Watch Tip: How to Greet a Dog

Posted on July 10th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoLearn how to greet an unfamiliar dog safely, without making them defensive, to prevent “fear bites.” Remember that polite behavior for greeting humans directly translates to rude, threatening behavior for greeting dogs (as well as cats). Be sure to train children in particular. Dogs are often euthanized after biting in response to a perceived threat by someone who used polite human greeting behaviors instead of polite dog greeting behaviors.

Unlearn polite human greeting behaviors … greet a dog or cat safely

Yesterday at the shelter where I volunteer, a group of new volunteers were being led through the dog kennel room as part of a shelter volunteer orientation tour. I was returning a dog to a kennel after a walk, and several of the volunteers left the group to investigate the dog as I was leading him toward his enclosure. Two well-meaning people quickly approached the young dog straight-on, with hands outstretched, staring directly into the eyes of the shelter dog. Chief, the dog, a young, sensitive coonhound mix, feeling threatened, immediately moved through the open gate to the back of the kennel with his tail tucked and head lowered. “What’s wrong with him?” one of the new volunteers asked.

I had just found the topic for my weekly post.

In the western world, we are taught at an early age to greet new people by approaching them with upright posture, looking directly into their eyes and offering a hand to shake or squeeze. It becomes second nature to us, so as a result, many of us animal lovers greet every living thing–except bugs–using those same “good manners.”

We must UNLEARN that set of social rules to avoid frightening dogs, cats, and other animals, who will perceive full-front posture, staring, and outstretched arm as rude and threatening (unless they were very well-socialized with humans during the crucial developmental period).

In other words, polite human greetings are bad manners for greeting dogs and cats! In fact the two greeting languages are almost all completely opposite.

  • Assume you have permission to greet Ask the pet’s human for permission first, from 10 feet away
  • Approach first Let the dog or cat approach you, keeping your hands relaxed at your sides, speak in soft tones
  • Stand up straight Crouch and swivel sideways (scatter a treat or two on the ground if you have any)
  • Look straight into the eyes Look at the shoulder or the ground
  • Reach out and shake hands Hang your hands at your side or offer a limp hand to sniff, palm down
  • Never sniff a person Allow the dog or cat to sniff you until he or she finally stops
  • Never yawn in anyone’s face Yawn widely to signal that you are relaxed

If you must approach the pet:

  • Walk briskly toward the person Walk slowly in a curve toward the shoulder, using a slumping posture

There’s just one rule that applies in both situations:

  • Speak politely in a low-volume level tone of voice

When the pet greeting ritual is complete and the sniffing is ended, FINALLY you can begin to stroke or scratch the shoulder or under the chin.You have been accepted as safe.

Don’t bounce your hand on top of the head of a dog or cat (patting) and never hug a pet you don’t know well. Both of these behaviors are considered to be dominating and offensive.

Don’t allow children to greet unknown animals that are not leashed and led by an adult. If your child is politely greeting a leashed dog, watch the dog’s posture closely and listen for growls. If the dog growls, “freezes,” or the hair on the back is erect, it is stressed and may be preparing to bite. (Remember, some dogs don’t growl before biting.) Your child must “make like a tree:” stand up straight, putting fists under the chin, elbows close to the body, looking up, away from the dog. Some recommend wrapping arms around the head to cover the face, elbows out, hands in back of the head.

People will say that dogs and cats “just seem to like” me. Well, I know better. I just have learned good greeting manners for pets, so most dogs and cats feel at ease in my presence within a minute or two. When at ease, those affectionate animals happily display their love for humans, asking for scratches and belly rubs. It’s not magic. It’s just the result of using the correct greeting language.

4 Responses to “Watch Tip: How to Greet a Dog”

  1. Karen Maier says:


    Thank you for this article. As you know, I have 2 lovely grandbabies that are well socialized for their age. They have learned how to “properly” greet humans.

    One day I suggested to Jessica, my daughter that she leave my granddaughter, Kendall at our house while she and Jeff, her husband go do something. Her response was that she was concerned about Kujo, as Kendall has shown fear for larger dogs. I replied to her, “oh, you don’t have to worry, Kujo is a sweet loving dog, he won’t bite her.” Jessica said, “mom everyone says that about their dog, but has Kujo been around children.?” I thought about it and agreed that she had a point. After reading this article I can now see how any dog could be threatened by anyone, not just children. The point I am getting to is that I thank you for this article as I will be sending it to Jessica for her to read. She will certainly teach the children how to properly greet dogs. I assume the same goes for cats? I had the unfortunate experience of seeing a family dog bite one of my friend’s 3 year old in the face. The bite was so severe that the child had to have emergency surgery and is scarred for life. Of course, the dog was put to sleep . . . maybe even before it was taken to the vet? Not sure about that.

    Thanks again Anna. Please let me know what I can do to support your cause.


  2. Tony says:

    I’m writing in regards to my 4 year old rescue dog ”Noel ” It s been over a month now Noel has been with me , I’m at my withes end ,, I adopted Noel a day before she was to be put down , she didn’t show at the shelter when people came to see dogs to adopt, she would would hide..She came to the shelter ,, she came to the shelter after people turned her past owner in . Noel and her brother had been chained to a tree for almost 4 years. I really trying to help her snap put of what ever bothering her but having no progress , she s better but she so afraid of everything, I consider my self to be good with dogs but I’m making very slow headway with her, this bothers me a lot. I’m like her last chance,, I so need help any ideals ?

  3. Anna Nirva says:

    Tony, You need an experienced trainer to help you guide Noel how to overcome her fears and learn confidence. She sounds like a semi-feral dog who is fearful by nature and some mammals are just born to be more cautious as en evolutionary strategy, so to speak. I’ve seen other dogs like her. While she may never become an outgoing personality, with patience and perseverance, she will slowly come around. Thank you for adopting a needy shelter dog Tony.

  4. Hi Tony, I realize it’s been almost 2 years since you asked for advise but I’m just curious how things are going or how they turned out for Noel?

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