Safe Steps To Make Friends With An Unfriendly Dog

Follow these simple tips for successfully befriending dogs — or recognizing when friendship isn't possible.

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Some dogs are simply more interested in interacting with people than other dogs. Eyecandy Images/iStock/Thinkstock
Janet Velenovsky

Many of us consider ourselves to be good with dogs. We like most dogs and most dogs like us. But did you ever come across a dog who just seemed downright unfriendly? If you like dogs, this may have been annoying or unsettling to you. Perhaps you have wondered what you could do to make friends with such a dog.

Are All Dogs Friendly?

A friend’s husband once engaged me in a conversation about a dog who barked wildly at him each morning from a yard as he jogged around their neighborhood. Because he knew I dealt with dog behavior, he asked the best way to handle this annoying situation.

Dave clearly got more than he expected from a casual conversation. To give a responsible answer, I wanted more information. What was the breed and approximate age of the dog? Was it alone in the fenced area? Physical fence or electric fence? Did he know the owners? What were his options regarding his trek around the neighborhood — did he have to pass that house? Were there other angles he could approach from? All of these factors and more could have an effect both on the strategy he took and the likelihood of having success.

Many people have the impression that all dogs are — or should be — friendly and ready to be petted on demand. Actually, dogs are not that different from people in that some are eager to meet new people, some absolutely are not interested in meeting new people and some are indifferent. As with people, we need to realize some of the many factors that might affect a dog’s willingness and interest in making friends with you — past experiences, current health and wellness, personality traits, motivations and how the opportunity is presented. You might be interested to know, it’s not all about you.

Why Do You Want To Befriend A Dog?

First, however, think about your motivations for wanting to “make friends” with the dog. Is it because the dog belongs to a friend’s household, or because you have to encounter him walking or jogging in your neighborhood, or just because you think he is cute? Or, perhaps you are the sole person in a household that a newly adopted dog isn’t snuggling up with on the couch. It is helpful to separate the desire to get the dog to like you from the need to interact with a dog who is going to become part of your family or social circle.

Realize that there may be many things about a dog who is new to you that you don’t know: his health and medical status, his background, his preferences for petting or handling interactions, his past experiences. Remember that it may not be in the dog’s best interest to approach him or try to pet him, especially if this will be a short, optional interaction. If you really love dogs, you need to respect that sometimes the only way to show that love is to leave the dog alone.

As an animal behavior consultant, I am dismayed at the number of times while working with a client that some passerby comes running up to pet the client’s dog. In some cases, the dog’s body language (backing up, dashing behind the handler, cowering, dilated pupils, tucked tail, vocalizing by growl or bark) seems to me to be shouting “stay away,” but the person is intent on making contact anyway. I advise all owners with shy and nervous dogs to practice saying clearly and firmly, “Stop. My dog does not like strangers.” (Or, if that doesn’t work with a pushy dog lover, try a little white lie: “Stop. My dog has a communicable skin disease.” Sometimes we have to motivate the person through self-concern!)

This article will not address dogs who are seriously aggressive. If the dog seems dangerous to you, just walk away! Or, if you must interact with such a dog, contact a behavior expert to provide professional help.

Take A Dog’s Point Of View

Being able to understand another’s point of view in a situation is a very valuable skill. That skill can be extended to animals, and would be helpful here. There are at least four categories that might contribute to a dog seeming unfriendly.

  1. Dogs who are fearful, nervous or shy.
  2. Dogs who are bred or trained to do an active job.
  3. Dogs who are bred or trained to be aloof, be reserved or not interact.
  4. Dogs with health issues or other contributing factors.

First, let’s consider the dog’s situation. If you are encountering the dog by yourself in a scenario outside the home — say, behind a fence (either physical or electric) — he may be frustrated by his restriction behind that barrier. With an electric fence, there may be added fear or nervousness about the sound of the beep the collar gives off and/or the pain of a shock. Barking is a common response to anxiety or fear, and to any perceived threat.

A dog in a car or a yard may perceive an approaching person to be dangerous and may bark and lunge to scare them away. This can quickly become a habit. Even if the person was just passing by, the dog may feel successful, thinking that the barking caused the person to leave. That’s a pretty powerful reinforcement!

