How to Pet a Dog You Don’t Know

Thanks for the photo

Thanks for the photo

So there I was this weekend at my husband’s company picnic.

I am not as great with people as I am with animals and dogs, so a mass group of humans that I don’t know socializing is always a little bit uncomfortable for me.

The skies were dark and the rain was hard, thank goodness we had a nice building to be in for most of the festivities.

As hour 3 came and the weather let up I noticed a younger couple with a puppy emerge.

If I was a betting man, I would bet that the puppy was 4 to 5 months old and his owners were oblivious to his behaviors.

I sat in awe, just watching him and his interaction with both his environment and people as they came and went.

People were dressed in rain gear, children were running with umbrellas and quite frankly the puppy was quite overwhelmed at several moments throughout the picnic although no one but me noticed.

At one point a 2 year old child was running around squealing with an umbrella, toward and around the puppy.

Neither the Mother or the Dog Owner Took Notice…in face

Neither the mother nor the dog owner took notice, however the puppy barked at the child because he was unsure about the child and what was going on; still no one took notice.

I was taken aback.  I thought at the threat of barking both the child’s parents and the dog owner would at least look down to try and figure out why the dog was barking but neither did.

The puppy eventually acclimated to the child running around and stopped barking; but I wondered how close he would be to his bite threshold if the child wandered too close (don’t worry the child was never closer than 10 feet from the end of the puppy’s leash).   I think he would have been much closer to it at the beginning of course when he was scared of the child.

I watched as person after person came up to “pet the puppy”.  Several scared him and he would take a few steps backward toward the legs of his owner; but she never stopped them from then petting him and none of them seemed to stop at his clear show of nervousness.

Sometimes 3 or more people would be petting him at once, and again no notice from his owner… she was engrossed in her conversation.

Thankfully he seemed to eventually accept them and never nipped at anyone.  Backing up and trying to get away and barking was as close to aggression as he got.

I think I saw only one person pet him appropriately, kneeling down to his level, letting him sniff her hands and then petting him on his chest.  He LOVED her!  His tail wagged when she bent down and he got squishy face (for more on squishy face click here).

He did jump on her, at which time he was reprimanded harshly, but she was the only one to speak to him kindly and on his level.

I watched one middle age man, first bend over the top of him (to which he darted back), then quickly reach over the top of his head, pet him and then grab the skin on the side of his ribs grab it and shake it…

I seriously have no idea what he was thinking… Who does that?

Thankfully this seemed to be a pretty good and accepting puppy.  Despite his nervousness, pushing him past his level of confidence didn’t seem to push him into aggression.

There are a lot of puppies or other dogs that would have gotten to a much more aggressive point a lot faster than this puppy, but that reminded me how can you tell?

How Can You Tell Which Puppy or Dog will be Pushed to Aggression and Which Puppy Will Not?

thanks drsophianyin for the photo

thanks drsophianyin for the photo

Even I have a hard time, unless the dog is pushed past that comfortable point into the unknown.

Some dogs will growl, others show teeth as they become increasingly uncomfortable but as noted by this owner, if the owner is not paying attention you might be in for a bite.   For more on why a growl can be a good thing click here.

But some dogs reach their bite threshold, they may try to run away (fight or flight… they would be choosing flight) and then they go straight for the bite.  

Not all dogs give huge warning signals before they bite, some barely give acknowledgement with their eyes as they quick look away and then bite (commonly known as the “whale eye”).

I guess I see backing up, barking and signs of stress as information to back off and not proceed forward.

How Do You or Your Kids Pet a Dog

First never pet a dog without asking, he may seem like he wants to be petted at first but he may decide later he doesn’t want it for more on that phenomenon click here I Really Want You to Pet me; But I Kinda Want to Bite You.

On a personal note, while out running just 2 days ago I had a child run up to me and my puppy who had just finished swimming.  Swimming is stressful for him right now because he is afraid of water, although we are working through it.

