Imagine this: You’re walking down the street, and a stranger walks up to you and, without warning, hugs you.
How would you respond? If you’re anything like us, the answer might include anything from a combination of MMA moves, to a swift kick to the groin, to the rapid use of pepper spray (and a shout for help from passersby). Generally speaking, unsolicited hugs from strangers are neither cool nor comfortable for anyone.
Hugs from friends or close family members on the other hand? Assuming you’re the kind of person that likes physical touch (and no shade if you aren’t—everyone is different!), these can be great. They can communicate care and affection and can help strengthen your relationship with those people.
Can you guess where this is going?
Walking up to a dog you don’t know and getting all up in its space (either by petting it, getting at eye level, or—god forbid—grabbing it in any sort of way) is basically the equivalent of hugging a random stranger. And though there are some dogs that might tolerate this type of greeting—as well as many that enjoy physical affection, like petting, once they’ve gotten to know you—there are better ways to greet a dog that ensure both you and the dog are safe and comfortable. Today, we’re exploring the best way to greet a dog and digging into the science that backs it up.
Dogs Are Scent-First
Humans are not. We’re a sight-first species, and we tend to assume other species (like dogs) are like us. They aren’t.
Unlike humans, dogs are scent-first. A canine olfactory bulb is approximately 40 times larger in dogs than in humans, relative to total brain size. And, the unique anatomy of their noses is specifically designed to give them an unparalleled sense of smell—up to 100,000 times more sensitive than that of a human.
While many humans get to know the world around them through sight, dogs do so through smell. And it makes sense, right? If our noses were that sensitive, we’d probably do the same!
“But why does this matter?” you might wonder. “And how does this have anything to do with greeting a dog?”
Hold tight, friend. Because the way that we experience the world differently is precisely why many humans get it wrong when it comes to greeting dogs.
How Not to Greet a Dog
As a sight-first species, humans often make assessments of new people based on a quick glance. And, many assume that dogs do the same. They’ve seen us (and maybe sniffed our hand), so now we’re buds! Good to go! Pets all around!
We get it. We love dogs too, and petting dogs is the BEST. But immediately assuming a dog you’ve met is comfortable with being petted doesn’t give them time to make their own assessment of you, using the sense they rely on most (aka, smelling).
How to Greet a Dog
Put simply, the best way to greet a dog is to not greet them. No sticking your hand in their face, no encroaching on their space, no picking them up, no looking them in the eyes. Their sense of smell is so powerful that just by being near you, they’re getting to know you. They’re assessing who you are as a person—sniffing you out, quite literally—and using this to determine if you’re a safe person. And, if after some time their body language indicates they’re open to a pet (and their owner says it’s cool!), that’s the time to pet them.
Wrapping Up: How to Greet a Dog
So there you have it! Whether you’re a dog lover or dog owner, we hope this info helps you make well-informed decisions when interacting with canine counterparts. By recognizing and respecting how dogs are different from us, we can help ensure everyone—humans and dogs alike—can experience the world in a way that feels safe and supportive.
Hungry for More? Check out our online training resources, including our free guide, How Dogs Smell the World. In it, we cover everything you need to know about the canine olfactory system, how it’s different from a human’s, and why it matters for dog training.