Some lesser known and probably more surprising human behaviours towards dogs that dogs may actually not be very comfortable with:
Patting a dog on the head
Patting a dog on the head seems like the most natural way for us to interact with dogs, but again, such as with hugging and kissing, it’s natural for us, not for the dogs. In fact, being approached from above is rather threatening to dogs, and we may not always realise how a simple pat on the head may appear from a dog’s perspective. Let’s remember that most dogs are smaller, sometimes much smaller, than humans, and as such a human leaning over their body and a hand approaching the top of their head from above could be very intimidating indeed.
Instead of leaning over a dog and patting them on the head, crouch down, allow the dog to approach you instead of the other way around, and if the dog does approach in a friendly manner stroke the dog on the side of the body closest to you, on the chest, shoulder, neck or side of the face.
Staring a dog directly in the eyes
First, let’s be clear on the difference between eye contact and staring. Brief eye contact between dogs and between dogs and their owners is natural, and can be useful for dog training, such as in teaching your dog to “check in” with you for instructions. Staring is different to mere eye contact – staring is a more prolonged period of intently and intensely looking at someone or something.
I don’t believe humans care much for being stared at, and as it so happens neither do dogs. Staring is a rather threatening and intimidating behaviour for dogs and being stared at will make dogs feel uncomfortable. If you wish to share eye contact with your dog, then brief glances are best or even looking at them from a sideways glance, rather than head on, will feel more comfortable for the dog.
Approaching a dog in a straight line
‘Curving’, i.e. approaching something in a curved, not a direct, line, is a key element of dog-to-dog body language and interaction, and we humans would do well to apply this method to our interactions with dogs as well.
Approaching a dog head-on in a straight line is perceived as impolite and sometimes even threatening by dogs, especially if they are not already familiar with the person or dog approaching them. Approaching a dog in a curved line, ideally while displaying other calming signals, will put a dog more at ease and communicate that you approach in peace.
So, if you really wish to shower affection on your dog, consider first what displays of affection your dog will even understand, and secondly try and save those displays of affection for moments when your dog approaches you for some attention and company, because affection, in any form, at a time when it is not welcome will not be so well received.