Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. "Let's connect!"
Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. “Let’s connect!”

Alrighty, before I start today’s topic I have got to tell you about a ginormous, bonus offering on dog training books. (Just skip this sentence if you are eager to get to the blog post. I mean, who has time for chit chat in this zany, fast-paced world?) Until midnight tonight, Monday, November 4th, you can get 40% off Puppy Savvy and Happy Kids, Happy Dogs (and all other books) at Just enter coupon code FALLSALE40 at checkout.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I was recently asked how a person, especially a child, should approach a dog. Naturally that is a trick question. Anyone who wants to interact with a dog should be waiting for the dog to approach them. This begs the following six questions:

1. What the heck are you talking about?
2. What if the dog doesn’t approach me?
3. What if the dog is prevented from approaching me because the owner has asked the dog to hold a position like a sit-stay, or is holding the dog by the collar or in their arms?
4. What if my dog goes bananas around people and therefore I purposefully prevent the dog from approaching others by having the dog hold a stay?
5. What if I have a dog who never voluntarily approaches people?
6. What if people don’t give my dog a chance to approach before reaching toward him or her?

I think it might be fun and useful to take on each of these questions in a blog series. What better timing than right before the holidays, when people and dogs are packed so tightly in each other’s space they might as well be stuffed into one of those little clown cars.

Let’s jump right in and start with the first question…

What the heck are you talking about?

As you can tell by my ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect I am not only an advocate (as are other modern dog trainers) of asking the dog’s person whether it is okay to touch their dog, but I’m also an advocate of asking the dog. If you see a dog you’d like to greet, here is the way to do it: 

Ask permission of the person.

Be a tree in order to ask permission of the dog: With hands at your side, stand and wait for the dog to approach you.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Fight the urge to stick out your hand (presumably in an effort to allow the dog to sniff you). That is outdated advice. As in, using-leeches-to-treat-a-fever outdated. The dog has already smelled you. He or she can smell you from Coney Island, trust me. When you stick out your hand, you are making a rude gesture to the dog. “Rude in what way?” you may be thinking.

Rude like so: Imagine I just introduced you to a pal of mine, and she said hi and then went right in toward your neck with both hands and straightened out your crumpled collar. “Whoa! Easy there, well-meaning new friend!” you’d be thinking. On one hand, she has kind intentions, but on the other hand, she doesn’t pause to imagine how you would feel about her actions. Think how differently you would feel if she said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I notice your collar is rumpled; would you like me to fix it?” She has just invited you to be an active participant in the interaction. If you want to make a connection with her that is more on the intimate side, you might well take her up on it. If you’d rather wait to get to know her a bit before having her adjust your clothes, you will appreciate how thoughtful she is and just fix it yourself. By asking you first, she may well have earned your trust right off the bat, instead of alienating you by coming on too strong. Maybe, just maybe, she will become one of those rare you’ve-got-parsely-stuck-between-your-teeth friends.

If you’ve always extended your hand toward dogs and swear you’ve made zillions of dog buddies this way, please consider this: When you choose to reach toward the dog’s nose you are proving that there is a gap between you wide enough to allow a reach. That means the dog has not come up to you voluntarily. What might the dog be saying by hanging back a bit? (Dramatic pause for reflection.) Are you willing to listen?

It is polite, respectful, safer, and compassionate to wait for the dog to approach you, and here’s why (here comes the rough love portion of the post). Wanting to show your affection for dogs is a wonderful, wonderful thing. You may want to touch a dog because that makes you happy. Or maybe you are taken with a particular pooch. Or you want your child to feel comfortable with animals, or your child is desperate to touch the dog in front of you. These reasons are all perfectly understandable. However, and this may be difficult to acknowledge at first, none of those reasons is more important than the dog’s feelings. Remember, the dog has few options due to being on a leash, tethered, in a small space, or otherwise confined. If you fail to ask the dog, but instead just move in using old timey moves like sticking out your hand or patting the dog on the top of the head, you are invading the dog’s space and starting off your encounter with a fairly rude (and also potentially unsafe) maneuver.

Ask yourself: Would you want someone touching you (or your child) just because they feel like it, or because your child is (or you are) super cute? How about if you were saying, “No, I need my space,” loud and clear to the grabby person, and they touched you anyway? Even worse! And then there’s the awful ripple effect you could create: Do you want your child to learn that “I wanna!” is a good enough reason to touch others who are saying “no?” That thought should give you the heebie jeebies. No person should get to touch someone just because they really, really want to.

Dogs have their reasons for sometimes not wanting us to get close and touch them. And that should count. We should listen. And we should show our love in ways that take the other’s feelings into account. We should also teach kids to listen and to care about how others feel. We are all connected, and the more we practice paying attention to that, the better off we will be. This “ask and listen” practice may seem like no big deal at first glance, yet thinking of others this way is so powerful that it can change our world.

What do you think about doing an experiment the next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch? Would you be willing to try just standing still, and seeing if the dog comes up to you? If you’re even the least bit curious, give it a try! I would love to hear what you experience.

Tune in next time when we see grown adults have massive meltdowns on the sidewalk, trying to cope when dogs do not approach them, and we answer the question, “What if the dog doesn’t approach me?

11 thoughts on “Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

  1. Excellent advice! I can’t stand when people try to rush up to my dog and put hands on him – usually while saying something like “Dogs love me!” It is my job to allow Max to decide if he wants to meet them! He almost always does want to but it is important that he have a choice.

