In our society, a handshake is the standard greeting for meeting new people. We have a whole ritual that goes with it. First we verbally introduce ourselves, making eye contact and smiling, then we step towards the other person and grasp hands (usually right hands) for about two seconds with even pressure before disengaging and stepping back.
Dogs also have a standard greeting ritual, but as scent-oriented creatures their ritual varies slightly from ours. In a typical canine greeting the dogs will approach one another in an arc with loose bodies and a slight C-shaped curve to their spine. They will sniff each other’s noses, then sniff rear ends, and finally sniff noses again.
Photo by John Sibley
Greeting rituals are an important part of a functional society for both dogs and people. In both societies, our young need to be taught how to greet others appropriately. This is done through a combination of appropriate modeling by the adults who raise the pup or child, teachable moments where the youngsters are given the chance to try the greeting ritual for themselves with feedback from the adults, and natural maturity. Appropriate greetings are not an intrinsic skill for either dogs or people – we learn them.
Problems arise for our dogs when we don’t provide them with appropriate opportunities to engage in polite greetings with other dogs. These problems take three common forms for most pet dogs: lack of understanding from their owners of species-appropriate behavior, lack of appropriate teachers, and forcing dogs into socially uncomfortable situations.
Imagine how you’d feel if you were reprimanded or punished every time you made eye contact with another person or smiled at someone as a child. How would your greeting behavior differ today as an adult? You’d probably be much more anxious greeting new people and may have difficulty making eye contact. You may scowl or appear to be bored as you wouldn’t want to smile.
The same thing can happen to our dogs when we prevent them from engaging in appropriate greetings. If you yank your dog away or scold your dog every time he sniffs another dog’s rear, it’s no different from a parent scolding their child for smiling at the kindergarten teacher the first time they meet. While anogenital investigation may not be our idea of an appropriate greeting, as long as your dog isn’t performing a full colonoscopy with his nose he’s probably being quite appropriate. It’s perfectly acceptable (and advisable!) to teach your dog not to greet people in the same manner, of course, but when he’s greeting other pups let him stick to the cultural norms for his species.
Of course, some dogs never learn the cultural norms, and this can lead to rude or frantic greetings. If your dog rarely or never interacts with other dogs or if he tends to only meet adolescent dogs (as many dog park patrons do), he may not pick up the finer points of doggy etiquette. And just like us, some dogs are more socially awkward than others.
If your dog tends to rush straight up to other dogs, make physical contact with them while sniffing, skip sniffing altogether, grovel frantically in greeting, or if she shows any other signs that she’s struggling with greetings, it’s up to you to help her out. Oftentimes other dogs are the best teachers, and as long as it’s safe to do so, it can be very instructive to introduce your awkward dog to some older, wiser, bombproof teacher dogs off-leash and let them show her how it’s done. If that’s not possible, work with an experienced trainer to teach your dog some basic impulse control or build up her confidence, depending on the reason for her awkwardness.
Finally, we need to be aware when we’re forcing our dogs into socially uncomfortable or downright frightening situations and help them leave these unpleasant situations gracefully.
We’ve all had an experience where someone held our hand just a little too long in greeting. It’s downright creepy if a stranger you were just introduced to won’t let go of your hand, especially if they continue looking into your eyes and smiling. What started off as a pleasant greeting can quickly begin to feel awkward or even frightening.
Unfortunately for our dogs, we put them in this situation all the time. I’m speaking of course about on-leash greetings. Dogs use their bodies to communicate, and the leash puts limits on their ability to speak properly to one another.
Off-leash dogs rarely sniff one another for longer than it takes two people to introduce themselves through a pleasant handshake. The one exception to this is familiar dogs (such as those who live together) who’ve been apart for some time. Just as you may hold the hand of a loved one for longer in greeting than you would the hand of a stranger, housemate dogs who have been separated for awhile will often investigate one another quite thoroughly upon coming back together, “catching up” with one another, as it were.
Unfamiliar dogs don’t do this, though. After a quick (2-5 second) greeting, they move on. They may begin playing together. They may wander alongside one another, sniffing and investigating their surroundings. They may go their separate ways. They may greet other nearby dogs. They may even begin fighting. What they won’t usually do is just stand side by side, and this is where the problem lies.
On-leash greetings often force our dogs to stand close to each other without moving onto the next step of the social process. They greet one another, but then don’t have enough leash to do much more. They can’t wander apart, and while they can play, their ability to communicate with one another is impeded by the leashes. They’re forced into that awkward handshake, and neither of them can let go.
This is why many dogs “explode” after an on-leash greeting that appears fine at first. The tension builds up, and they just can’t figure out how to gracefully get out of an increasingly uncomfortable social situation. Finally one dog or the other snarks, and it’s quite effective at getting their owner to move them further away and thus end the tense encounter.
Of course, all of this is avoidable. If we allow dogs the freedom to learn from one another, engage in their culturally normal greetings based on scent, and keep on-leash greetings as brief as handshakes, we can help our dogs succeed in their society. Just think of it as their version of a smile and a handshake… but with noses and butts.
Is your dog a suave, confident greeter, or a bit of social nerd? Let us know in the comments section!