The child who was about 8 ran straight at us and said nothing.  For a moment I thought about reprimanding him and telling him to "ask" before petting.  But I decided to see how my pup would do (you can't take all the irritating kids out of a dog's environment, so sometimes I take advantage of them).

My pup was fine and put up with a quick hand shot over his head and a squeal of happiness as the child then ran away.  But he was a guinea pig, thankfully I know dog body language, but good parents would keep their children from doing this!

I, personally, never pet a dog unless he or she solicits it from me.  I want to see a dog that is pulling on his leash, low wagging and has squishy face.  For more on tail wags click here, and more on squishy face click here.

I do really take tail wags and squishy face into account before I want to pet a dog, but you’ll have to read those articles to understand that.

I don’t care if the dog pulls toward me to jump on me (unless of course I deem it aggressive in some way), I DO CARE if he pulls back or tries to get away AT ALL.

I am not going to force a dog to be petted.  A dog that steps back or away is a dog that is uncomfortable, and in my humble opinion I am going to give him his space.  He is giving me “flight” instead of “fight” and I don’t want to push him to feel like he needs “fight” or aggression.

Because I am a professional dog trainer and I occasionally have to make friends with a  dog that doesn’t want to have a lot to do with me; I then go into sweet talk mode and try to sweet talk these dogs out of their fears.

However I don’t recommend just anyone petting these dogs, sometimes giving them their space is all they need to come back with happy tail and squishy face.

I NEVER Reach Over A Dog’s Head

sniffI Never reach over a dog’s head when first meeting him.  That instance of not knowing where your hand is going and not being able to see it is uncomfortable for some dogs.

I let a dog sniff the outside of my hand first until he seems comfortable and solicitous of affection (don’t do it for a fraction of a second and then reach) actually pay attention to his eyes, his face, his tail and his body language don’t just let him sniff and then reach.

Next I pet a dog’s chest first.


Quick movements make dogs nervous!  Talk slowly, speak kindly and move slowly and with calm intent.

Only let one person pet at a time!

6 hands on you are overwhelming.  Imagine going to the gym and having 3 people touching you…  One person can be overwhelming enough; don’t expect your dog or someone else’s to be okay with multiple hands moving all over them.

It can only take a fraction of a second to send a confident dog into a panic with an extra set of hands.


Never pet a dog that you don’t know while distracted by something else.  He may get scared by something in his environment or change his mind about being petted and if you aren’t paying attention you won’t notice!  Give him your full attention!

Always keep your wits about you.  Dogs have big teeth and they don’t speak our language; their intentions and emotions can change very quickly.

Most of the time most dogs like to be petted and are social, but occasionally there are dogs that aren’t as clear headed and it is best to be prepared for them before they teach you a lesson with their teeth.

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  1. Minette,

    I am surprised that you didn’t mention when you reach out to let a Dog sniff , that you keep you hand in a fist. Fingers are quick chew toys. I work for physicians that fix hands, and trust me a dog bite can be very expense when the tendons are torn. I always teach kids when they want to pet my pups to reach out with a fist not fingers.


    Minette Reply:

    Honestly I have found that it depends on the dog. Some people wallop their dogs with a fist but dogs are more use to being touched and petted with an open hand… so the difference in how it looks can make a dog unsure.

    I don’t usually use a fist unless I think my fingers are in danger but I don’t stretch my fingers out either… I just let them smell the back of my hand and read their language.

    I personally would not recommend petting a dog that you aren’t comfortable with having your fingers out or around… I have to sometimes because of what I do.


  2. lee says:

    This post is very good. Because I have a blue nose Pitbull named Sophia.Sophia is sill a puppy(lol).But Sophia will not let a friend pet her. Why I asked, will she went for her head. so next time I will tell her. 8)


  3. Lydia says:

    My standard poodle and golden doodle are usually very child friendly. i trained them carefully as puppies using my cooperative neices and nephews.

    Recently at age 3 and 6, for the first time, something one of my youngest nephews did about 4 feet from them made them display alarmed behavior with barking and backing up. I was surprised that it lasted as long as it did since they were not particularly cornered. It was like their alarm was feeding on each other….