  2. Thank you, Linda. And Max is fortunate you intervene on his behalf—I bet he recognizes that is what you are doing. I hope to address all your points in the upcoming series. Meantime I am challenging myself to take my own advice and imagine the feelings of the dog lovers wanting to swoop in. I don’t doubt that they really are just gushing with love and good intentions (some of my most beloved friends and family get like this around dogs). Perhaps they will feel excited by the possibility of connecting with dogs in a deeper way!

  3. This was so funny and clear that it’s almost impossible not to “get it.” I know this about dogs and I hardly ever try to touch other dogs, but one day outside of Trader Joe’s I ran into a man with an old dog that looked just like what I imagined a previous dog of mine might have looked like if he hadn’t died at seven. I was DYING to touch him (the dog, not the man) just to say “Hi, I still miss you” to my departed dog. The man was about to haul his dog over to me but I said, “No, he’s busy sniffing the bush. I don’t need to touch him.” About killed me but it was the right thing to do.

    By the way, what do you think about people inviting dogs over to them vs. being a tree? I usually tell people to invite the dog by patting their leg and sweet talking – kind of like what you might do to get an unfamiliar dog out of traffic. How does the dog know to approach the Be a Tree people? Do you send him over with a “Go say hi” cue?

  4. Ha, Madeline, that made me guffaw when you said “the dog, not the man.”
    We may be aching to pet a dog, and to truly act from the heart is to notice the pooch was not asking for an interaction in that case. What a nice way to have honored the memory of your departed dog.

    In my experience, 99% of the time, with the person just regular old standing there like a tree (and usually it’s a talking tree, we just can’t help it, which I think is normal), the dog approaches if they want to say hello. If they are coaxed with a pat or sweet talk, that may be lovely, inviting and perfectly fine. Or it may get some dogs in over their heads, and suddenly they find they’ve followed a suggestion they didn’t truly initiate. One of my dogs was just like that, “oooh, hello there nice sweet-talkin lady hee hee you seem nice (who then leans over him to pet) Ahhh, It’s a Trick, She is Really Godzilla—Help!!!”

    So, I generally advise picking from a few options:

    1) Let the dog pick. If s/he doesn’t go to the Be a Tree person, that is fine and dandy. Insert small talk to diffuse human awkwardness, “Wow, my dog is really into some smell on the ground. Dogs! Aren’t they amazing…Do you have a dog?” Who knows, this may even give the dog a moment to feel at ease and then approach, or not. (I’ll go into this more in an upcoming post.)

    2) Recognize whether your dog is generally a social butterfly. If so, meaning his default is to approach anyone, teach your dog to say hello on cue as you suggest (more to come on how to do this, your leg pat method is a fine one provided the person is in cahoots with you). Of course if a dog ever did not respond to a say hello cue/did not approach I would not pull or coax the dog over to the person, bribe with treats, reassure the dog or apologize for his shyness. (This goes along with it being ok to say no if you don’t feel like being touched.)

    3) Teach your dog to nose target people’s hands on cue. That way, depending on if your dog seems interested, but maybe the person seems over-exuberant or they’re a child with an out-to-lunch guardian, or your dog tends to come on strong, you can cue your dog to go right up and bop them on their hand (of course you let the person approve this first). That just injects some focus and calm for both humans and dog at the beginning of contact.

    An exit strategy can really come in handy, like teaching the dog sharp responsiveness to his/her name. A friend of mine gets lost in my dog Bodhi’s mesmerizing eyes. The two of them get locked in. And I just say his name and it breaks the spell. (Then he looks at me like, “Phew, thanks, Dude. That got a little intense, right?”)

    1. I just laughed at the ‘ahh it’s a trick’ statement. That sums up my dog perfectly, which is why it was so hard for me to learn what to do in the beginning (but WHY is he approaching if after one second he’s going to growl?). Now, it’s pretty easy when we’re out in public. I don’t allow anyone to pet him or reach for him, since he almost never approaches others he doesnt know. I always say ‘he’s working’ and they usually back off. He is an aloof dog to begin with, and he is a recovering fearful aggressive dog. He can now enjoy himself in busy places *because he knows he isnt expected to say hi. He is a master of ‘look at that’ after eight months of solid work, and we also do targeting to help him settle and focus on me if things are too intense and i cant get him out of there at that exact moment. Makes me so proud!

      1. Beautiful, Laurie! You saw puzzling behavior, you tried to figure out what your dog needs to feel comfortable, and you put in a lot of the right kind of training to give him the skills he needs to navigate humans successfully. You are proactive in keeping people from touching him, that’s so important. Some dogs need exactly that and the proof is in the pudding: “He can now enjoy himself in busy places *because* he isn’t expected to say hi.” This may sound dorky, but I know what goes into achieving that, and I am really proud of you!

  5. Great advice, Barb, and I will certainly share it! I’m very interested in your following posts and hope to put it all to good use. I have to admit that it’s hard to be polite in my profession-both because I have to be rude and because some are just so darn adorable. Bodhi definity is one that turns me into the human that has a meltdown due to rejection.

    1. It is the curse of the oh-so-dashing and the adorably cute…so hard for us to keep our wits about us. And still, you rate higher than most humans to Bodhi, you always pet him under the chin. That’s a good idea for a blog post…what to do if the dog doesn’t approach but you have to touch them (because you’re a veterinary professional, animal control officer, etc.) Hmmm…

      1. I may pet him under the chin and feed him some cheese, but on the inside I’m squeezing him to pieces! A lot of veterinary folk (newbie or veteran) could certainly use (and most would appreciate) that kind of knowledge/training.

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