It’s news to most humans that the way we act with each other when we’re feeling most affectionate — hugging and staring into each other’s eyes, to give a couple of examples — doesn’t translate well to dogs. In fact, it can be perceived as downright aggressive. Even patting a dog on the head can be taken the wrong way.
Toward that end, we’ve put together this highly abbreviated guide to speaking dog. Woof.
Don’t pat his head. It bugs him. This is a threatening gesture to many dogs. Although most family pets have gotten used to it, they don’t find a heavy-handed pat-pat-pat very enjoyable. Try it on yourself and you’ll see why. A deep scratch behind the ears or on the chest is much more satisfying.
Don’t stare into a dog’s eyes — you’re asking for trouble. Remember your parents telling you to look people in the eye when you spoke to them? What’s good manners in human company is often considered a challenge among canines. This is why experts don’t recommend staring contests with an unknown dog.
Defuse tension by looking away. Just as staring at a dog can fuel aggression, looking away can help defuse a tense situation. It’s also a good way to tell a persistent dog to buzz off. An alpha dog who’s being pestered for attention by an underling will signal her disinterest by looking to the side, nose in the air like a snob. Remember that when your dog drops the ball in your lap for the 5,000th time while you’re on the phone.
Never hug a strange dog. To us, hugs mean, “I like you.” To dogs, a front paw (or arm) over the shoulder means, “I’m higher status than you are.” Next time you see someone hugging a dog, watch the dog’s face — she’s probably tolerating, but not enjoying it. For that reason, never hug an unknown dog; your reward may be a growl, or even a bite.
Approach a dog from the side rather then head on. Emily Pug’s Guide to Canine Etiquette considers walking straight up to a dog in very poor taste. Dogs move in an arc when walking toward other canines. While most socialized dogs are used to the more direct human approach, you can make a very submissive dog more comfortable by angling towards her.
Get on his level. It’s friendlier. You’re probably thinking, “Cute little doggy, I’m gonna give you a pat,” as you lean over a pooch. But in the dog world, standing over someone is a way of showing your higher status. Tower over an aggressive dog, and you may get a growl warning you to back off — if you’re lucky. Stand over a submissive dog, and she may cower, roll over, or even pee to appease you. If you want to say hello to a timid pooch, turn sideways, squat, and let her approach you.