We’ve all seen videos of kids interacting with dogs in ways that some people call cute and other people call dangerous. (It’s usually dangerous). Kids may not know any better, but they can still frighten dogs simply through their behavior and body language. And it’s not just children who move in ways that worry our dogs. The more aware we are of how our body language and behavior affect our dogs, the better we can adjust what we do to help them feel safe.
The first thing to understand when adjusting your body language for a dog is that just like people, dogs have a sense of personal space. And just like a person's, a dog's space bubble isn’t the same size from day to day, moment to moment, or even person to person. Some dogs, like mine, have almost no bubble with their people but want lots of space from strangers. No matter the dog, violating this space bubble is one of the main ways we cause stress in our dogs. And many behaviors normal for us are at the root of the problem.
As a kid I was told that I should hold my hand out for a dog to sniff before trying to pet them. But dogs can smell us from several feet away, so we don't need to extend our hands into their faces to greet them. Instead, we can simply leave our hands by our sides and let the dog sniff them if they want to. And remember that when a dog sniffs your hand she is not inviting you to pet her.
Like other primates, humans often express themselves with hugs—they work for greetings, for comfort, and for expressions of love. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t hug each other--it's simply not a natural canine behavior. Even if your dog tolerates being hugged, it's likely that she doesn't enjoy it. Instead you can find another way to show affection--petting her gently on her sides or chest, letting her curl up next to you on the couch, or even playing a game of fetch with her.
We also break our dogs’ space bubbles when we hover over them. This sometimes happens when we put on harnesses or leash our dogs, so you could try stepping to the side of your dog to pull the harness on and leash him. Reaching our hands over our dogs can also worry them, especially when you reach over a dog’s head.
While for people It’s polite to make eye contact, for many dogs this behavior can feel challenging or frightening, especially from a stranger. Your own dog may be comfortable sharing eye contact with you--they may even use it as a form of communication--but you should avoid making sustained eye contact with a dog who is new to you or with a fearful dog.
If you notice that your dog stiffens, pants, backs away, or shows some other sign of stress while you interact with him, first consider what you are doing. You may find that simply adjusting your body language and behavior can remove that stress and help your furry partner feel better.