    It was bizaar that these VERY socialized dogs who are accustomed to this large family pack acted so out of character for something so seemingly insignificant as holding a blanket.

    They’re both suffering from summer allergies that make them very itchy and edgy. i hope that when their skin irritations calm down that they will go back to being their old tolerant selves around the children.

    Any more advice for family gatherings when the dogs and kids are getting reacquanted?


    Minette Reply:

    I would keep them on leash and acclimate them one at a time for a bit so you can be in control and make sure they are reacting correctly.

    Separating them allows you to see who might be having the reaction first, since when they are together they are probably feeding off of each other.


  4. Catherine Holmes says:

    We have a 4 mo old Malti-Poo who currently weighs 4 lbs. EVERYONE wants to pet her. Children go crazy for her. She has never nipped, but I typically pick her up, and I only let 1 child play w her at a time. They forget she’s not a “toy”. When she has enough, she comes to me for rescue. Then she lays dawn & sleeps – I treat her and guard her like the baby she is 🙂


    Minette Reply:

    With those that you trust I would allow her to gain some independence on the ground. Little dogs need to learn how to interact when they are not picked up or you get a very defensive dog that wants or demands to be picked up all of the time!


  5. Karina says:

    This is really helpful! I will definetly use this in the future when I pet dogs. I do notice hat sometimes dogs shy away from my hand, I always make sure to let them sniff me first. I didn’t know about petting on the chest though, I will use that and teach others do do it too. 🙂


    Minette Reply:

    If the dog shy’s away, don’t pet!

    Allow the dog to decide if he/she wants to be petted!


  6. Debra says:

    if you offer your hand. I always offer palm up..I think its less aggressive to the dog, then let the dog approach my hand for a careful sniff.. if he looks encouraging and stays..I talk softly to him in a cheerful and encouraging voice…then watch him as i move my hand to his chest for a gentle pet…if all is going well..i slip my hand up around his neck for a stroke on the neck..then moving to the head, providing the dog seems to be enjoying it. During this, I usually find the dog will move in closer as this is pleasant…if the dog doesn’t ..he needs space. When the dog comes to is an invitation.

    that’s how i always do it.

    our neighbours dog fear bites but I always let him come to me. I dog sit for them, never correct, just distract and encourage. He is so respectful towards me– he waits for me to go up stairs and follows and will not go until i have gone first. He knows I will not frighten him…letting a dog come towards you is the most powerful signal to a dog…about your intentions.


    Minette Reply:

    Everyone has their own way, hand up, hand down, hand open, hand closed… the very most important part is allowing the dog to sniff and get comfortable before petting 🙂


  7. Jeannie says:

    I work with dogs and it’s good to know how to approach a new dog. Yes. But since most dogs are attached to a human owner, it’s the responsibility of the owner to know their own dog and set safe limits – safe for other people and also for the dog. I have six dogs. Three could qualify to be therapy dogs – they never react in a negative way, and I also work with kids with autism, so I’m saying this with a lot of confidence. But one of the other dogs is hyper vigilant about movement (I assume this is because she is deaf), one is dog aggressive and is on a crate and rotate system, and one is a complete oaf. She would never mean to hurt anyone and would not bite, but she’s a 60lb American foxhound who was feral until she was about 15 months old. She gets excited, turns over furniture, could easily knock someone over just out of enthusiasm and clutziness. If we would just go live out in the yard and hunt foxes her life would be perfect. It’s up to me to know which dogs can be in which social situations – that’s my responsibility to them. People who ask “Can I pet your dog?” have a good intention, but permission isn’t enough. I think the rule should be to leave other people’s dogs alone unless they’re socially introduced to you by their human. And then offer, don’t push yourself on a dog or anyone else. And the rule for dog owners should be, make sure you have control of your dog’s social interactions, ALL the time.


  8. Susan says:

    Thanks for another great article.

