What You Should Do — and Not Do — When Meeting a New Dog

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You’re seated on a restaurant patio enjoying the spring weather and can’t help but reach out to pet a nearby dog.


Not only do pets become fearful of strangers — no matter how nice you really are — they will sometimes bite when they feel threatened. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there are 4.5 million dog bites in the United States annually. Most victims are children, followed by men.

“You never know a dog’s history or behavioral issues they may have, so always make sure to ask a dog’s owner before you go to pet a dog,” said Ashley Jacobs, CEO and founder of Sitting for a Cause. “This way you can ensure your safety and the dog’s comfort.”

And you can make sure you and your loved ones don’t turn a seemingly innocent encounter into a nasty one for you and the pet.

Consider these seven points from pet experts to ensure your pet encounters stay friendly for everyone.

1. Remain still as the dog sniffs your closed hand

Dog trainer with an Australian shepherd
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Keep your hand in a fist – it’s less threatening – and slowly offer it to the dog to sniff it as long as it wants, recommends Valerie Trumps, writing for the pet parenting site Pet 360. When the dog relaxes or wags its tail, you can move ahead to pet it (again, with the owner’s permission).

2. Stand up straight or squat

Couple playing with their dog at a park in autumn
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A dog has its own way of interpreting your posture when you meet. Standing straight or squatting is fine, but whatever you do, don’t crouch over the dog, recommends Trumps. That posture can be interpreted as threatening.

3. Don’t stare into a dog’s eyes

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If you squat down to its eye level, don’t hold the dog’s gaze. You may think doing so shows love or friendliness, but Jacobs says many dogs see it as a sign of aggression. It makes them uncomfortable and even fearful.

4. Pet the body of a dog, not its head or face

Child with a golden retriever outside
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“Many dogs, especially dogs that aren’t familiar with you, aren’t comfortable having their head or face touched,” says Jacobs. “Touching their heads or faces is an invasion of their space and can leave them feeling threatened. Instead, opt to pet their backs, chest or shoulders.”

5. Avoid hugging

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Even if the dog belongs to a friend or relative, don’t assume it’s completely comfortable with you. Dogs don’t like anyone hugging them, says Jacobs. “Most dogs are not fans of being hugged because it makes them feel trapped or dominated, increasing their stress levels,” she says.

6. Do let the dog control the interaction

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If the dog wags its tail and relaxes, it enjoys the encounter. If the dog backs away, stop what you’re doing and allow the dog solitude, recommends the pet travel site GoPetFriendly.

7. Do play nice

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You may think it’s a gentle sign of love to gently pull a dog’s tail or pull a toy away, but it is frustrating to a dog. Play nice and be respectful, says Jacobs.

If you’re running, walking or just sitting, and a dog threatens to attack, heed these next four tips from dog behavior expert Cesar Millan’s website, Cesar’s Way:

8. Remain calm

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Don’t yell, kick or strike out at a dog that attacks you. Remaining calm shows the dog you are in charge. It also surprises it. Dogs sense fear so try not to exhibit that reaction.

9. Control your space

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If you are carrying a handbag, sweater or umbrella, place it in front of you. That will show the dog you are trying to maintain your space, not intrude into its area. Holding an umbrella or other object out also makes you appear larger.

10. Allow the dog to attack clothing

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If you sense an attack is imminent, pull your arm out of the sleeve of a sweater or jacket, and let the dog attack the garment. The dog will think it’s attacking you, and that distraction will likely give you a chance to reach safety.

11. Protect your neck, face and chest

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If a dog attacks, the least harmful place it can bite you is on your forearm or shin. A bite on the neck, face, chest or thigh can be serious and even fatal. Also, try to keep your hands clenched in fists to protect your fingers.

Dogs are not naturally inclined to attack humans unless they are threatened or allowed to do so by irresponsible owners, according to Cesar’s Way. Still, it’s best to understand how to escape such attacks or avoid serious injury.

What’s your approach with unfamiliar dogs? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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