What you are trying to do, when you approach an unfamiliar dog, is figure out if it will be receptive to your attention. The first step is to ask the owner if the dog is friendly! If the owner gives you permission to pet their dog, take a moment to assess the dog’s demeanour and attitude towards you. There are many different reasons for a dog to be aggressive, and you should understand situations in which it would not be recommended to approach an unfamiliar dog.
Some people would find it rude if you approached their dog without asking. Some dogs, such as guide-dogs in training, should not be petted while they are working. Always ask the owner before you approach their dog, even if the dog is obviously trying to get attention from you. The owner is the first person to understand the situations or people that can make their dog nervous and potentially aggressive. Some dogs may get aggressive in situations that are loud or busy (parties, dog parks, veterinary clinics, etc) due to the overwhelming stimulation. It is also common for dogs to have problems with certain types of people. The presence of men or young children makes some dogs fearful, which then predisposes them to ‘fear aggression’. People with wheelchairs, walkers, or canes may find that they more easily scare dogs. Owners who are comfortable with their dogs in new situations should be able to evaluate how their dog will interact with you in a specific location.
After you get an ‘OK’ from the owner to approach their dog, always check twice! Your second check is when you take a moment to look at the dog and its behaviour. If the owner does not recognize how fearful, stimulated, or agitated the dog is, you may become a dog-bite victim. When you look at a dog’s facial expression, dogs that are willing to interact have their ears forward and are looking at you without staring. They generally have a loose body posture, will wag their tail loosely, and will approach you with very little hesitation.
Dogs that are fearful are potentially dangerous due to fear aggression. The facial expressions of a fearful dog include ears that are laid back on their head, eyes that avoid looking at you, and head turned away from you. The body posture may be ‘slinking’; they will crouch low to the ground and tuck their tail close to their body. As they show more fearful aggression, they will probably begin to show teeth. These dogs should not be approached because your presence is causing them distress. A dog that is sufficiently distressed may react with aggression.
Despite the many different causes of aggression, offensively aggressive dogs usually look the same. Its ears will be forward and it will stare at you, possibly showing its teeth at the same time. It will have a very stiff body posture and will hold its tail high up. An offensively aggressive dog may stiffly wag its tail! This does not mean that it is friendly; it simply means that the dog is interacting with you. Often these dogs will also have their ‘hackles’ raised. This means that the hair along their back (but especially at the shoulders and rump) will be standing up. Never approach these dogs, as they are very confident and not willing to peacefully interact with you.
It is important to be able to identify situations in which you may find yourself with an aggressive dog. A dog does not intend to have conflict with people, which is why it will show the signs detailed above. These signs are meant to warn you and to allow you to avoid a situation where you may be bitten. There are a few key situations in which an average dog may become aggressive. In these situations, the dog is not ‘bad’ or ‘mean’. It is simply reacting in a natural manner. You should use extreme caution when approaching an unfamiliar dog in the following situations.
Dogs are commonly possessive of food and favourite toys. Avoid reaching for or taking away a food dish, treat, or toy from a dog that you do not know. This also relates to territorial possession. Do not encroach on a dog’s property- let the dog approach you. The dog does not know your intentions and only sees you as a trespasser. Also, never try to break up a dog fight. You may unwittingly get bitten in the process. Lastly, be very careful when approaching a dog in pain. Its threshold and tolerance are greatly decreased and it may become aggressive simply as a defence mechanism.
Although dogs have been domesticated for a very long time, we cannot separate them from their wild ancestors. When you approach an unknown dog, always remember that there is a chance that you will be bitten. Make sure you first address the owner, and then take into consideration the dog’s demeanour. Avoid interacting with an unfamiliar dog in certain situations, such as near its food bowl. Above all, if you are nervous and unsure if the dog will be happy to interact with you, err on the side of safety and don’t approach it!