    I am not a trainer but a long time dog owner and reader. Additional observations I’ve made with a variety of dogs is that fearful or suspicious dogs will avert their head away from you while looking at you, which results in the whale eye appearance. I always introduce myself to a new dog with the rule “no touch, no talk, no eye contact”. I stand still and let my relaxed hand hang down conveniently for the dog to make the first approach to sniff me, and if they really want to be petted they will “ask” for more by nudging my hand – otherwise I don’t touch. Only then do I speak to the dog and begin petting cautiously under the chin. The only dogs I know who tolerate “in your face” hugs and heavy petting from strangers are very young puppies. And all the stupid baby talk just excites all dogs and actually stresses my insecure dog.


  9. Judy Wharton says:

    I have a 2 year old Doberman who is very friendly toward everyone. When people pet her, she often puts her mouth over their arm or hand as part of her greeting. This alarms some people. Any suggestions?


    Minette Reply:

    This, again, like the Rottweiler story sounds aggressive to me.

    Teeth should not go on human skin, and when it does it is a serious problem.

    What if the dog did the to a 2 year old or a 92 year old?

    I would teach my dog to lay down when greeting people and I would not allow people to pet if this was likely to happen.

    If the dog is not possessive you can try putting some food that she can nibble on from your hand in her mouth to keep her mouth busy but be aware if she gets possessive of the food this could make this behavior worse.

    Dogs like this need serious obedience and impulse control!


  10. Bambi says:

    I was very surprised to see you say that as a “professional dog trainer” you don’t have problems with a dog pulling a leash and jumping on you! Dogs who jump on humans do so to say “you are my property” and reinforce the status of alpha in their mind. Any good dog trainer should know that the humans need to be alpha, because it is just healthier and safer for the dog. Shame on your for encouraging the dog to claim you!


    Minette Reply:

    That is just silly and out dated thinking!

    Dogs jump because they are excited and have not been taught any better, usually as simple as that!


    Bambi Reply:

    It’s not silly or outdated, it’s simple dog psychology 101! If I were looking for a good “professional” trainer I would certainly not pick you if you could not understand some basic dog psychology. Pretty sad, I think. Makes the whole blog lose a lot of credibility and respect in my eyes. Which is also sad because I do not respect many people. Oh well.


    Minette Reply:

    You should really look up Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Ian Dunbar and read culture clash to understand more modern dog behavior and training. Things have really come a long way from blaming everything on dominance and realizing that dogs are dogs that do things cause it feels good…. not that they are trying to take over the world.

    Bambi Reply:

    Nobody said that everything is about dominance or that dogs are trying to take over the world. You should stop using logical fallacies like generalization to make your points known because that logic is flawed. The fact of the matter is, while no, not everything is about dominance, some things actually are. Like leash pulling, guarding, and claiming people as property. Alpha dogs do this and non-alpha dogs don’t. Imagine that!

    Monica Henderson Reply:

    Minette really does know what she is talking about. I as well as hundreds ( possibly even thousands )of other dog “parents” can attest that Minette’s successful methods of training our dogs and her blogs are extremely helpful for problems some of us have with our furry 4 legged family members. Her credentials & experience are excellent.
    BAMBI, you seem to be of the mind set of years gone by; such as “children should not speak unless spoken to” “Do as I say, not as I do” or “spare the rod, spoil the child”. You really need to do some more reading of current books. We are in the 21st century and human psychology as well as Dog psychology have changed alot.
    BAMBI, what are your credentials if you have any? and if you do, I definitely would NOT take my Rusty to you, just as I would not go to or take a child to a physician that still uses old fashioned treatments & regards pain in children as “growing pains”


  11. JL Sellers says:

    Dogs are relatively polite, but they are like people – if it’s not yours, don’t touch them, don’t gesture in their face, and don’t expect a happy response if you do. Never put out your hand for a dog to smell it – the dog can smell you from across the room or across the street. There is no need to pet an unknown dog, and it is ridiculous to do so.

    I agree with Jeannie – never solicit to pet a dog, let the dog’s handler solicit the interaction. It’s none of your business, the unknown dog, unless it is aggressive to you. Period. I don’t care for it, and I say no for my dogs as pets daily. Also, I sure get annoyed when people try to pet my service dog, despite me saying “no” firmly and patches all over the dog vest that say “do not touch” or “do not distract”. Keep off the dog unless it’s yours, or unless it’s invited by the handler.


