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Hey, Smell My Hand! - Why You Don't Stick Your Hand in a Dog's Face

Imagine a complete stranger coming up to you and giving you a hug and then asking for directions. Unless you're at a party with many margaritas in your system, this "I love you man" moment won't be well received. But if a stranger comes up to you,asks for directions and then you find your conversation leads you down a path of similar interests, friends in common and then into a unexpected heart-to-heart discussion, then a hug at the end wouldn't seem odd. You've built a rapport and it feels natural.

You may not realize it, but we are all protective of our personal space to some degree. Depending on our cultural norms and our personal history, these boundaries are a bit different for everyone, but they do exist and apply more strictly with people we don't know. As a dog trainer, I'm here to say, the same goes for dogs.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, I was encouraged to stick my hand out for a strange dog to sniff. "Go ahead honey, stick your hand out for him to smell you," was a phrase I heard often growing up as I'm sure many of you reading this blog can relate to. Truth is, it's a myth that has been passed down from parent to child for generations. It's not completely untrue, however, just a half truth. Here's the other half. Let the dog sniff your hand, if and only ifhe wants to. Have your hand available to him but certainly don't shove it in his face. Going up to a dog you've never met and sticking your hand in his face, insisting that he smell you, is as inappropriate as hugging a complete (and sober) stranger. Just as you might feel inclined to push away a stranger aggressively approaching you, a dog may feel guarded at an aggressive approach and may snap or bite to protect himself.

Here's how the greeting should look:

  • First: Let the dog come to you. The best way to do this is to ignore the dog and wait for him to be comfortable enough to approach you.

  • Second: If and when the dog does come to you, keep your arm by your side and offer your hand slow and low. The dog will set the pace here.

  • Third: If the dog approaches your hand and starts to engage with you, slowly lower your body to get closer to his level. It is best to position yourself so that you are not directly facing the dog head on, but from the side.

  • Fourth: Avoid direct eye contact at first until you build a rapport.

Here is a photo of me and my dog, Jackson, using the "incorrect" hand-in-the-face approach. As you can see, my own dog looks to be a little uncomfortable with this posture. He is leaning back, turning his head and not relaxed. And this is my own dog. From this vantage point, the gesture almost looks rude.

Here is a photo where I'm allowing Jackson to sniff my hand and giving him time and room to come to me. As you can see, he has a much more pleasant disposition. This technique may take longer, but you can see it is clearly a more pleasant exchange.

So the moral of the story is this. When meeting a dog you've never engaged with before, show him the same courtesy you would expect from a stranger approaching you on the street. Politely share and respect personal space until you've built a relationship and then take it from there. Sniffing each other out is an important exercise for you and the dog. And, as with any relationship, it's better to let it progress naturally than to force it right out the gate.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

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