocean yamaha

For pet lovers, the urge to pet an adorably fluffy dog who’s passing on the street is almost impossible to resist. The attention is great for dogs in need of socializing, and even brief interaction with pets can be emotionally rewarding.

Yet not all dogs want you to pet them. And still others are not safe to be approached.

Before rushing over to pat an unfamiliar dog on the head, consider taking some precautionary steps to avoid frightening the pup or getting your fingers nipped. That way you can ensure an enjoyable experience for both you and your new friend.

Understanding Canine Body Language

Knowing which dog is safe to pet and which isn’t can be as simple as paying attention to body language. You’re probably safe to touch a dog if she responds to your advance by:

  • Wagging her tail
  • Lifting her head
  • Appearing relaxed
  • Approaching you confidently

To be completely sure that Fifi is interested in the attention, though, always double-check with her human. Then be prepared for slobbery kisses and happy tails.

Avoid immediately touching a dog if she displays these signs of discomfort:

  • Tail tucked
  • Tense body
  • Hackles raised
  • Hiding or retreating from you
  • Lunging
  • Growling or barking

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By: nanpalmero
Ask permission and watch the body language. By: nanpalmero

Knowing Which Dogs Should Be Left Alone

Paying attention to canine body language is a great step when determining how to move forward with your urge to scratch that furry cutie walking your way. Another thing to look for is the condition of the dog.

If a dog looks like he may be injured or sick, your best option is to give him space.

If a dog is elderly, approach slowly. Older dogs often have a harder time hearing and seeing and can be startled easily if they aren’t aware of your presence. Older dogs may also benefit even more from your touch as a little massage can ease the pain of arthritic joints.

Most working dogs were a vest. These dogs may be:

  • Search and rescue dogs
  • Police dogs
  • Emotional support animals
  • Guide dogs

Dogs serve as working and assistance companions in many fields. When they are wearing their vest, they are working and you shouldn’t pet them. In fact, many of the vests say: Do not pet.

Yellow Ribbons Are Warnings

Have you ever seen a dog being walked with a yellow ribbon tied to his collar or leash? That yellow ribbon is a precaution. It may mean the dog:

  • Is nervous or scared
  • Is sick or recovering from surgery
  • Was recently rescued and is still adjusting
  • May be aggressive to strangers

This video explains why the yellow ribbon is important and what it means for a formerly abused dog:

Whatever the reason for the ribbon, if you see one you should not approach the dog without first getting approval from the dog’s caretaker.

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Be Aware of Your Posture

Now that you’ve determined your canine target is friendly and his person has given you the green light to pet him, you should know the basics of how to pet a new dog.

At home you may cradle Penny like a baby and kiss her right on her wet nose, but that is not how you should treat a dog whom you’re meeting for the first time.

To avoid intimidating your new slobbery friend:

  • Approach her slowly.
  • Kneel or squat near her. Do not bend over her because this can seem threatening.
  • Hold out your hand for her inspection.
  • Don’t touch her until she has finished smelling you.
  • Start by petting under her chin or around her ears. If she’s receptive, stroke her neck and back.
  • Some dogs can be “hand shy,” so avoid touching the top of her head or face.

While you’re petting your furry new friend, you should get an idea of her personality. If she still seems timid, continue to touch gently and speak in a reassuring and soft tone.

Many dogs are ecstatic to have a new buddy willing to scratch their chin. Although these dogs are hardly timid, you should still take precaution when handling them. Chances are, you’ll leave your encounter with furry clothes, slobbery arms and a great big smile.

A few minutes of petting is one way to turn an unfamiliar pup into a fast friend. Take your time getting comfortable with strange dogs and, in time, a little one-on-one with a passing pooch may result in all the neighborhood dogs excitedly expecting neck rubs and ear scratches every time you see them.

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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