How to approach a dog

Our guide to approaching dogs and dog behaviour.
Written by Mayhew team
Updated 2 years ago

We all like to stop and say hello to dogs that we cross paths with on a day to day basis, but sometimes this can cause more stress for the dog than we realise.
Here are some simple steps to think about when approaching a dog to ensure you and your new four-legged friend have an enriching experience.

All pictures were taken with the dogs’ welfare as a priority. They were taken in a controlled setting, at the dogs own pace, and with staff that the dog trusted and felt completely comfortable around.

Don’t forget the owner

When you see a dog and want to give it a pet, it’s quite easy to forget that anything else exists, including the dog’s owner. However, talking to the owner is perhaps the most important first step in approaching a dog. They know their dog’s likes, dislikes and mood at that point in time.

Ask the owner first if you can say hello.

Some dogs just adore people, others would prefer to avoid too much fuss and attention, and other dogs might just be having a day where they would rather be left alone. The owner will let you know whether or not their dog would like to be petted, and how best to interact with them. And, what’s more, dog owners too like to have some fuss and attention from time to time and might love to share tales about their four-legged pal.

Approaching the dog

You have been given the all clear – the owner is happy for you to say hi to their dog! But, before you say hello to the dog, let the dog decide if they want to say hi to you too.

Stand calmly to the side of the dog, or consider crouching down at arms length from the dog, keeping your arms to your side, and let the dog approach you. If they show no interest, do not chase the dog and try to force interactions.

If the dog comes to have a sniff and say hi, give them a bit of time to get to know you, and your smell. Then, you can calmly start to stroke them in areas that they can see – under the chin and around their chest – that way you won’t take the dog by surprise. Avoid putting your hand over the dog’s head at any point as this, for the dog,  is an aggressive move.

Dog behaviour – reading the signals

Not all dogs enjoy interacting with people, and, just like us, they have days where they would rather be left alone. If a dog doesn’t want to say hi, or gives you a little sniff and then moves on, they are showing you that they would prefer not to have any fuss, and so it is best to calmly walk away at this point.

Sometimes, you will see a dog roll over, showing you their belly. This isn’t an invitation for some belly rubs; they are kindly showing you that they aren’t dangerous and that they aren’t comfortable with interactions, so it is best to leave them be and move away calmly.

Some dogs need space

Sometimes, dogs will be wearing brightly coloured leads or harnesses that will immediately tell you about their behaviour. They might have words such as ‘nervous’ or ‘do not pet’ stitched on them. 

If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon, bandanna or similar on the leash or collar, this is a dog that needs some extra space from other pooches, so try to be mindful to ask the owner if you, too, can approach their dog. The yellow ribbon may be in place for many reasons: the dog may be nervous, in training, have health issues or is being rehabilitated. To find out more about the Yellow Dog Project and dogs needing space around other dogs, head to their website.

If you are the owner

You know your dog the best and will be able to judge the situation accordingly. Trying to avoid interactions between your dog and a person if they are not happy is the best way to minimise stress for you and your pooch.

If your dog is interested in someone, and you are happy, let them say hello. However, if your dog shows signs of being uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to end the interaction.

Try, wherever possible, to advise people to wait for your dog to approach them first, and let them know that it is more comfortable for both dog and person if they avoid putting their hand over the dog’s head when giving scratches or saying hello.

Did this answer your question?