Dogs don’t shake hands (but they do have preferred greeting rituals)

By Demaree Clay | Jun 26, 2013
Demaree Clay

Dogs communicate with each other and with humans all the time – but most humans aren’t listening.

Nearly 90 percent of dog communication is silent. Vocalization makes up about 10 percent of the message they’re trying to convey.

Dogs do most of their “speaking” through body language – with eye contact, the position of their head and tail, back posture, raised hair, etc. Their bark is helpful, but their body language tells us more.

For example, most humans see a wagging tail as a sign that a dog is friendly, however, that is not always the case. A wagging tail means a willingness to interact – their other body language conveys the context of that interaction.

Dogs constantly read our body language, and any shift in it, and they respond with their own signals. They answer our questions and even ask some of their own – all with body language.

They try to communicate with us – and many are frustrated that we don’t get what they’re saying.

When we greet a dog, they are reading our body language and are not listening to our words. As dogs transcribe our body language into their own understanding, humans don’t fare well in the translation.

Frequently, what humans think of as friendly body language isn’t friendly at all from a dog’s perspective.

As a behavioral counselor, I help owners understand when they giving mixed messages to their dogs – when their words say one thing and their bodies say another.

As a trainer, it is my job to teach the dog that their human’s body language should be ignored in favor of the spoken word. It is a process called counter-conditioning, and I teach it passively.

Once dogs understand that the spoken word is the message and they stop reading the reflected intent of the body, they frequently will relax in the relationship. I call this relationship-based training.

How are we confusing our beloved pet, our dog? What is so egregious in our body language?

Let’s take the common greeting and break it down into dog body language.

Humans great each other in a ritualized manner: We make eye contact, face each other and shake hands – all while maintaining eye contact.

We tend to greet dogs the exact same way. We face them, shoulders square, eyes locked onto their big browns.

We move forward, reach out to pet their head, and we look them in the eye the entire time. Unfortunately, to the dog, this is anything but friendly.

When we face a dog with our shoulders square, we are threatening the dog. It is a signal that demands space and requires the dog to move away. Dogs only make sustained eye contact to indicate a high rank in the hierarchy.

Approaching an innocent dog in this manner is horribly dominant and terribly challenging. For a dog to react to our threat posture with a threat in response would be perfectly understandable – normal even.

If a dog reacts badly to this language, it isn’t because it is a bad dog, it is the result of OUR own ignorance to what our bodies are saying.

Do you find that shocking? Then imagine how shocking your dominant, forceful language was for the dog!

Even though human body language can be very confusing, luckily for us, most dogs are very flexible and forgiving. When raised with love, understanding and limits, they can be very accepting as well.

Many of us have trained our dogs to accept human greetings as friendly. This takes time and consistent counter-conditioning.

Other times, dogs learn on their own to not read into our movements – no matter how rudely we “speak” to them.

But what if the dog does mind? How would you tell? What if the dog your greeting still reads into our negative body language?

Dogs who are under this type of stress, in a conflicted state, reading the reflected word and hearing the spoken words, will show you that they don’t understand.

If seated, they may raise a paw (showing conflict), back away (avoidance), shift their eyes away and back (displacement), or lean into their rear hocks (preparing to flee).

If really threatened, the more timid dogs may even urinate at this approach.

They may show any number of possible stress and/or displacement signals, and likely a combination of them.

A traditional appeasement response would include ears tucked back with the head lowered to shoulder height with other deferential signals.

If a dog is showing you appeasement, he is telling you that he accepts you, no matter how forceful you appear. If a dog sends stress or displacement signals, he is asking you to not be so forceful in your greeting language.

To disarm a suspicious canine, use proper greeting language. Remove the dominant language from your conversation, and you have already reassured the dog of your benign intent.

Don’t force yourself on any dog – let the dog make the decision about whether or not to greet you. Through this, you have become the safe, humane partner in the negotiation of canine language.

ASK the OWNER (handler) if you may greet their dog. After permission is granted and, if the dog doesn’t come rushing over to you, try this:

• Don’t stand facing the dog directly. Turn slightly to the side.

• Crouch down on your heels (without bending over) and extend your hand toward the dog.

• Look down or, at the very least, slightly away.

• Now wait and let the dog come to you. If she does, let her sniff your hand before you tickle under her chin.

• You may make eye contact, but don’t be surprised if she merely glances into your eyes before looking away.

• Do not reach for the top of her head immediately, instead, if you must pet her there, let your hand slide up to the top of her head. If she avoids your touch at the top of her head, respect her wishes.

• And lastly, don’t grab her, force her or attempt to manipulate her body.

Now here’s the hard part. If you did everything right – if you turned to the side, crouched down to her level, extended your hand, waited quietly and STILL she didn’t approach you – just accept it.

Part of learning to request a greeting from a dog is respecting her wishes if she refuses.

Once you learn to speak politely to dogs, they may accept you rather quickly, crawl into your lap or throw themselves onto the ground for a belly rub.

They also may ask you some questions about your social status. If they do, you’ll need to stand up.

Remember that you are in a conversation – a negotiation of sorts. So when you speak dog, during a greeting you may be obligated to speak a little longer. But your new friend will appreciate your kindness. And she will never forget you.

Learn to speak the native dog language

The Tails and Trails Mukilteo Dog Park is offering a seminar on how to read your dog’s signals, taught by expert Demaree Clay.

“Dog Park Culture: Staying Safe and Having Fun” is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. on Aug. 11 in the Christiansen Room of the Rosehill Community Center, 304 Lincoln Ave., Mukilteo.

Registration is $30 and benefits the dog park. Seating is limited. Early registration is recommended.

Reserve your seat online at or mail your registration fee along with your name, address and phone number to Tail and Trails Mukilteo Dog Park Association; P.O. Box 423, Mukilteo, WA 98275.

Checks must be postmarked by July 31. Make checks payable to the Tails and Trails Mukilteo Dog Park Association. Reservations will be confirmed by K-9 U.

This is a seminar for humans. Sorry, no dogs allowed. Call 908-418-8701 for more information.

Demaree Clay, of Mukilteo, is a certified master trainer and a behavioral counselor for K-9 U, a company that specializes in behavior, nutrition and obedience for canines and felines. She has four dogs.



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