Dog Greetings: “Hello!” Or “Oh No!”

Throughout our daily interactions, humans greet other humans in a variety of settings. We meet at the grocery store, the gym or a walk around the block. During these interactions, humans face each other and engage direct eye contact to whom they are communicating. If eye contact is avoided, the communicator can be perceived as aloof, rude or mischievous. If the eye contact is direct and uninterrupted, the communicator may seem angry or hurtful. Dogs on the other hand are not keen on direct eye contact and prefer small doses of face-to-face interaction. Learning to communicate with dogs can be as difficult, if not more so, than learning another human language. Keep reading for information on how to lessen the burden of learning to speak “dog”.

Eyes don’t lie

When one dog tries to communicate with a human, the biggest hurdle may not necessarily be the language barrier. Even, the way that dogs understand their environments is different from how humans perceive theirs’ and our messages may confuse each other. Granted, things would be easier if an English-Dog translation manual existed. In the meantime, humans who want to understand these messages need to explore other methods.

Communicating humans address one another by looking at each other through eye contact. This common practice can be a sign of confidence and friendliness, as long as the eye contact is a gaze rather than a stare. When we present this seemingly friendly greeting to our dog friends, the message can be construed as a threat. (The common pack hierarchy of dogs is to follow the alpha or fill the role if necessary.) The pack subordinates avoid direct eye contact with the alpha because this is a sign of a challenge for dominance.

If a dog is staring you directly in the eye, this should be taken as an alert signal! Do not approach this dog and mind your “dog manners” because you are dealing with an animal on the offensive. The best thing to do in this case is to keep breathing, avoid direct eye contact and keep your body fluid and loose. Running will entice the dog’s hunt instinct and only worsen matters. Speak to the dog in a low and slow voice and relieve the tension with pleasure words (i.e. walk, food, etc.). Also, work with an animal behavior specialist to alleviate this behavior.

Frontal Attack

Same as with direct eye contact representing a threat to a dog, direct greeting is similarly offensive. Dogs that are dominant by nature (some tend to be more so than others) will likely stand up for their role within the pack. As mentioned earlier, the natural tendency of a pack is to have an alpha with subordinates. If the alpha is no longer deemed fit by one or more subordinates, the alpha status will be challenged. Dogs who feel they are alpha may deem it necessary to “protect” the pack (you).

Dogs naturally greet one another from the side. They do this by approaching with a slight sideways motion and present their scent as a friendly greeting. This friendly introduction is near impossible when restricted to the confines of a sidewalk. Since every dog needs a daily walk (exercise) and inevitably there will be other dogs on the sidewalks, some precautions can be followed to avoid an offensive greeting (or worse).

Allow the dogs to greet each other (if the other owner is comfortable with that) but only allow their faces to be close to each other for fewer than two seconds. Break the tension with an attention grabbing noise and proceed on the walk. No need to risk a possible friendly greeting catapulting into an attack. You don’t know the other dog and as important as social skills are, restrained animals can be unpredictable (especially if they are feeling the need to protect their “territory” or “pack”). Better to just play it safe and be on your way.

“Sit” and “stay” your dog and allow the other dog to pass. Not only does this eliminate the frontal greeting but you are making the choices for your pack: you aren’t sniffing the other owners “scent” so the dog can’t either. This is also a great time to brush up on the skills from basic training. Remember to bring along some highly palatable treats and praise the great behavior. Bonus: the owner who is pulling his dog back saying “he’s just a bit excited!” will be impressed by your dog’s obedience.

You’re the boss

No matter how you decide to avoid offensive dog-dog or dog-human interaction, remember that you are the one calling the shots. Don’t curb aggression with aggression. If your dog is presenting a dominant behavior that you cannot manage, contact a certified animal behavior specialist. This will enhance the bond with your dog and could lead to saving your dog’s life through prevention of a bite or future attack.

Dogs are constantly communicating with us and we do ourselves a favor by learning how to navigate the language barrier. Proper exercise and training are necessary to establish that you are the one in control.

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