Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to Approach an Unfamiliar Dog

By Linda Cole

Most dog attacks happen because people don't know how to approach an unfamiliar dog. Because our own pets are comfortable with us, we sometimes forget that dogs who don't know us as well (such as those belonging to our family and friends), may not accept our advances. Stray or lost dogs don't know we want to help them and are cautious to the point of running away or snarling, and possibly attacking if we get too close. Approaching an unfamiliar dog has pack rules that need to be adhered to, and a knowledge of the dog's body language as well as our own.

There are two main reasons people may be attacked or bit by strange dogs. The first one is human nature. If confronted by a dog who is snarling and intimidating, most people, especially children, have an impulse to turn and run. A situation has been created that some dogs take as prey fleeing and they will give chase. A child is more vulnerable to a dog attack because of their smaller size.

The other reason is that when visiting family or friends, we may react to their dogs as we do our own. A dog's sense of social order actually puts us at a disadvantage when we don't understand we are the stranger coming into their home. Our best protection when we approach an unfamiliar dog is to establish a role of pack leader as soon as the meeting begins. Children can also be taught to assume a leadership role.

It's important to enter a home with a dog calmly. Give no attention or eye contact to any dog as you enter their home – even if you know the dog. This signals to them you are a pack leader. Once greetings have been exchanged with the dog’s family and the dog has calmed down and sorted out the new scents you brought with you, then it's time to greet the dog. If a dog is barking or jumping up on you, turn to the side and ignore them. Pushing them down with your hands can be interpreted as a signal you want to play. Children need to stay calm to avoid exciting the dog. Sudden movements toward the animal and loud noises will raise a dog's excitement level.

Approach an unfamiliar dog from his side or at his eye level. Never try to pet the head area and never greet them from the top. Hold out a fist and allow the dog to sniff your hand. Then slowly pet them on the side or back. Watch their body language. If the dog is stiff, has his ears laid back or has glaring eyes, it may be wise to just leave him alone until he's gotten to know you better.

Avoid petting a dog who is chained up, in a car or pickup bed, or in a pen. Most dogs will protect what they believe is theirs and that includes a car, yard or even a parking meter their owner tied them to while they are in a store or business.

Extreme caution must be adhered to in any encounter with stray or injured dogs. Approaching an unfamiliar dog who is lost or a stray can be more challenging. These animals may be more fearful and can be more aggressive. I encounter dogs in my neighborhood all the time. Usually, they are my neighbor's dogs who managed to break out of their enclosure and are making their rounds. These dogs know me quite well and dutifully follow me back to their home.

Remember two rules to follow if approached by an unfamiliar dog outside. First, never run. Stand as still as a rock with your arms against your side. If the dog comes up to you, allow it to sniff you. Second, stay calm and avoid looking directly into his eyes. Understanding a dog's body language can help you determine if a dog should be left alone or if you can help him. If a dog is telling you to stay away with barks and snarls, take his word for it and back away slowly, avoiding direct eye contact.

Children should be taught to never approach an unfamiliar dog, ever. If they see a lost or stray dog, teach them to back away slowly and calmly and then find an adult who can better handle the situation. Most lost dogs just need a helping hand getting back home. We need to be understanding as well as knowledgeable enough to know if a dog is dangerous. Usually, they are just looking for a little help from someone who can give them a hand.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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