Another Myth Dispelled

by Jan Fennell

snarling dog

I recently heard on the news of another person being bitten by a dog when they had offered their hand in ‘friendship’, which is something that ‘traditionally’ people are advised to do when meeting a dog for the first time.  The belief is that by offering their hand, the advancing stranger is letting the dog become familiar with their smell.  This misconception just means we impose unnecessary stress on the dog concerned and potentially serious doubts for its future if, in its nervous state, it adversely reacts to the unwelcome approach.

The traditional belief that offering an outstretched hand allows a dog to get our scent, thereby somehow magically dispelling its fears, needs to be examined logically.  A dog’s sense of smell is over forty times greater than ours and it is equipped to detect prey from over half a mile away so, unless it has some olfactory disability, no dog needs to be anywhere near you to fully examine your unique odour. Do you have to have your nose pressed up against the baker’s or the grocer’s shop windows before you can smell what they are vending?  The belief that a dog can also smell if someone will be friendly of safe is just ridiculous, how does that work?

It’s not hard to imagine why some dogs react negatively to being approached in this manner, all we need to do is imagine ourselves in the same situation; how would we feel if an uninvited stranger approached us extending their arm towards our head area?   I know that I would try to move away as their intentions are not obvious.  Nature provides us with wonderful survival instincts and in this situation the reaction is to ‘keep our distance’.

A dog may not have the opportunity to keep its distance though as it may be tethered in place or it may even be held in the arms of its owner.  As the dog can’t exercise the option to move away, it will be forced to find another means of defense, usually doing all it can to warn the stranger beforehand.  Unfortunately many people just ignore these warning signs, seeing them as silly, and therefore fail to recognize the stress the dog may be under and give no respect to the dog’s attempts to communicate.

Is a dog attempting to signal the stranger well before the threat of physical contact happens?  Does the dog turn its head to one side, doing all that it can to avoid direct eye contact?  If this happens then stop the approach.  If the dog licks its lips, pants or shakes then immediately stop the approach.

Does the dog curl its lip or even give a low grumble?  If so then stop the approach.  Pretty obvious reactions perhaps but if it’s a small dog, those reactions are often completely disregarded as it’s assumed that the silly dog just doesn’t know yet how friendly the approaching stranger is.

When a dog is given no choice other than to employ to its last warning option and snaps, grabs or nips the oncoming person, it is trying to stop the approaching threat, not inflict injury, however, many will insist that the dog has bitten, an action that is completely different and represents a dog’s desperate last resort.  This misunderstanding is one of the most damaging for the dog and may often lead to its completely unwarranted destruction.

We know that humans are (usually) very social animals but I would ask why do people feel the need to “make friends” with every dog they see?  A friendship grows over a period of time and they probably will never see a particular dog again so why add unnecessary stress and confusion to its life just for immediate personal gratification?

Much better advice is for anyone meeting a dog for the first time is to never approach the dog, rather give the dog the same respect as you would like from another being.  Wait for the dog to relax enough to want to move toward you, stay calm and gentle and you could both actually get something positive from the encounter.

If you have not the time to wait for the dog to relax then it is better to leave well alone and that way you will avoid putting a dog under pressure or even make it feel threatened for its life.

Keeping life simple and protecting your dog may mean that a stranger may feel offended if you ask them not to approach your dog but your relationship is with your dog and that is what must be valued above all other considerations.

Jan Fennell

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