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Introducing Dogs to New People

When getting a new dog or puppy, the first thing most people want to do is show them off to family and friends, but that process is an important one to prepare for and take slowly in order to set your new companion up for success. It’s vital to introduce them to new people, environments, and situations in a positive way so they remain comfortable and safe. Keep in mind that meeting new people may be fun and exciting for you, but it can be extremely uncomfortable or even frightening for your dog. Be sure to familiarize yourself with canine body language so you can recognize the early stages of discomfort and intervene when necessary. 

How to Greet a Dog

Before we discuss introducing them to others, it’s important to learn the proper way to greet a dog. They see the world very differently than we do. Humans greet each other by standing face to face, making eye contact, and perhaps shaking hands or hugging. This type of frontal approach can be extremely uncomfortable or even terrifying for dogs. In order to make yourself more welcoming and less intimidating to any dog, you should turn your body to the side, lower yourself to their level, avert your eyes, speak softly with a happy voice, toss them treats, and give them time to approach you. You will be delighted to find that many dogs will appreciate your efforts and come right over to say hello. Other dogs may be more cautious and still feel stressed or fearful around new people. All dogs should always be given the choice to approach or not to approach other humans or animals. If a dog does not choose to approach someone, give them space; forcing them to interact will only cause them to get more anxious, and they should be given space. Never force a dog to interact! 

If the dog does choose to approach you, pet them on the chest or chin instead of on top of the head. Most dogs feel vulnerable when our hands are above them and they can’t see what we’re going to do, especially if we’re towering over them already. They feel much safer when we crouch down and our hand approaches from below (like when petting under the chin) since they can monitor our movement. Keep in mind that some nervous dogs may approach to sniff and gather information about you but still may not be ready for petting. If a dog approaches with a low, fearful body, reaching out with their back legs stretched behind them, do not pet them. Instead, look for loose, comfortable body language, even if they approach you. When petting a dog, follow the three-second rule. Pet them gently for three seconds, then stop and evaluate any changes in the dog’s body language. Did the dog close their mouth, stiffen their body, or back away? These are all signs they were uncomfortable with the interaction. If you pet them on the chest for three seconds, stop, and then the dog stays near you or tries to get closer to you to initiate more touch, that means they are comfortable with the petting. See the photos and captions below for examples of canine body language when meeting a person.

Photo A: She is towering over the dog and reaching behind his line of vision to pet him on the head. Notice how his body is low and stiff, you can see the whites of his eyes (aka “whale-eyed”), his mouth is tense and nearly closed, he’s lip-licking, and he is cowering to avoid her touch on the top of his head. He’s telling her with his entire body that he does not want to be pet this way.

Photo B: She has crouched down, turned her body away so she's not directly facing him, and is petting him on the chest. Notice how the dog is visibly more comfortable with this type of greeting. His mouth is relaxed and open, his body is loose, and his eyes are soft and relaxed. While it’s still important to follow the three-second rule and give him ample opportunities to retreat whenever he’s had enough interaction, this dog is currently comfortable being pet in this manner.

Introducing Your Dog to New People

Now that you know how to safely greet a dog, you should share this information with your friends and family before you introduce them to your new addition. Make sure they understand that they should never approach your dog, and that they need to let the dog approach them if/when the pup is ready. Approaching a dog too quickly can not only scare them but it could make them feel that they need to defend themselves with a growl or a bite. 

Your dog’s history and socialization level will play a part in how they interact with people. You may be lucky enough to have a well-socialized dog who will bound up to everyone they meet and shower them with doggie kisses, but this will not be the case for many other dogs. It is your job to always keep a close eye on their body language to keep both your dog and other people safe. 

If your dog is especially anxious or fearful, it is imperative that you manage every interaction with people. If you are having a guest come to your home, watch your dog’s body language carefully. They may be more comfortable meeting your guest outside. If your dog is too fearful to approach even when your guest has turned to the side and lowered their body, have them simply toss a few tasty treats to your dog and then ignore the dog. This helps your pup create positive associations and assures them that they won’t be rushed into an uncomfortable situation, allowing them time to acclimate to the new person whenever they feel safe doing so. It may take more than one visit for your dog to feel comfortable enough to interact. Remember, your dog should always get to choose whether or not they want to interact. For especially cautious pups, reference our resource on taking home a fearful dog for more information and advice. 

