Introducing your pet to your new boyfriend or girlfriend can be a big step. Imagine this: You think you’ve just met the guy or girl of your dreams. You’ve been on a few dates and everything’s going great. So much so, that tonight, you’re going to introduce the person to your very best friend: your dog.
You’re sure it’ll feel as strongly about your new love interest as you do. And sure enough, it does: Barking, growling, and backing away from the person, who by now, looks horrified.
This is precisely what happened to Michael Scott when he met his new girlfriend Elena’s border collie. “Being an animal person, I tried to reach out to Winnie, but she’d have none of it,” he said.
A typical response and yet, the biggest mistake people can make when it comes to greeting a new animal, said Sophie Yin, DVM, MS, an animal behaviorist in Davis, Calif.
“Most people try to reach out or, even worse, hug a dog they don’t know, which is like having a total stranger run up to you on the street and wrap his arms around you,” she says. “For a dog, that’s equally freaky.” Instead, she and others recommend the following steps for winning over your new friend’s pet.
Positive first impression
To make sure your first meeting with a new dog goes smoothly, experts recommend you focus on its comfort. To do that:
- Give your friend a piece of clothing for the dog to sniff before you meet it, since dogs relate to the world through smell. That way, you won’t be a total stranger.
- Meet the dog on neutral turf (like a park or outdoor cafe), especially if it’s territorial or protective. Doing so may be less threatening for the animal.
- Have your friend exercise the dog before you come over, since a tired dog tends to be calmer and more relaxed. Or, walk the dog together.
- Rather than reaching out to the dog, squat down and let the dog approach you in its own time.
Through the stomach, to the heart
Once you’re ready to meet a dog on its home turf, never go empty-handed. After all, says Yin, the key to a dog’s heart is through its stomach. Translation: Bring treats, preferably the jerky or softer moister varieties. And then, make sure you’re strategic about how you deliver them.
For example, if a dog is fearful (as marked by barking, backing away, a low tail and upright ears), she says it’s best to toss the treat on the floor, so the animal doesn’t have to get too close too soon. “It’s about reading the dog’s body language and letting it make the first contact.”
This is precisely what Michael did to win over Elena’s dog Winnie. “Elena suggested I ignore (her), and almost as soon as I turned my back, she snuck up behind me for a closer look and a sniff test,” he said.
Reward them for a good sit
Another way to build trust and respect is through consistency. To do that, Yin recommends rewarding the dog with a treat every time it sits (without asking, so you have to watch for it). In doing so, the animal eventually learns that if it sits, treats will come.
“What’s good about this is you’re not demanding anything from the dog,” she said. “Instead, you’re teaching it a polite and constructive way to get what it needs and wants, which builds good relations.” This starts with food and eventually includes praise and attention – things she and other experts agree are most important to a dog once it knows someone.
Remember that dogs and people are different
Finally, remember that dogs are not people. “People have the wrong impression of what animals like based on their own preferences,” Yin said. She and others agree that that it’s best to identify what’s best for the animal – not the person – and work from there.
“Once I passed the sniff test, it didn’t take long for Winnie to trust me enough to come get an ear scratch or take a Milk Bone from my hand,” Michael said. “I decided from that point forward to take my cues from her. And fortunately, it worked.”