Do’s and Don’ts When Approaching A New Dog

When dealing with dogs, whether stray or domestic, you must behave (or avoid behaving) in a certain way not to face hazardous situations that can result in serious injuries.

Rarely dogs attack without giving any sign, or attack for no reason. Oftentimes humans behave and act in a way that dogs perceive as rude or threatening, such as hugging or running towards them.

Stray dogs have generally been through hardships, unlike domestic pets, they have had to constantly struggle to survive. In this case, anything that is not familiar is a potential threat to their life, and therefore, their flight or fight instinct can be easily triggered and it can result in an attack.

So, it is important that anyone involved in any interaction with a dog, especially a stray dog, follows or avoids certain behavior and actions when handling dogs not to put themselves at risk of serious harm.

Do’s and don’ts around dogs.

Dogs do not have a sense of morality like humans do, but in certain situations dogs and humans have similarities, especially when faced with inappropriate behavior of strangers.

To provide a better understanding of inappropriate behavior around dogs, I would like to present each scenario as if the same behavior would be applied to another human.

Personal perimeter:

Imagine, you are in your house and from the window you see some stranger jumping the fence and entering your garden. To say that you may get worried would be an understatement. You spot someone touching your parked car and trying to reach inside, I bet you would be alarmed about, so would dogs.

When you see a stranger dog behind a fence, inside a car, near someone’s belongings or his food, avoid any contact with the dog. It is in the dog’s instinct to protect their territory and resources from intruder and threats.

Do’s: Avoid the dog, keep on walking; the interaction is not necessary unless you really want to get hurt.

Don’ts: It doesn’t matter if the dog doesn’t look aggressive, do not get close, stick your hand through or jump the fence. Do not approach the car or put your hand in or near a slightly open window. Do not approach a stranger dog near the owner’s personal belongings, anything that can be the dog’s food or, and especially, a female dog with her litter.

Appropriate approach:

Anyone would be concerned if a total stranger runs towards us, especially if the person is running towards us yelling. In this situation, we automatically, and for a good reason, assume the worst case scenario.

It is not an unusual occurrence for some people and especially children, to appear out of nowhere and run to greet an unknown dog. This may possibly scare the dog and trigger a flight or fight reaction which can end up really bad.

Do’s: Move calmly avoiding sudden movements, let the dog approach you. Let the dog sniff you, keep verbal interaction at a minimum and do not stare the dog in the eyes.

Don’ts: Do not run towards the dog, especially while making high pitched expressions such as “Oh how cute!!!”, it may scare the dog with the possible result of a bite. Do not touch the dog instead of giving him time to sniff you and get comfortable. Do not ignore signs of distress such as hiding, tail tucked between back legs (for breeds such as Whippets and Grey Hounds that is a tail’s normal position), ears held back, looking away etc while keeping approaching the dog.

Direct stare:

As mentioned above, staring a dog in the eyes is a big no. We humans feel uncomfortable when someone is staring at us. We learn from little that it’s rude and inappropriate and, unless we are actively looking for a confrontation, it is wise not to stare at people.

The same rule applies to dogs. A person that someone is staring at automatically feels uncomfortable and starts asking “What’s your problem?”. The same with dogs, so, do not stare a dog in the eyes unless you are looking for trouble.

Do’s: Approach the dog sideways, use your peripheral vision or look at the dog under and around the eyes, but not straight in the eyes.

Don’ts: Do not stare the dog in the eyes.


Some people are scared of big dogs, no matter the dog’s temperament, but at the same time, they are fine with small dogs. A similar concern can apply to dogs about humans.

An adult human can look enormous to a little dog and consequently frighten it. In order to avoid that, it is important to come down to their level and to respect their personal space, which can vary from dog to dog.

Do’s: Calmly approach the dog as we have already said, gently and slowly squat down to be on the dog’s level (this is not needed for large sizes), maintain and respect personal space (which can be identified by observing the dog’s body language signals when you are nearby) and present the possibility of been sniffed without invading the dog’s boundaries of comfort.

Don’ts: Do not stand tall around small dogs. Do not invade the dog’s personal space, do not get ‘in the dog’s face’ and when presenting a hand for a sniff or to touch the dog, avoid going from above or the dog may perceive it as a threat and respond to it with a bite.


Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Appropriate touch during greetings:

The reason why it is important to avoid placing your hand above the dog’s head is that, in general, attacks come from above. An unknown dog is not familiar with you and cannot predict what you are going to do, which can consequently distress the dog with a possibility of you receiving a bite.

To understand it better, try to imagine a stranger rushing at you while stretching his arms towards you. I am sure your first reaction would be to back off or to push the stranger away (the human flight or fight response).

On the other hand, having a stranger calmly approaching you and gently presenting a handshake, would be much less distressing.

So, if you have to present your hand to an unknown dog, it is advisable to do it gently and from below when the dog can see where your hand is.

If you intend to stroke the dog, do it gently and starting from the chest, do not force the interaction and respect the dog’s personal space.

Do’s: Present your hand gently and from below, respect the dog’s personal space, gently touch the dog below his head, preferably around the chest, and gently back off if the dog shows signs of distress.

Don’ts: Do not make sudden moves, do not, for any reason stretch your hand above or behind the dog’s head, do not be rough while touching the dog. Do not invade the dog’s personal space and absolutely avoid placing your face on the dog’s face, which also means not kissing the dog.

Inappropriate physical contact with dogs:

This is, I think, the number one reason for dogs biting children accidents. Some dogs are more tolerant than others, some others are less tolerant.

However, rough hugs and laying on dogs must be avoided at all times, whether the dog is a family pet or, especially, if the dog is a stranger or a stray.

Hugging a dog is an equivalent of a stranger grabbing you by the T-shirt. Laying on the dog is an equivalent of someone sitting or jumping on you. If you do not like a stranger or, even a family member pulling your ears, probably even dogs dislike it.

All these behaviors are a violation of the dog’s personal space and, even if the dogs tolerate rough handling, it doesn’t mean he or she is enjoying it. In fact, it is not unusual to see signs of distress in dogs while handled in that fashion.

The signs generally are: looking away, yawning, the ears held back, nose licking, scratching and half moon eyes (dog turning the face away but keeping the eyes on the source of stress in a way that the white part of the eye is exposed resembling a half moon). The last one is, in general, the final warning of an imminent attack.

Do’s: Approach the dog in a respectful way and have regards for all the do’s previously discussed.

Don’ts: Do not hug the dog, no matter if the dog is as big as a horse, no kid should attempt to ride it, to climb it or to lay on it.

Unless you are familiar with the dog or you are the owner and, therefore, you know where the boundaries of the dog are, avoid rough playing or handling. Do not pull the dog’s body parts or skin. And, absolutely no kissing!

Understanding the dog’s possible phobias:

This last point has no do’s and don’ts, it is simply a reminder that, especially with stray dogs, there is a possibility of previous abuse or traumas by a person with certain characteristics.

For example, someone with a beard or a lady wearing glasses may have had mistreated the dog and, consequently, the dog may be fearful and distrust anyone resembling these people.

If you happen to resemble someone threatening to the dog, he or she may act aggressively or run away from you. Do not take it personally, it’s not about you, do not impose yourself on the dog.

The dog may benefit from a desensitization approach to its phobia, but it won’t happen overnight. And, if you are approaching an unknown dog, no matter what the reason of the dog being skeptical about you is, do not impose yourself on the dog.

Some dogs may also get distressed on an occasion of encountering a person of different ethnicity compared to the native population. This has nothing to do with racism, that would require the dog to have complex thinking. The dog won’t be able to process to racism. It is all about what is familiar and what is unusual to the dog.

Dogs are animals of routine and like predictable outcomes.

Also, in case of a person with dark skin pigmentation, due to the dog’s different vision, it could be difficult for the person to be seen by the dog, especially at night. This may create an effect of sudden appearance that could scare the dog.

In any case, whatever the reason for the dog being fearful is, be careful and do not enforce the encounter, slowly back off and leave the dog alone.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and if you like to learn more, please, feel free to subscribe to this blog. 

Also, if you like the topic of dogs, please check my book ‘Before You Get A Dog’ by Simone Burani. You will find the essential knowledge written in simple language to have a great time with your pet. 

Best wishes,


If you find this article useful, consider reading ‘Simple Tips For Safety And Better Dog Park Manners’ and ‘Identify Important Red Flags Of Dogs’.