Greeting an Unfamiliar Dog – Teaching Kids Dog Etiquette


Baylie Giving the Green Light to be Petted

It’s typical behavior for dog-lovers to walk up to a dog we have never met to give him a pat on the head. However, this type behavior can invoke fear and provoke the flight or fight mechanism in a dog.   It’s also typical behavior for children to be drawn to an unfamiliar dog. They want to pet every pup they see as if it were a fluffy teddy bear.

Even thought Baylie has never shown any signs of aggression towards children or adults,  I keep a watchful eye,  nonetheless.  She’s a large-breed dog and even playfully jumping on someone can cause injury.  With so many dog bites in the news of late, we all have to be on our guard.    Even if you have the friendliest dog on the planet, a dangerous situation can develop in mere seconds. Although they mean no harm, children can do a number of things to trigger aggression in dogs.


A Day At The Vet With Baylie

At a recent vet visit, my nerves were put to the test.   Immediately upon walking into the vet’s office, we were met by a little boy who looked to be about four years of age.  He was short enough that even though Baylie remained on all fours, she and the little boy met eye to eye; snout to face. Right away, I got an uneasy feeling.  Not only did the boy rush toward Baylie squealing all the way, he placed either hand on each side of her face.  Thankfully, Baylie responded with a big sloppy kiss.  The  boy quickly turned to tell his mother, who was chatting at the check-in counter, he had “petted the doggie’.  She made no attempt to correct her child’s risky behavior.  

Just when I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief,  the toddler made another dash toward Baylie with the same risky behavior. There was still no response from mom other than a quick glance to be sure the “strange” dog wasn’t bothering her child.  At that point,  I figured it would be best to remove Baylie from the situation and out of reach of the toddler.  This behavior could have turned dangerous in a matter of seconds with any dog.  The encounter happened so quickly, I barely had a chance to react.

Photo courtesy of Lili Chin

Photo courtesy of

The obligation of teaching a child how to approach an unfamiliar dog lies with responsible parents.   No method is foolproof, however, you can teach a child some basic rules about dog safety and how to interact with unfamiliar dogs.   Under no circumstances, should any parent allow a child to approach a dog alone.  Under no circumstances, should a child be allowed to rush up to a strange dog, as was  the case in our recent experience.   It’s always a good idea to let the dog come to you. 


 Children Should Be Taught Dog Etiquette

Parents should teach children proper dog etiquette. If your child startles a strange dog, not only could your child get hurt, the pet would be blamed.  It’s a no-win situation for all.

Here are a few tips for keeping your child safe around an unfamiliar dog:

1.   Always ask the pet’s owner for permission for your child to pet their dog.  Teach your child this one simple question; “May I Pet Your Dog?”
2.   If you are given the green light, have your child approach the dog in a calm manner; no running or screaming
3.  Your child should greet the dog with his/her arm in front, palm down in a fist; no exposed fingers if the dog should bite.  Watch the dog’s demeanor and body language, closely, as your  child approaches
4.   If the dog sniffs your child’s fist and turns away, he’s not interested so don’t proceed
5.  If the dog leans in toward your child and licks his hand, it’s looking good but proceed with caution
6.  Still paying close attention to the dog’s demeanor and body language, allow your child to pet the dog  gently but avoid the dog’s face. Keep in mind, a small child is not able to interpret the dog’s language
7.  By this point, the dog will clearly let you know if he/she wants more interaction
8.  If at any time the dog backs away from your child, tucks his/her tail or his posture becomes rigid, back away.  Don’t wear out your welcome
9.  Always have your child thank the dog’s owner for allowing them the opportunity to meet their dog

If a dog chooses to interact with a child, have the child pet the dog gently on his back rather than reaching down over his head. Have the child pet him for a count of  FIVE, then stop and see if he asks to be pet again. It is important that children learn to respect the wishes of the dog. When approached by an unfamiliar dog, teach your child to stand still and calm, fold their arms in and stare at the ground until the dog goes away. Be ready to intervene in child/dog interactions if you feel the situation is even remotely uncomfortable.

Wrong way to greet an unfamiliar dog

Wrong way to greet an unfamiliar dog

According to the Petco Certified Dog Trainers’s course, if a dog approaches a child,  the  child should “make like a tree” by standing as still as possible, keeping their hands by their sides or behind them, looking down at the ground and staying quiet. 

Every year, more than 4.5 million Americans; more than half of them children, are bitten by dogs. As part of the National Dog Bite Prevention Week® (May 17-23, 2015), the American Humane Association encourages adults to teach children how to avoid dog bites.

“For thousands of years, dogs have been our best friends, providing love, comfort and protection,” says Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of American Humane Association. “In turn, we must be their best friends and protect all those around us – ourselves, our children, and our dogs – from the dangers and consequences of dog bites through good prevention strategies.”

The emotional damage caused by dog bites has been well-documented and can last a lifetime. According to Edward P. Buchanan, MD, many times the impressions made during these episodes will affect the way people think about dogs for the rest of their lives. Living in fear of dogs after a tragic event will prevent these important bonds from ever being formed.   That’s why it is so important for parents to be proactive in educating children in dog etiquette at a very young age.