It may seem like a silly question to ask, but petting a dog properly is more than just stroking its back, and scratching under its chin. There is a proper way to approaching a dog, and petting it; doing so indiscriminately, and without forethought can lead to dog bites or attacks. Dogs are territorial animals, so it is important to understand their mindset and approach them in the proper manner, especially if it is a strange dog.

Approaching a Dog Safely

Before you are in a position to pet a dog, you have to approach it. Walking right up to a strange (or even a familiar) dog and sticking your hand out to pet it is an aggressive move, and may not be taken kindly by a dog, especially by breeds that are not the most docile.

A major cause of dog bites is due to owners and strangers acting inappropriately around a dog, and failing to read the dog’s body language. There are a few considerations you should keep in mind when approaching dog.

Do not approach a dog directly facing it. Most people make the mistake of approaching (strange) dogs while directly facing her, putting the dog in a defensive position. Dogs are not fond of being approached head-on, and instinctively, will approach people and other dogs or animals from the side and not in a straight line. So when approaching a dog, try to take an indirect rout, and approach it from the side.

Do not stretch out your hand as you approach. Approaching a dog with your hand stretched out towards it may look like an attack to the dog, and it may react accordingly. Keep your hands to yourself until you are properly positioned to greet and pet the dog.

Do not make sudden or quick movements. Sudden movements, when approach or already near a dog, may provoke a defensive response from the dog.

Do not hold eye contact. This is another rule which can be applied almost across the board with all animals. Direct and sustained eye-contact can be a sign of aggression and threaten an animal. It will, of course, act accordingly when it feels that it is under threat.

Let the dog approach you. Doing this will let the dog know that you are not a threat, and she can approach you on her own terms. Let her sniff you and your hand, and become comfortable. If he sniffs you and walks away or backs off, don’t try to engage her, and let her be. On the other hand, if she continues to sniff and looks like she is seeking a connection then you can pet her.

Do not speak in an excited and high-pitched (baby-talk) voice. This is another behavior which can make a dog nervous and potentially aggressive, as she might perceive the unusual sounds as threatening.

How to Properly Pet a Dog

Now that we have covered the proper way to approach and act around a (strange) dog, let us outline the proper way to pet.

Do not hover over the dog or get too close. Doing so will be in invasion of the dog’s personal space, and is likely to put the dog on edge.

Do not pet the dog on top of the head. Ideally you should pet the dog on her back, or on the side of the head or under the chin. Do not pet her on the head, and especially don’t force her head down by petting too firmly.

Do not hug the dog. Under no circumstances should you hug a strange dog. For humans this can be a sign of affection (it’s still creepy if a stranger approaches and gives you a hug), but for dogs it can be seen a sign of aggression and a dominance challenge.

Pay attention to the dog’s body language. While petting a dog, if she pulls away or seems otherwise uncomfortable, stop the petting and allow her to relax, and approach you again signaling the desire for further petting.

By following these simple rules, many dog bites and attacks can be avoided.