Petting a dog—it seems so simple, but you could be doing it all wrong. For many people, things go bad from the start; they unknowingly make a dog nervous or scare him away just by how they approach him. A lot of dog lovers can’t read a dog’s body language either, so they mistake fear for friendliness. And even if it’s a dog you know and love, you might be doing something against the rules.
California dog behaviorist Beverly Ulbrich is guiding us through the basics to approaching and petting dogs, whether it be a stray or your best friend’s furry pal.
An Unknown or Stray Dog
When you see a dog you don’t know, it’s important not to spook him as you approach.
“A mistake people make when there is a stray is to run after them to try to catch them,” Ulbrich says. “Almost any dog would run away from that. Even the nicest, most well-trained dog is going to be on edge and panicking because they are lost or in a strange place, so realize how scared they are.”
Be as non-threatening as possible, which means crouching down and even turning your body sideways. The main thing is not to stand and bend over the dog.
“If the dog sees you as bending over them, that is taken as dominance,” Ulbrich says. “If a dog does that to another dog—posturing over the other dog—the next move is humping. The dog could see bending over him as a threat and get scared.”
Once you are squatting down, extend your hand and let the dog come to you. If the dog comes forward wagging his tail, you can pet him. If he stands there, backs off, or pulls his head away, it’s best to leave him alone.
“It’s like a handshake between people,” Ulbrich explains. “If you’re reaching for a handshake and the other person reaches back and shakes your hand, you meet midway. You never go grab the person’s hand from their side.”
Pay attention to the dog’s body language, too. If his tail is stiff or tightly tucked, he’s uncomfortable. You can’t always trust a wagging tail, either—if hair is raised on the center of his back or his ears are pinned back and there is still some tail wagging, the dog is likely nervous and you should proceed with caution.
Nice to Meet You
When you’re meeting a dog for the first time, whether it be a friend’s dog or a dog in the park, follow the same non-threatening protocol as with a stray. Squat down, extend your hand out, and let the dog come to you. You should also be relaxed.
“Make sure your body language is laid back and you are gently reaching out your hand, not overcoming the dog,” Ulbrich advises. “And because it is a new dog to you, still ask if the dog is friendly and ask if they have a favorite spot to be pet.”
You can also have treats handy, which usually helps! Another tactic is asking the dog to sit.
“Once dogs hear that command, a lot of them will automatically do it,” Ulbrich explains. “It also gives you insight as to whether they are trained or not.”
Your Dog Buddies
A dog you know and love should be happy to see you and comfortable with you petting him. But you could be doing things he or his pet parent hates.
The first thing is to know and follow his parent’s rules. For example, perhaps the dog needs to sit before you pet him, or the pet parent might prefer you never pet him while he’s jumping on you.
“You may be reinforcing bad or potentially harmful behavior,” Ulbrich explains. “Not only is it impolite to jump up on people, but if your dog jumps on someone who is scared or unsuspecting, it can knock them over or cause them to trip.”
Kids can get rough with dogs, which they may not particularly enjoy. Whether it’s pulling on their ears, big hugs, or even jumping on their backs, some dogs are fine with it while others are not.
“It’s specific to individual dogs,” Ulbrich explains.
If it’s a dog you know and love, you or his pet parent should know where to draw the line but keep the dog’s personal space in mind.
The way you greet a dog you know but haven’t seen for a long time is important, too. Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, says a study proved just seeing you will get the dog excited, but the sound of your voice and petting makes the dog happiest.
“Where there was no social interaction [in the study], the dogs actually seemed bothered,” Dr. Coren writes. “It is the sensation of being touched by that person which helps to boost the level of good feeling in the dog.”
It helps if you know a dog’s sweet spot—the spot that makes his leg kick with joy! With a familiar dog, this should be easy to figure out, or you could simply refer to this handy chart:
The Bottom Line
Petting a dog shouldn’t be stressful for either of you. In fact, studies show talking to and petting a dog lowers blood pressure! Make sure you master how to pet a dog from the proper approach to reading body language, so both you and the dog can enjoy.