Meeting People in Public Places

When out and about with your adorable dog, people will undoubtedly want to pet and interact with them. You will need to instruct the inquiring human to stop, lower their body, and wait for the dog to approach them. It may feel awkward at first, but it is incredibly important that you manage these interactions just as you would at home. Your dog might be more stressed than normal when processing all the new smells and sounds of their unfamiliar surroundings; an approaching stranger may be too much for them and you don’t want them to feel they need to defend themselves. When someone asks to pet them – even if you don’t have an especially fearful dog – you can say, “he can be a bit shy, but if you crouch down and offer your hand, we can see if he feels like making new friends today!” We need to be their voice, so if your dog does show signs of stress at any point in the interaction, you can speak for them and say “No? You’re not feeling comfortable? That’s ok – thanks for trying!” and remove yourselves from the situation. And of course, if you do know your dog is uncomfortable around strangers, you should absolutely speak up to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry, she’s very fearful and doesn’t like petting from new people.” If you notice your dog is routinely uncomfortable in public places, it may be better to leave them at home. For some cautious dogs, you may be able to build their confidence through short, intentional visits to controlled spaces over time, while others just won’t ever take an interest in socializing, and that’s ok! 

Introducing Your Dog to Children

Your dog’s comfort level with children will again depend on their level of socialization and past experiences. Some dogs may have never met a child before, and the child’s fast movements, small size, and strange noises may be alarming to them. Other dogs may have previously had poor experiences with a child who unknowingly caused them fear or pain. Young children do not yet possess the ability to understand how to gently handle a dog and may pull their fur, crawl onto, poke at, or squeeze a dog to the point of causing pain. This should not be allowed to happen in order to keep both the child and your dog safe. 

The first step of introducing a dog to a child actually doesn’t involve the dog at all – it’s crucial to talk with the child first while the dog isn’t present as a distraction. Discuss how they are not allowed to chase, grab, pull on, sit on, hug, wrestle, or corner the dog. Let them know they should not approach when the dog is eating or engaged with a toy or bone, and should never disturb the dog when they are sleeping. Children must remain calm, quiet, and let the dog approach and sniff them only when the dog chooses. Having the child sit on the ground can be a helpful reminder to keep their body in place since it can be tempting to rush forward if they’re standing. They should not touch the dog right away and understand that they need to wait for the adult to tell them when it is ok. It is not advisable to have the child give the dog treats right away, because the dog may take them roughly, or the child might become nervous, jerk their hand away, and frighten the dog. 

Play a quick quiz game to reinforce what they’ve just learned. “Are we allowed to pet the dog if they’re sleeping? That’s correct! We do not touch a sleeping dog because it can surprise and scare them.” Once the child seems to understand what is expected of them, they are ready to meet your dog. You should have two adults present, one to focus on the dog and one to focus on the child. Carefully watch your dog’s body language when they first see the child. If their body remains loose and wiggly with no signs of stress, let them approach and sniff the child. Carefully watch the child, as well; if a child is afraid, they may scream or make erratic movements that frighten the dog. If the dog and child remain comfortable, let the child pet them gently on the chest. Continue to monitor the interaction with two adults and keep the interaction short and sweet; the longer they interact for the first time, the more opportunity there is for the dog to get startled and create a negative association with the child. It’s best to use many short, positive interactions as building blocks in the foundation of a strong relationship over time. It is imperative that dog and child interactions are always supervised; a child should never be left unsupervised with a dog. If your dog has a history of discomfort with children, they should not be allowed to interact with any children out in public; consult a professional force-free dog trainer for support if you’re trying to overcome this challenge with a particular child in your life. 

Check out our resource on children and dogs to learn more tips and tricks for safe introductions and long-term success. If you ever see signs of stress, fear, or aggression in your dog when they see a child, do not proceed with the introduction and seek the help of a professional. You can call the WHS behavior line at 414-431-6173 or email and a member of the behavior department can assist you.