We all grew up being told “hold out your hand, so the dog can sniff you.” I have always wondered where this practice came from, and I am sure there are a number of dogs that would prefer people to not do this. Dogs have an AMAZING sense of smell! They do not need a hand or fist to be flung out into their faces to learn about you. In fact, most dogs have already caught wind of you well before you get near them. Here’s a bit more on that topic.
What should I do instead?
Some dogs are shy or not very confident, so a hand coming at them can be scary. This is true for dogs who have never been abused or mistreated (people commonly assume hand shyness is due to mistreatment at some point, but how would you like someone plopping their hand down on your head? You’d probably move or shy away too). Instead of reaching your hand out for the dog to sniff, allow the dog to approach you, sniff your legs and feet/shoes. If the dog approaches slowly and cautiously, do not reach down to pet the dog while the dog is sniffing you! Try not to move and don’t stare at the dog. For some dogs, you might even crouch/kneel down with your side facing the dog. Again, don’t try to pet the dog! People have been taught, if a dog sniffs you that means you can pet the dog. In my dog training experience, I find this to rarely be the case, in fact:
A sniff does NOT equal consent to be pet!!!
I CANNOT stress this enough! Just because a dog has approached you to sniff you, it does not mean they want to be pet!!!!
So how do I know if a dog wants to be pet?
This is a great question! The best way to tell if a dog wants you to pet them is if the dog stays in your space where you could reasonably reach down to pet the dog. Some dogs will get so close they will lean up against your legs. Jumping on you (while not usually acceptable) is another good way for a dog to say they want to be friends. If the dog, for whatever reason, retreats to his or her owner or moves away, stop trying to pet the dog.
Dogs can’t speak to us, so it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves about reading their body language and act appropriately. Even if you ask the owner if you can pet their dog, it is still the dog’s decision on weather he or she would like to be pet. If the dog, for any reason does, not give you consent to pet him or her, just don’t. Dogs aren’t petting zoos and it is completely acceptable for a dog to not want to be pet.
Do you have a Scaredy Dog and want to help him or her overcome his or her fear? My friend Dr. Jen has a great blog on how to help your dog feel a little more comfortable with strangers: http://www.drjensdogblog.com/scaredy-dogs-and-strangers-part-1/