Like humans, dogs are unique individuals with their own set of characteristics and temperaments. Unlike humans, dogs express their feelings differently - and can react unexpectedly if provoked or startled (especially if they have behavioural challenges like aggression or anxiety).
Whether you are intending to adopt a dog or meeting someone else’s pet for the first time (such as a friend or a family member), it can be helpful to understand canine behaviour so that both you and the dog you are meeting feel at ease.
With New Puppies
For puppies, everything is new - so being introduced to a lot of new people at once can feel overwhelming to them. Introduce them to the house - and its inhabitants - gradually: room by room, person by person - and take care not to introduce them to other animals until they are fully vaccinated.
The first few nights can be challenging for new pups. One way to help ease any anxieties is to let them sleep in the same room as you (in their own dog bed rather than their own - so that you don’t risk injuring them).
There are plenty of other ways to calm your puppy and bond with them (how long this takes varies depending on temperament and age) - but the three key ingredients for this are love, structure and a solid routine. Establishing set bed and meal times, using positive reinforcement and learning your pup’s individual behavioural patterns will set you both up for success.
If Meeting Someone Else’s Dog - Ask First
Pats without permission are a pet hate for most dog owners - so be polite and ask whether you can say hello first. If they say no, try not to feel offended - there may be a good reason (such as behavioural issues).
This applies particularly to service dogs (usually recognisable by a bright jacket or harness). By petting, offering treats - or even making eye contact with them, you’re distracting them from their job (keeping their human safe), which could potentially put their owner in a dangerous situation.
Slow and Steady
There’s one situation where canines should take the lead, it’s when you’re meeting a dog for the first time. If you’re not 100% sure how they’ll react, exercise caution and try not to rush things: some dogs need to be introduced to people gradually.
Be slow about your movements, too: sudden, unexpected movements could make the dog feel anxious. Just as human babies are sensitive to the emotions of their carers, so too are dogs - so be aware of your own behaviours around them and try to remain calm and upbeat.
See it From their Perspective
A looming human can make smaller or anxious dogs feel more unsafe - so be aware of your height and body position, and get down to their level.
For especially nervous animals, try lying down a short distance away: this communicates to the dog that you are safe around you - much like the submissive behaviour dogs exhibit when they roll onto their backs.
In general, “soft” eyes with relaxed, sometimes sleepy looking lids can indicate the dog is relaxed - while “hard” eyes suggest negative emotions - especially when coupled with a long stare.
While we humans are encouraged to face one another and make eye contact, such behaviour can appear confrontational to dogs. Instead, turn slightly away from them. While doing this, avert your gaze and turn your head slightly to one side (this mimics the head tilting behaviour dogs exhibit when they are trying to hear or see something - or someone - better).
Learning canine body language not only helps us to make dogs feel more comfortable - it can also help us to understand the kinds of emotions they are trying to convey. There are a whole list of facial expressions and signals to learn - and not all of them are obvious.
A loose, “wiggly” posture with an open mouth and relaxed ears and fur indicates happiness (the opposite of this would be a backwards-tilted posture, raised hackles, bared teeth or tucked-under tail), some signals are a little harder to interpret.
One such example is the wagging tail - while most people interpret this as a sign of happiness and excitement, wagging can also mean fear or submission - which is why you might see this in dogs meeting each other - shortly before they exhibit more aggressive behaviour.
Dogs explore the world with their sense of smell - so when you see a dog meet another dog for the first time, the first thing they’re likely to do is to sniff the other dog’s posterior.
While (thankfully!) it’s not necessary for humans to do this, you can introduce them to your scent by reaching out your hand - palm upwards, with fingers curled slightly in - for the dog to sniff.
This way, they can familiarise themselves with your scent (let them sniff you for as long as they need to so that they feel more comfortable and in control).
We all know that yawning can mean tiredness in humans - but it can also signal stress (as it’s a way to get more oxygen into the body, encouraging us to breathe deeper).
According to author Turid Rugaas, in times of stress dogs also do this to calm themselves and others - so if you’re meeting a nervous dog, try yawning and see if they yawn back.
If you both feel comfortable, you can follow this up with a friendly pet - but avoid petting them on the head. It may sound peculiar (as we’re so used to “a pat on the head” being the norm) - but this can feel like a threat to dogs.
Instead, begin by petting them gently on the back or shoulders until you both feel safe enough for head and face pets (be aware that in some cases this may take longer for some dogs than for others).
Dogs have an amazing capacity for human language, with the ability to understand around 89 unique words - but even if they can’t understand everything you’re saying, it helps to speak with a reassuring tone.
It might feel silly - but dogs respond better to high pitched, cheerful tones than they do lower voices. If your voice tends to have a little more “bass” in it, you can try speaking more quietly. Avoid going overboard - too much of this could make nervous dogs feel on-edge - but overall try to keep your voice positive and friendly.
Outdated behavioural training methods like verbal or even corporal punishment (even a “bop” on the nose) can result in negative behaviour from dogs.
The general consensus now is that it’s far better to reward positive behaviours (and as far as possible, ignore “unwanted” behaviours) so be conscious of this when meeting a dog for the first time and take care not to speak angrily or raise your voice.
Your own Behaviour
It may even be that you are wary of dogs yourself which can lead to avoidant behaviours around them. Education is the first step to facing any fear or phobia - and it can be helpful to know that not all dogs will react negatively when you meet them.
Seeing a GP about seeking therapy can also help, so if you or someone you know struggles with a fear of dogs (cynophobia), this could be your first step to navigating your next doggy meet and greet with calmness and composure.