Do you ever wonder why dogs react the way they do when you’re approaching them on the street? Why some dogs might growl or bark in certain situations, and in others, be friendly? Let me tell you a story and give you some suggestions about why.

Dogs have different personalities, respect their choices and their owners.
Communication with dogs and their owners is very important to be aware of.
Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

I once had an incident where someone decided it would be ‘funny’ to stop and stare at the dog I was walking. The man’s strange behavior caused a response that could have been avoided by looking away. Instead, the continued direct eye contact elicited a protective and very explosive reaction.

In most cases this isn’t a problem and the dog will move on, unconcerned.

This made me wonder, how many people truly know how to approach a strange dog? You’d like to think most dogs are friendly and have no issues with you approaching them. Most of the time you’re probably right. However, these days with fewer people training, and more dogs coming from shelters with unknown pasts – you never know exactly what you might be walking up to. This isn’t saying that you should be wary of every dog, but pay more attention.

People vs Dogs – Communication

Most dogs avoid a direct gaze unless they're confident in themselves.
Most dogs avoid a direct gaze in their communication with strangers.
Photo by Victor Grabarczyk on Unsplash

People and dogs are as different as apples and oranges when it comes to communication. People like to smile, while dogs see this as a snarl, warning, or aggressive action. People like to meet face to face with eye contact – dogs see this as a direct challenge or a dominant action. There are many cases each year where humans are bitten by dogs – all because we sent the wrong signal. We may ignore the owner’s signals, or even the dog’s. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they’re still instinctually animals.

The first thing when approaching a strange dog is to pay attention to the owner’s body language. Do they look comfortable? Usually, if the owner is relaxed, the dog is. If you approach a stranger that has a tight hold on the leash, doesn’t look comfortable, or is trying to avoid people, most likely the dog won’t be comfortable either. Always ask first before petting a strange dog. It goes a long way in making the owner comfortable which will make the dog comfortable.

Before you pet any dog, always be mindful that there are certain ways to approach a dog. A stranger should never run-up to a dog, crouch down to meet their eyes, or pet them on the top of the head. The best way to communicate to the dog that you’re not a threat is to allow the dog to sniff the back of your hand while you speak with the owner. If the dog nudges your hand or seems to be friendly to the attention, then pet them along either the side, under the chin, or on the chest. If they back away or seem uninterested, then give the dog their space and do not start any contact.

People vs Dogs – Breeds and Communication

Most guardian breed dogs such as the mastiff can be aloof when being greeted.
Communication between owners and guardian dogs is important to be aware of.
Photo by Valerie Elash on Unsplash

A dog’s breed can also be used along with their own communication to determine if a dog may be receptive to a greeting or not. Guardian breeds bond closely with their owners and watch strangers closely. These dogs will often be aloof towards you while watching their owner for communication that they have accepted you. Once they see this acceptance, the dog may be more receptive. This is where offering the back of your hand comes in to play. Friendly, casual talk with the owner gives the dog time to make its own decision on whether it wants to say ‘hi.’

Most hunting and gundog breeds are bred to be receptive and biddable with people. These dogs are often open, if not exuberant, about meeting strange people. With these dogs, you may see an excited wag that shows they’re more than happy to say hello! But always defer to the owner as they may not want your greeting to encourage their overly friendly behavior as part of the dog’s training.

People vs Dogs – Always Pay Attention!

Not all dogs, even some more anxious labs, are social butterflies.
Not all dogs, even some more anxious labs, are social butterflies.
Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

While we hope that all dogs are lovely social butterflies that love everyone, there may be one that just isn’t. Always ask for the owner’s permission before you interact, approach strange dogs in a calm and low key manner, and respect the body language and communication of the dog and the owner. If you follow some of these basic rules of communication, you’ll have a more enjoyable time with the dogs you’ll meet on the street!