What are dog greetings?
Greetings between dogs allow people to assess their own ability to handle stress, but that is of course not their primary purpose. Greetings serve a lot of functions in social species, from reducing uncertainty, fear and arousal to gathering information. They can be used to signal status and to increase tolerance for being in close proximity to one another, and may also be important in conflict resolution and reconciliation. Dogs, as we know, are intensely social creatures, and while it’s not possible to say what canine greetings are actually for—they have not been studied enough —it’s likely that they serve more than a single purpose.
The function of greetings between dogs who are familiar with one another and those who have never met are probably not the same. Between unfamiliar dogs, the goal is probably to assess one another: Are you a male or a female? Intact or altered? Where have you been? How old are you? Do you like to play? Are you friendly? Sociable? Well-mannered? Are you someone I want to interact with (or not)? On the other hand, dogs who know each other well have less to learn and therefore, their greetings are more likely about continuing the relationship and expressing emotions about the reunion.
What do normal, appropriate greetings look like?
Despite some variations, the basics tend to be the same. Dogs move toward each other in a calm and relaxed way, often approaching from the side or along an arc rather than head-on. Sniffing is a huge part of the process, and dogs may take an interest in any area with glands, pheromones or other scents. They might touch noses first, then move on to sniff the anogenital region, or they might start their investigation at the back end of the other dog. According to John Bradshaw, PhD, males typically sniff the area under the tail right away, while most females initially go for the head. (You may be able to sex the dogs who greet your dog based on this behavior alone.)
If the greeting is going well, the dogs’ bodies will be relaxed. Their tails might be moving and have a flexible look about them, and jaws will be relaxed as well. Both dogs should be visibly comfortable with the interaction rather than anxious or afraid.
It’s common for dogs to part ways after a short greeting. Camille Ward, PhD, studied greetings at a dog park (excluding the initial entries, which often involved a mob scene) amongst 52 dogs, and found that they were surprisingly brief—typically, six to eight seconds, with dogs going their separate ways after this fleeting interaction. The shortness of the greetings was not the only surprise in the study; Ward also found that only 12 percent of greetings progressed to play. This suggests that (a) when dogs are free to choose, they greet and move on quickly and (b) play is not nearly as likely an outcome of greetings as we like to think.
Though it’s understandable to be concerned if a dog does not engage in greeting behavior, this is neither unusual nor problematic. Ward, who saw no aggression during this study, found that more than 80 percent of the greetings were unreciprocated, meaning that only one dog participated in the investigation while the other ignored or showed little interest in the greeter. (When dogs were of similar weight, it was more likely that the greeting would be reciprocal.) It’s respectful to honor our dogs’ choices rather than try to force the issue when they are not interested.
What do potentially troublesome greetings look like?
There are many signs that a greeting is not going well. A dog may make a beeline for, rush at or jump on the other dog, which is not only bad manners but can also overwhelm or frighten the dog who’s being charged. (It’s obnoxious when dogs act like this, yet sometimes they are considered to be the good guys—so friendly!—while the less gregarious or anxious dogs who object to this style by ignoring or correcting the rude behavior are judged harshly, which is unfair.)
Signs that trouble is brewing include tension anywhere in the body; facial expressions indicating anxiety, fear or other negative emotions; and a tail that is slowly twitching at the tip or stiff or tucked under the body. In canine society, laying one’s head or paw over the top of another dog’s shoulders is very pushy, which makes it an inappropriate greeting behavior. Intense staring, another definite no-no, is a behavior that goes beyond rude straight into threatening.
Yelping or other high-pitched vocalizations usually indicate that a dog is upset and not enjoying the interaction. Leaping up, muzzle punching, growling and, of course, biting fall far outside the bounds of acceptable greeting behavior. If one dog sniffs but refuses to let the other dog sniff back, tension may result, and that can lead to trouble.
While greetings can go awry because of canine social faux pas, humans sometimes inadvertently make things worse. Among our many common and understandable reactions: tensing up, holding our breath and other signs of nervousness; standing still, which forces the dogs into a prolonged interaction; crowding (closing in or cornering them); tightening up on the leash; insisting that the dogs work it out; speaking in harsh or anxious tones; or punishing the dogs.
Dogs are sensitive to our behavior and body language, so if we are nearby when they are in a tense situation, what we do affects them. That often means that we can add to the tension instead of alleviating it.
How should we respond to trouble?
Though behavior that raises a red flag doesn’t often lead to anything worse, it’s wise to know what to do if things start to go sideways. The most important tool we have is knowledge—specifically, knowledge about what greetings should and should not look like, and about canine body language, which will help us determine dogs’ comfort levels and react quickly at the first sign that a greeting is not going well.
If a dog-dog greeting becomes tense, if either dog appears uncomfortable or if a dog is acting inappropriately, be proactive about changing the mood. Stay calm and speak in happy, lighthearted tones, perhaps saying something simple like, “This way!” in an upbeat manner, and then moving away from the dogs. Keep walking if possible, and encourage the dogs to move, too. Moving often disrupts the intensity of a greeting that is not going well because it allows the dogs to disengage from the interaction.
Photo by TZAHI V.
How can we make trouble less likely in the first place?
The obvious and ideal strategy is to maximize the chances for a successful experience. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do that, or at least, to avoid some of the most common hazards.
Greetings are most likely to go well when dogs do not feel trapped, so if possible, have them greet off-leash. While we probably don’t know all of the ways that restraint interferes with greetings, it’s clear that when dogs are on-leash, the greeting is not on their terms because they are being forced to be close to each other and lack the freedom to move away. If having the dogs greet off-leash is not possible, the next best thing is to keep the leashes loose. Dropping the leashes is sometimes an option, too.
Beyond issues with leashes, meetings that take place in open spaces rather than confined areas allow dogs room to move and to get away if they choose—one reason that having dogs greet outside is preferable to indoors. There’s also another reason.
In a study of olfactory investigation and urination at a dog park, Anneke Lisberg, PhD, noticed a strong tendency of entering dogs to walk or run away from the dogs swarming them at the gate, and then urinate once they were at a distance. Often, the other dogs would investigate the urine, which provided the new dog with some breathing room. Lisberg hypothesized that urinating gives dogs an opportunity to communicate with other dogs without continuing to be sniffed directly, thus breaking the tension that is so common when dogs who don’t know each other are greeting. If that’s true, it means that when housetrained dogs are inside, they’re robbed of a valuable strategy to de-escalate any greeting-related anxieties they might experience because they don’t feel free to use this “pee-and-flee” option.
One of the best ways to keep a greeting on track is to not prolong it. Allow dogs to keep it brief and then part ways if they so choose. Since dogs naturally engage in short greetings, it makes sense to abide by the canine framework.
Are there exceptions to “normal” greetings?
Dogs who know each other well (best friends and old buddies) may dispense with the preliminaries and go right into play. This works if they are both comfortable with skipping the usual niceties. The problem is that dogs accustomed to this sort of interaction sometimes try the same thing with unfamiliar dogs, who may not respond well. The way dogs act with their best buddies may not be appropriate when meeting someone new.
It’s incredible that simple hellos can be so complicated. However, given the huge amount of information exchanged during greetings and the potential for intense emotions, perhaps we should be more amazed than surprised.