I come from a family of huggers. I like to greet my friends and loved ones with a hug whenever I see them. It’s always been that way. I never really gave it much thought until the pandemic hit.
Now, when I see a friend – especially if it’s been a long while since I’ve seen them – it’s my natural default to want to hug them, but I stop myself. It feels weird, for sure, but I’ve adapted. Now, instead I make that universal motion with my hands like I’m blowing air kisses. It’s not quite the same, but it’s safe and respectful.
While I am certainly a hugger when it comes to greeting people I know and care about, I am definitely not the kind of guy who appreciates being hugged by people I’ve only just met.
It always irritates me when I am introduced to someone for the first time and they immediately hug me as though we’re already best friends who plan vacations and cooking classes together.
These are always the people who, with arms already outstretched as they descend upon you say, “I’m a hugger!” – as if that statement magically absolves them of needing to ask for consent.
Calm down, girl. I love to hug too, but only on my terms and with people I already know want to be hugged.
To me, it really just comes down to showing people respect by meeting them where they are.
Some people are naturally affectionate and will lovingly hang all over virtual strangers with the comfort and ease of a true extrovert. Others are more reserved and value their personal space, emotionally or physically shutting down when others make physical advances.
Like humans, dogs’ comfort levels vary when it comes to physical contact from people they are not familiar with.
It’s tough to see an adorable pup and not want to go up and say hi — they’re just so cute and squishy!
As kids, we were all taught that the best way to introduce ourselves to dogs is to extend our hand (palm down), and let them sniff us.
As we learn more about dog behavior though, it turns out that this isn’t such a good habit because when you reach out towards a dog, you are using your body pressure at them, giving them no time to assess whether you are safe and whether they require further investigation to pick up your information.
You’re forcing an interaction of a relationship that hasn’t had time to develop. It’s like giving a big bear hug to a stranger you just met and saying, “I’m a hugger!”
This type of unwanted behavior is the reason many snap at or bite people. This can also cause a lot of behavioral issues because of layered stress due to forced interactions.
It can be especially stressful for a dog if they are on lead. They have nowhere to go if they are sensitive to spatial pressure, so they can end up shutting down, shying away, or snapping at your hand to make you back off. This is an example of how a dog is now using pressure to turn off pressure and make you back off so they aren’t so stressed.
People think by offering your hand, it can give the dog time to sniff to know you’re friendly. But guess what? Their noses are far more superior than ours, so they don’t need close contact forced upon them to smell you. They can smell you just fine from a short distance, so extending your hand is just viewed as rude from their perspective.
So…what’s the right way to meet a dog?
Step 1: Consent
Ask the owner if you can interact with their dog. Not everyone wants strangers to touch their dogs. Take me, for example. I have two senior dogs who are perfect in every way, as far as I’m concerned. But they don’t exactly make a good first impression with strangers because they both value their personal space more than they are interested in pets and kisses.
Ollie is deaf and blind, so interactions from strangers can be particularly stressful for him. He can’t see you coming, so he’s easily startled. He isn’t the type to snap or bite to show his anxiety. Instead, he just shuts down and freezes.
Maddie needs a lot of time to warm up to people before she allows them close to her. So if we are out for a walk, and someone tries to pet her, she goes straight for their ankles like they’re made of Snausages.
Step 2: Mind your posture.
Stand up straight & relaxed, with your hands at your side. Don’t bend over the dog or attempt to get your face close to them. How would you like it if a stranger came to your table at a restaurant and hovered over you like a UFO with bad breath? It’s not cute.
Step 3: Play hard to get.
Ignore the dog & talk to the owner.
Don’t stare at the dog or try to force an interaction by going in for a pat. If the dog wants to know you, it will come up to you and sniff around. They will usually move away and then come back for a second sniff.
Some dogs will bunt your hands and wag their tails, which are good signs that you’re likely an accepted new friend. Give them a few slow pets down their back (not their head) and then stop.
Step 4: Read the room.
Is the dog happy? Has it accepted your interaction? This will determine whether you can give him more pets. If your interaction thus far has been positive and the dog’s body language is inviting your touch, then chances are, he is developing trust with you.
All too often, dogs are surrendered to the shelter after biting someone who unintentionally forced an interaction that made the dog uncomfortable. So next time you’re out and about and come across a dog you’re just dying to give belly rubs, mind your manners and approach them with the respect they deserve — for your safety, and for theirs.