  12. Robert Ferman says:

    Correct, always be eye to eye and let the dog or anything take the frist move, if you pay attention, you will know how to proceed. RF


  13. Judy Clard says:

    I have just the opposite problem. My 2 yo Shih Tsu/terrier mix is really friendly and gets hyper excited when we come up to someone or someone comes over. He does everything really well, heel, sit, drop, stay, and wait, but when it comes to sitting to be petted he has very poor self control. Any suggestions?


    Minette Reply:

    It is working for him to have no control; he is still getting petted… am I right?

    There is no reason to have good manners if you can get away with not having any…

    But if you HAVE to sit to be pettted and you enjoy petting you will learn to sit and be still to be rewarded.


    Judy Clark Reply:

    No, we work constantly on sitting to be petted. Obviously, we occasionally meet someone who will try to pet as the dog is jumping but I tell them that he needs to sit for petting. One big problem is when someone comes to the house. He wants to jump and run around unless I have him on a leash. He weighs 15 pounds. After a few minutes he usually settles down and behaves. At doggie class, the instructor is good at working with him but initially he is jumpy around people and dogs. We always advise people to bend their elbows and make their hands into fists at their shoulders until he settles in a sit. And if he lifts his paws off the floor when attempting to pet him, we draw our arms back up. Eventually he will do it, but never at first.


    Minette Reply:

    Then just tell them NO until he is calm!

    Try working on having him lay down and not sit, you can almost spring load yourself when you sit but that is harder when you lay down.

  14. Vicki says:

    I have a 1 1/2 year old border collie mix. She has been well socialized and generally loves all people and other dogs. Problem she is becoming aggressive (barking, hair standing on end, growling) with both people and dogs. I don’t know for sure what is causing this reaction. Unfortunately she has been attacked twice while on leash on a walk. Could this be the cause? What can I do to get her back to her calm self.


  15. pupdog says:

    Great article! These are almost exactly the methods I use, I also do not pet a dog’s head unless he or she is first comfortable around me. If a dog is extremely shy, I go down to her level not facing her and ‘ignoring’ her. In the end, she always ends up sniffing my hands or arm and I will slowly and gently let her sniff my hand (held below her nose) and if she backs off I withdraw it slowly. So far this has always worked with shy dogs, they gain confidence and then enjoy being stroked on the chest, neck and shoulders.
    Even if a dog is obviously friendly, I still keep my hand low for her to first sniff before petting.
    There were once these two border collies at a farm (I had come there to buy hay for my horses) one was friendly and excited, and the other was older and stood a ways back before coming to me later. He started sniffing my hand (I was standing), so I gently stroked the side of his neck, and then went down to his level and scratched his chest. He wagged his tail a bit, so I petted along his face and scratched his itchy spots behind his ears and on his neck (he made happy groaning sounds too)
    It was on the second visit I was informed that the dog was a bit of a grump and could be slightly aggressive. (I did see him growl at some people that day, including my sister.) Funny thing was, I never knew or suspected that he was on the first day I met him.


  16. Beatrice says:

    I have been ‘doggysitting’ my friend’s britanny for years. He loves everyone and particularly children. Whenever a human happens to be in reach (meaning when we are walking slowly or stationary in public places) he slowly approches them with ‘squishy face’, gently touches their legs with his shoulder or head and waits to get a pat. The only trouble is that many people are scared of dogs and are uncomfortable with this. I am totally relaxed and happy about it, kwowing how non-aggressive and tolerant he has always been. Should I try to do something about it ? The last thing I want is for him to think that humans should not be approached.


    Minette Reply:

    It is more about control.

    Someone who doesn’t want to be touched by a dog could be aggressive or yell or scare and traumatize the dog…

    It is more about keeping the dog in heel position and his focus on you so you can avoid this will people that don’t like it and then have a command when he can socialize.


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