Most of us think we know how to greet a dog, based on what we were taught as children. Modern dog behavior science has new recommendations for staying safe and making friends with Fido.


As children, most of us were told that the proper way to greet a canine was to walk up to the dog…hold out your hand for the dog to sniff…instant friends, right? Not so fast. While this approach may work with a confident, friendly dog, it’s not the best, or safest, way to approach a dog that you don’t know well.


When Things Go Wrong, They Can Go Really Wrong!

In 2012, NBC news anchorwoman Kyle Dyer was bitten in the face by an Argentine Mastiff named Max. This happened during a live, in-studio segment celebrating the dog’s rescue from an icy lake. While Kyle petted the dog during the interview, Max was sending out very subtle signals that he was uncomfortable with the attention (licking his lips, looking away, eyes rolled showing the whites). Then, as the interview was wrapping up, Kyle leaned in to kiss the dog on the nose and was bitten.


Dyer made a full recovery, and after more than 70 stitches and two reconstructive surgeries, she didn’t blame the dog at all. Instead, she encouraged people to get educated about how to safely greet and pet dogs, saying, “We all think we know how to pet a dog, but we don’t. I don’t, obviously!”


Tips On How to Safely Greet a Dog 

  1. Ask the person, “Is it okay for me to pet your dog?” As a professional dog walker, I often have to prevent people from approaching a dog I’m walking when they don’t ask this question. Even a friendly dog sometimes isn’t in the mood to be social. Always ask.
  1. Ask” the dog!

– Observe dog’s level of excitement. The dog should be under control, and many dog owners prefer that their dog be calm before accepting petting and praise.

– Watch tail position. A wagging tail is not always attached to a friendly dog. A tail held high over a dogs back, quickly going back and forth in a tic-toc type of motion may just mean that the dog is excited and aroused. If the tail is tucked down between the dog’s legs, the dog is probably frightened. Scared dogs can become aggressive in self-defense if they feel cornered. A tail at half-mast, with the dog’s whole back end wagging, ears and face relaxed, is a friendly tail.

– Watch for signs that the dog feels stressed, such as:

  • lip licking/tongue flicks
  • yawning
  • panting or drooling (not related to heat or exertion)
  • tail tucked between legs
  • looking away
  • eyes rolled so that some of the white is showing (sometimes called half-moon eyes)
  • shaking off (like when a dog shakes when wet, but is not wet)
  • trembling
  • ears pinned back
  • avoidance


  1. Let the pup come to you. Avoid reaching for the dog! This can feel threatening to a nervous dog. Instead, present a side view, and gently pat your leg. Wait for the dog to decide if it wants to approach.


  1. If the dog gives you the “go ahead” by approaching, pet the dog under the chin, on the chest, or on its back. Patting on the head can feel overwhelming to some dogs.


  1. If the dog does not approach you, compliment the dog and walk away. That dog may not be in the mood for a visit.



  2. Never lean in and put your face near the face of a dog that you don’t know very, very well, even if it seems friendly.



For more information on greeting dogs and dog behavior, see the following:

Greeting Dogs the Safe Way, by Creative Dog Training (podcast)

Raising Your Paws ( podcast, Episode 10)

Dog Warning Signs of Aggression or Biting, by BrightDog

How To Prevent Dog Bites, CNN

FREE poster that shows how to greet an unfamiliar dog, from Dr. Sophie Yin


Please feel free to leave a comment or question!


By Tami Guy, MS, CPPS, founder of Creatures Pet Care of Kalamazoo.