If you’re a dog lover, the chances are that you can’t wait to go and pat his or her head when you see one. Unfortunately, depending on their background, they don’t always share our enthusiasm. How to approach a scared dog, perhaps one that comes from an animal rescue, needs patience and finesse.
It’s All in the Body Language
Dogs communicate with their bodies but also their vocal and smell systems. They’ll use various postures to show that they want to play or that they’re scared. Studies also show that dogs can sense our emotions because of the different smells we emanate.
As an example, where we might see eye contact as a positive thing, it’s actually a threatening thing for dogs. So, how to approach a scared dog often starts by not looking directly into their eyes. The best way is to turn your head slightly and glance sideways.
One of the biggest misconceptions about how to greet a dog for the first time is that you should put your hand out for them to smell it. In fact, research shows that dogs can smell us up to 20km away.
Of course, not all dogs have the same sense of smell. The point is that they don’t need you to stick their arm in their face for them to smell you. That seemingly small gesture looks aggressive to a dog because they don’t know if you’re going to hit them or punch them.
Imagine a complete stranger patting you on the head or the shoulder as you walk down the street. For most of us, that would be a violation of our boundaries and would feel very uncomfortable. The dogs are the same.
Instead, how to say hello in dog language needs these key points as a foundation:
- Let them approach you
- Allow them to define the distance
- Build rapport through patience and slow movements
Tips for How to Approach a Scared Dog
Some dogs are skittish whilst others have previous trauma that makes them fearful. Either way, never assume you know how they’re going to react to you.
But, with patience, you too can learn how to say hello in dog language. As a starting point, keep these tips in mind:
1- Get down to their level
It’s easy to forget how big we can appear to dogs. Yes, they have teeth and bigger muscles than many of us but they don’t know that, especially if they haven’t met many people in their life.
Sadly, there are many people out there who dislike dogs and will do anything to keep them away. If you’ve come across street dogs, you might know that they get scared when people pick up a stick.
I remember my own dog rescue running out of the house the first time I picked up a broom to sweep the floor.
All this means that the best solution when considering how to greet a dog is to crouch down to their level. As mentioned, don’t stare at them. One way to avoid that is to crouch sideways.
Dogs are curious by nature and they’ll want to come to you eventually. And if they don’t, it’s important to respect their boundary.
2- Don’t stick out your hand when exploring how to approach a scared dog
As we’ve described, never put your arm out when exploring how to approach a shy dog. If the dog comes up to you, you can very slowly move your hand to pat the side of their neck.
Truly fearful or shy dogs will not allow that on the first meeting though. You’ll need to give it time, sometimes months before they’ll feel comfortable being stroked. Again, let them set the pace and be patient.
3- Patiently apply positive reinforcement
When was the last time you appreciated getting negative feedback? Or even perhaps having your holiday cancelled by your boos? Both of these can come across as punishments and I’m sure you remember the emotions that go with such situations.
It’s the same with dogs. They might respond to punishments but that’s only because they’re scared.
The best way to collaborate with a dog is to reward good behaviour. Of course, this is challenging with a new dog you’re just meeting.
Nevertheless, moving up to the dog too quickly and waving your arm in their face usually signals that you’re about to hit them, i.e. punish them.
Instead, how to approach a scared dog means rewarding them for coming closer. You might want to speak to them gently and tell them how great they’re doing.
If you’re working with a friend to train a fearful dog, you give them treats every time they get closer to a stranger to sniff or even say hello to them.
It’s all about desensitisation and counterconditioning.
4- Use a gentle voice with averted gaze
Studies further show that, bar trauma and genetics, dogs can be fearful because of insufficient socialisation, inactivity and even urban living. Cities are full of stimuli and all the lights, noise and smells can be confusing and disorienting for animals.
Just like us, dogs thrive in a natural environment and they need variety. As we described in our blog on creating a happy year, they need multiple walks a day and the opportunity to explore new things.
You can use this to your advantage when looking for how to approach a shy dog. In essence, use a gentle, higher pitched voice to spark their curiosity. After all, you are a new thing also.
As a result of making yourself small and gentle-sounding, you’re more likely to get a doggy hello.
5- Get sideways
As we’ve mentioned a few times, when learning how to greet a dog, remember to get sideways as this looks less aggressive.
How Will You Remember How to Approach a Scared Dog?
If you remember nothing else about how to greet a dog for the first time, simply remember to not stick out your arm or hand.
The most effective way when practicing how to approach a scared dog is to crouch sideways at their level, whilst looking away, and letting them decide what they want to do. You can also encourage them with a gentle voice.
Most importantly, it takes time and patience but the rewards are endless.