How to Approach an Unknown Dog Safely


shutterstock_244907092We all know the saying; a dog is man’s best friend. Ask any dog owner and they’re sure to agree. Dogs are known as loyal companions, childhood friends, household guardians and even assistants to the handicapped.


Unfortunately, because of the generally good reputation that dogs have among us, many people don’t take the precautions they should when they encounter a dog they don’t know. Every year, far too many people, especially children, arrive at hospital emergency rooms suffering from injuries caused by a dog bite. And sadly, in most cases, the outcome is far worse for the dog involved in the incident.


It is always best to assume any dog you don’t know is not going to be comfortable interacting with a stranger. Even dogs that appear extremely friendly can suddenly become angry and aggressive if they feel threatened. It’s important to know how to handle yourself around unknown dogs and even more important to educate young children, whose natural reactions can make things worse when a problem arises.

Don’t Approach a Lone Dog

You should never approach a dog that is alone, especially if they are tied up or on a leash. There is a greater probability that a lone dog will be scared or react badly. A dog that is tied on a leash is even more likely to be aggressive because he cannot move away from you if he wants to. His only choice is to try to make you move away from him.

Always Ask the Owner for Permission

Nobody knows a dog better than their owner. When you encounter an unknown dog with their owner, you should always ask permission before approaching. The owner will, of course, tell you if there is a chance the dog may bite or otherwise react in a bad way. You also need to keep in mind that many dogs have a natural instinct to protect their owners, the leader of their pack. Even a dog that seems friendly can become aggressive if he thinks you are a threat to his owner.

Take Cues from Body Language

Dogs, of course, cannot speak, but they will let you know very clearly how they are feeling if you know what to look for in their body language.

Relaxed and Approachable

A relaxed dog will look, well, relaxed. The tail will be low, but not tucked between the legs. Ears are up, but not pointing forward or back. The mouth may be slightly open with the tongue exposed, and the dog will have his weight distributed evenly on all four feet.

Fearful and Aggressive

A fearful and aggressive dog will lower his entire body into a crouch, usually with the head slightly lower than the hind section. The tail will be down, tucked between the legs with little or no movement. Ears will be down and pointed back, with the nose wrinkled and corners of the mouth pulled tight. A dog exhibiting this behavior just wants to be left alone, but will attack if he feels pressured.

Dominant and Aggressive

A dog exhibiting this type of behavior can be very dangerous. The tail will be pointing upward and stiff, sometimes with an almost vibrating type of movement. Ears will be up and pointing forward. The forehead and nose will be wrinkled, and teeth clearly visible. A dog showing this type of body language is ready to attack and should be left alone. It is important in this case to move away slowly and calmly. Fast movement or running may trigger the dog’s instinct to chase.

Get Down to The Dog’s Level

When meeting a new dog, you should squat down to meet them at their level and avoid direct eye contact. Never bend over a dog or hold direct eye contact. These are threatening gestures in their natural body language.

Avoid Quick Movements

You should always move slowly and carefully around a new dog. They naturally react aggressively to quick or surprising movements. Even a friendly dog that interprets your movements as an invitation to play can cause an injury, especially with larger dogs that may jump on you, or even bite in a playful manner.

Keep Your Hands and Arms Low

It’s best to keep your hands and arms at your side when meeting a dog that you don’t know. You should never attempt to pet an unknown dog on the top of the head, or reach over his head to touch his back. This is another threatening gesture.


If you want to pet the dog, lower yourself by squatting down and allow the dog to approach you. Once the dog has shown that he does want some interaction, offer your hand at a level lower than the dog’s head, move slowly, and offer to scratch the chin or chest area. It’s best to put your hand out and pause for a moment to give the dog a chance to sniff or examine your hand before you touch him.

Never Attempt to Hug an Unknown Dog

This is especially important for children who might see a dog as a cuddly friend to be held and squeezed like one of their favorite stuffed animals. A dog will interpret this type of movement as a direct threat. In the best case, they will try to run away. In the worst case, they may attack. Trying to hug a dog, large or small, is never a good idea.

Don’t Restrain a Retreating Dog

Never try to restrain a dog that wants to move away from you. Even if the dog has been friendly, if he suddenly decides he wants to move away, you should never reach out and grab him or try to restrict his movement to keep him with you.


This is another rule that is especially important for children who may try to hold onto, or chase after, a dog that moves away from them. The dog will undoubtedly see this as a threatening gesture and react in an unpleasant way.

Main Points to Remember

  • Pay attention to body language
  • Always move slowly and calmly
  • Squat down to the dog’s level
  • Never try to grab or restrain an unknown dog


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