Can I pet your dog? A guide to saying hello

12115860_10104714181693977_8082023211186015409_nI work with dogs on the fearful side of the behavior spectrum. I also live in San Francisco, which means humans and dogs coexist with minimal space. When working with these dogs outside, it’s critical to maintain positive associations with the environment and avoid trigger stacking. Some dogs have a quicker recovery time from stressful events, whereas other dogs I work with spiral into stress and stay there.

It’s common for people to want to greet these dogs. After all, they may be fearful, but they’re still cute! Unfortunately, depending on a dog’s particular triggers, a stranger approaching with hands extended to say hello can turn a positive outing into a negative one. Because it’s impossible for strangers to know whether a dog is afraid, and because most people have good intentions when they approach, I’ve put together a guide of what to ask and what to do if you want to greet a dog.

  1. Ask the guardian if it’s OK to say hello to the dog before you begin your approach. If you ask if it’s OK and you’re already walking toward the dog, you’re potentially making a dog who doesn’t want to say hello quite nervous.
  2. If the guardian says no, don’t be offended; the guardian is simply being a responsible dog owner and keeping you and her dog safe.
  3. If the guardian says it’s OK to say hello, ask how to approach. For most dogs, a direct approach that’s accompanied by outstretched hands and direct eye contact is unsettling. For fearful dogs, this type of approach can trigger a fight or flight response.
  4. If you’re cleared to say hello, keep your body quiet and neutral. I advise people to approach a dog at an angle, with your hands by your side and avoiding direct eye contact. Stop several feet away from the dog and let him approach you. Remember: If a dog doesn’t approach, he doesn’t want to say hello. Give him the option to vote with his paws, and respect him if he votes “no.”
  5. Before giving a dog treats, ask the guardian for permission. Some dogs have food allergies and are on a restricted diet. Other dogs are not comfortable with a person crouching down with outstretched hands.
  6. If the guardian says it’s OK to give the dog treats, use minimal hand movements and toss the treat on the ground away from you. If the dog wants to receive pets, he’ll approach on his own time.
  7. Make sure the dog has plenty of space to back up and create distance from you if he chooses. Cornered dogs are not comfortable dogs.

By following these steps, you will help fearful dogs feel safe in an often chaotic, stressful world. And fearful dog guardians will thank you for helping them on their training journey.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at

2 thoughts on “Can I pet your dog? A guide to saying hello

  1. Thanks for posting this. I refer to it for friends and family often because most people I know, though they are dog lovers, truly have no clue how to approach a dog that’s anything but happy-go-lucky. I share this on social media every time I see it and will continue to do so.

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