Fearful, Nervous Or Shy Dogs: Dogs who are shy or fearful may find a friendly person to be very disconcerting. People may have the very kindest intentions, but adult humans generally outweigh the average dog significantly. We tend to lean over and reach out to dogs, which could seem very invasive to a small or shy or fearful dog. And, if we like dogs, we tend to stare as we approach because of our interest. Imagine that a giant dog (I mean, really, really huge and 350 pounds!) approached you, staring and sniffing. Even though we really like dogs, this would tend to make any of us nervous.

There are lots of ways to change our own approach to make nervous and shy dogs more comfortable. Actually, these work well for most any dog (and lots of cats)!

  • Change your approach to be more casual, and less direct. Approach in a curved line, with a relaxed body posture. Turn your body to a three-quarter approach, rather than facing head-on.
  • Take your time, don’t be in a hurry. Don’t walk quickly or straight toward a dog you don’t know. Give him some time to see you and evaluate your body language and smell.
  • Don’t stare at a dog. Take glances at him, but break off your gaze from time to time. Smiling and softly blinking your eyes can be helpful, too. The softer gaze presents a more friendly appearance from you, which can relax the dog.
  • Sit or squat down, rather than leaning over the dog. Getting on his level can make you less intimidating. You don’t have to extend your hand to the dog. Rather, you might just drop your arm to a level the dog can sniff if he wishes. Shoes tend to pick up a lot of scents as you walk around, so a dog may find them more interesting than your hand.
  • Speak softly and don’t match the dog’s frantic activity. Even if he is barking wildly, resist the temptation to get excited or yell back. It would only corroborate the dog’s concern and raise the threat level in his mind.
  • Be still. Sometimes just sitting quietly, reading your emails or texting someone, enjoying a coffee or the sunshine makes for a relaxed way to gain the dog’s trust. It gives him a chance to observe you, to see you mean no harm and to gain the confidence to approach you. Giving the dog choice in the matter is very empowering for him.
  • Be willing to quit without touching the dog. Sometimes it will take a few visits or chances to see each other before he becomes comfortable with you. Be patient and be reasonable. Don’t push it.

Dogs With A Job: Some dogs have been bred to guard or protect things, from livestock and boats to homes and people. If the dog you are trying to befriend has this trait in his genetic pool, the task of making friends will be more challenging. Many guarding and working dog breeds have a small group of trusted humans they respond to, and strangers must be introduced carefully to expand that group. For dogs like this, your best bet is to have one of the dog’s owners or handlers introduce you.

Tips for befriending this type of dog:

  • Have one of the dog’s owners or handlers introduce you to him in a way that seems safe to both of you. The owner knows the dog’s personality, but you must also feel comfortable with the introduction. If you are fearful, you may convey this in your body language and, possibly, by smell through your body chemistry.
  • If the owner thinks it is appropriate, interact with the dog in a game he likes. For some dogs, once you have thrown the ball in a game of fetch, you become a trusted person. Be sure you understand the rules of the game as the owner plays it. (Some ball-crazy dogs grab at the ball with disregard for fingers!)
  • Ask the owner if you may provide a treat the dog likes. Again, you must respect the guidelines the owner has for treating. For working dogs, owners may have requirements of asking for some type of behavior before the treat is given. (And some food-motivated dogs also grab for treats with disregard for fingers! Dropping the first treats to the ground may be a good idea).

There are working dogs (from scent detection dogs to agility or herding dogs to service animals) who have been trained for strong focus on their handler and/or their jobs. When these dogs are working, they are unlikely to be interested in random strangers, and might seem unfriendly. It is not appropriate to try to interact with any dog while he is working with a human on important tasks like detection, protection or service to someone physically challenged.

There are many more types of working dog than can be listed here, but dogs with vests or other ID working closely with a human should be left alone. Some handlers may be willing to answer questions, or might release the dog from his working status long enough to interact a bit. Therapy dogs are an exception to the rule about vests and ID. (Therapy dogs are generally very friendly and interested in meeting you!) But you need to ask politely and be prepared to respect the dog’s role by walking away.

