There is an old wive’s tale that people tend to follow when it comes to meeting a strange dog in public. The notion of extending your hand out towards a strange dog’s face so he can sniff you as a peaceful introduction isn’t always the best course of action to take.
First of all, you should rest assured that a dog can sample your particular odor from quite a distance away, negating the need of the “hand in the face” approach. Try putting a small slice of cheese on your counter-top, and see how long it takes your dog to find its way into the kitchen, and up on the counter. You’ll find it doesn’t take long due to their incredible sense of small combined with the nature of how scent molecules travel in the air.
Second, reaching into the face of a nervous, aggressive, shy, fearful, or skittish dog may result in you withdrawing a bloody stump….. ok, maybe not that severe, but even a small nip on your finger can be rather painful, and also traumatic for the dog! Your seemingly kind gesture of reaching into the dog’s face can easily be perceived as a threat by an insecure dog, and if they have no way to escape, or if you move too fast, may leave the dog no option except to nip at you to push you away. Remember, for shy and nervous dogs, you encroaching their space is seen as a potential threat of harm to them.
So how should you approach a strange dog if you wish to pet it? Simple…. let the dog come to you. Give it some space, let’s say 3-4 or more feet away as a minimum, and watch its body language. If it shows no interest in you, then don’t do anything. If it looks friendly (tail wagging with ears back, mouth open with a smile, and wanting to approach you) then ask the owner if it’s okay to pet. However, if it’s trying to move away from you, is laying under a table or chair, looks nervous, is cornered, or has it’s tail tucked up to it’s belly, your best course of action is to leave that particular dog alone. Your kind intentions will likely not be understand by the dog while it’s in a fear mode. If anything, toss it a treat (given by the owner), and simply walk away.
Approaching a strange dog for petting can be good or bad. It’s best to take a few extra seconds to let the dog determine how it’s going to go.
Last, not every dog wants to be petted by strangers, and may even withdraw from your reach. This doesn’t automatically mean the dog is unsocialized or fearful; it may just not want you to pet it. Think of it like this…. not every person wants a stranger coming up into their space and being fondled. Many people like a little space around them, and tend to make contact once a certain comfort level has been met.
In closing, just let the strange dog decide the outcome at it’s own speed. Your fingers may thank you later. 🙂