First impressions can have a huge impact on what follows (how the interaction plays out). With dogs, social greetings are very ritualized. A good “hello” can disarm and charm even the most unlikely of characters. It can set the stage for future interactions. You don’t have to teach a dog to understand this “hello” greeting. By design (by nature) dogs just understand it. It’s part of their hard wiring. By being aware of and taking part in this ritualized behavior, you can fast track the building of trust.
No conversation about “hello” is complete without also discussing space. Space is VERY important to animals. They occupy space in a very deliberate way. That is why there is a whole category devoted to this topic. Be sure to check it out.
How then do we say “hello”?
Ideally, you want to approach only when you have BOTH eyes of the dog on you. If, at any point, as you approach the dog turns away, stop…ease up….maybe back up….maybe even turn or walk away. You can always offer up another “hello” in a bit. Dogs (especially the timid and fearful ones) want to know that you are listening, that they have a say, that you understand etiquette (which is more ritualized than you realize), that you have brakes! If all is going well and you have two eyes on you and a relatively relaxed/calm dog in front of you, extend your fist, palm down. Stop just short of taking your hand all the way to the dog….leave just a bit of room so that it has to stretch out to take a whiff or make contact. The moment when the dog’s nose connects, either takes a big inhale of or actually makes contact with your hand, is the “hello”, the greeting. It has a whole different feel than when a dog is just checking out your hand looking for or raiding your hand for a treat. If you dish out a lot of treats to your dog (which is not a bad thing), your dog may be accustomed to skipping the formalities and always expect a treat to be forthcoming from your hand. Be sure to offer up “hellos” often and in a wide variety of contexts (especially when the dog is nice and settled….not in working mode). You will see and feel the difference.
After a greeting like this, socially agile animals will immediately soften and forge ahead with introducing themselves and soliciting attention. More impulsive, high energy dogs may fall apart and be unable to keep themselves composed in your personal space (be sure to read the posts in the “Space is Important” section for help).
If you are greeting a dog that doesn’t exhibit one of those two behaviors, who might be timid or insecure, just after the “hello,” walk away and ignore the dog. By walking away, you take off all the pressure. Think of it as just saying “hello” …flirting….not introducing yourself. If you stick around after that initial “hello” all kinds of things come into play. For a very timid animal awkward silence, unsolicited attention, and unintended pressure make for a less than positive exchange. For a more dominant but insecure animal, establishing a pecking order becomes a priority and the behavior rituals that go with that follow. We don’t want to be a part of either of those scenarios. We want to create a curiosity and eventually an optimism. So say “hello,” then walk away.
You can say “hello” often…provided that the animal is willing. In between “hellos,” go about your business, pause, read a book….do something that does not involve watching the dog. Don’t be offended if a dog opts out and you have to abort. If you pay attention to the dog’s signals and react accordingly (proceeding only when the dog has two eyes on you and pausing or even giving more space when it looks off or braces), hellos will come. Have faith. It would naturally take more time for a particularly fearful animal to come around. If a dog is extremely fearful, spend time near it reading and/or pausing (not trying to win over or watch the dog) before offering up a “hello.”
When we take this approach, we are investing time and exercising patience….waiting for a volunteer. What starts as a tentative “hello” can grow into a willing partner and a contributing community member. Even an extremely fearful dog (group member) can become confident in its role…..even if it never becomes noticeably confident in the world at large.
When you take the time to do this, especially if you say “hello,” walk away, and go about your business, the dog (actually any social group animal…horse, gerbil, etc.) starts to really wonder who you are and what you are about. Soon you have a hopeful, curious volunteer. This is often when the dog will soften and introduce itself, and in this moment (as its defensiveness is falling to the wayside) you will have opportunities to make yourself relevant and useful….make use of them. Help the dog out with an itchy spot….go get it a treat or some water. Also pause often. Now you will start to see glimpses of who the dog is and what it is about. As the bond grows, so does the dog’s confidence. With confidence, comes opportunities to work on other things….like self control.