Dogs Trained Or Bred To Be Aloof: If you encounter a disinterested dog, there could be several reasons:

This dog may not be allowed to interact enthusiastically with guests or visitors. If a family has chosen to train the dog to ignore visitors, and has managed and rewarded that consistently, the dog may be behaving as he has been trained to do.

Some breeds either bond with a select few or are not that responsive to people. It always pays to learn about the breed or breed mix of a particular dog you want to get to know. There are personality and behavior exceptions to every breed, but we can often learn something in reading what activities or characteristics a type of dog was selectively bred to do or to have. When a trait or behavior has been emphasized for generations in a breed, there’s a higher percentage chance it will show up in the dog in front of you.

Other Factors That Make Dogs Reserved: Other reasons beyond fear, having a job, genetics or training can make dogs seem, or be, unfriendly or aloof.

  • Maybe the dog is tired and needs rest. It could be that activities from the morning or previous day have left him more interested in shut-eye than in being petted. Let sleeping dogs lie, and try again another day.
  • There could be health issues involved. A dog with deafness or blindness would obviously miss out on seeing or hearing you and appear disinterested. Dogs who are in pain may avoid contact with people they don’t know. Dogs recovering from surgery or suffering from a disease may not have their usual energy or willingness to be handled and petted.
  • Dogs who are undersocialized (not exposed well to various people, places, and things they will encounter in their world) or not exercised or stimulated enough (denied opportunities for walking, sniffing, playing, chewing, etc.) often respond to the excitement of a new person in ways that seem unfriendly. If not exposed to certain types of humans (both genders, people with facial hair or other physical characteristics, all ages of kids, etc.), some dogs may have fearful reactions. They may need help with appropriate manners to make it easier for people to make friends with them.

A Solution For Dave And The Barking Dog

So what did I advise Dave to do? Based on his answers, making friends with the dog in question was more of an interest than a necessity. Dave disliked the sound of the dog barking at him and hated disrupting the neighborhood when he ran by. He could easily have changed his route for jogging, but Dave was also concerned that the dog seemed upset and unhappy. He was interested in making friends, partly because she was a beautiful dog and he wanted to understand her better. I explained that a herding dog, as this was, would be innately excited by his running past, but also frustrated that she couldn’t run along with Dave.

I suggested Dave stop by the house to talk with the neighbor (whom he had met, but didn’t know well). The owner could introduce Dave to the dog on a more casual basis, possibly letting Dave play with her and/or give treats. With permission, Dave could deliver a few treats on each run, stopping by to toss a few into the yard, or to reward the dog’s responding to a simple cue like “sit.” This would turn Dave’s arrival into a pleasant interaction for the dog, rather than an alarming or upsetting experience. Dave should be careful to reward the dog for sitting or being quiet rather than barking. In addition, Dave might want to slow his jogging to a walk as he approached the dog’s yard.

The outcome? The dog is still excited, but happier and better behaved. Dave met Lola through her owner, and was permitted to toss a few healthy dog biscuits her way when he was out jogging. Lola now looks forward to Dave’s arrival, still barking a bit in excitement as he approaches, but each of them feels better about the interaction.

Guidelines For Making Friends With Unfriendly Dogs

What is the takeaway for making friends with unfriendly dogs?

  • No, you don’t need to meet every dog you see, as attractive or interesting as he may be. And it may be better for the dog to leave him alone.
  • Observe the dog’s body language for clues about whether the dog is asking for you to come closer or to stay away.
  • If it is necessary or important to meet the dog, ask permission if possible, and ask what the dog likes so you will have an advantage on making the dog comfortable.
  • If the owner/handler does not want you to pet or interact with the dog, respect that decision. If you are frustrated by this, find a stuffed dog to hug instead!
  • If you are going to approach the dog, use “polite” body language, not staring, not leaning over. Be calm, and be patient.
  • With permission, use toys and/or treats to make the interaction pleasant with the dog.
  • Never underestimate the value of just sitting in the same space as the dog without trying to interact. This may make the dog more comfortable, thereby motivating him to take the first steps to interact. Choice is a very powerful thing!
Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Dogs