The familiar dog (“canis familiaris,” or something to that effect) is not a person, but he thinks himself a person. No one discourages a dog from this misapprehension, rather the opposite is true. People through uncounted eons have encouraged dogs to think of themselves as our helpmates, even more, as members of our families. For a modern dog, the highest station in life is membership in a human family. They take this position very seriously too, more seriously than most humans do.
So one never approaches a dog as a total stranger to the dog, the dog already appreciates the bond of kinship that is now firmly established as the natural order of things. This does not mean, however, that you can just walk up to any old dog that you see and treat him in a familiar manner right off the bat. The dog has been accustomatized to humans in general, but not to you as an individual. There are niceties that must be observed.
It has been said that dogs are like children who never grow up. They never learn to talk, for instance, and the physical doing of many things that are within the power of a man are denied a dog, things like mathematics, or driving a car. But dogs are a little bit like children, they have a lot in common. For one thing, both dogs and non-verbal children are much smarter than we give them credit for. For another, both dogs and children know very well that many things are beyond their capabilities, and that they need our help. For this reason they share a desire to ingratiate themselves to us, the better that we may provide them with food, shelter, comfort, acceptance and love.
Dogs and babies go through a very similar process when first encountering a strange human. They regard the human intently and desire to establish as fast as possible whether this is a nice, cooperative human, someone who will share his food and his prosperity, or is this one of the selfish and abusive humans, the world containing both types in abundance. This is Question One for the dog or baby, the research done with babies along these lines is fascinating. Babies merely cry if startled, but dogs are liable to bite you, so it is more important, in a way, how one approaches a dog.
Don’t run up to the dog, it’s always best if you can get the dog to come to you. Usually this can be done by sitting down close to the dog and letting your hands hang naturally. Mumbling pleasantries can be helpful, but the most important thing is to be relaxed. You can approach the dog if you have to, but don’t be too quick about it, and never appear to be circling around the dog. That’s stalking behavior, like you were planning to make a nice lunch out of the dog. You can get fairly close; at that point it’s a good idea to squat down to the dog’s level.
Then you can extend a hand, but extend the back of your hand, not the palm, and not too close to the dog either. Let the dog get a whiff of you, let him inhale your relaxed, inoffensive manner and get used to your smell. The dog has powers of smell, and the cataloging and remembrance of smells, that are truly supernatural. Let him realize that he has no bad memories of your smell. Give him a minute to accomplish this.
Never, ever, extend your hand beyond the line of the dogs eyes, and never suddenly grab to scratch the top of their head or their neck in these early stages. That’s how people get bit. While it is true that just about any dog wants you to love him, and ideally give him food, many dogs have suffered abuse from humans in their pasts and the experience has disposed them to bite first and ask questions later. So go slowly.
The dog may lean forward to nudge your hand. If this happens, you may rub the back of your finger along his lower jaw. If the dog continues to regard you from a distance, you may turn your hand over and extend the palm to him, not touching him yet. This is still in the process of him getting you know you by smell.
Most dogs will respond to the palm, the dog may even lean forward and lick your hand. This means that the dog has decided that you’re okay, and the licking means that he has further decided to ask you for food. Even a nudge though is enough to signal that the dog has decided that contact with you is safe. At this point you can use one finger to rub under the dogs chin. It’s still a little early to be grabbing him behind the neck.
If the dog seems to enjoy the rubbing under the chin, if he leans into your hand, it’s okay to start scratching his neck and probably even okay to scratch him behind the ears. By now the dog will be following you around and looking very pleased with his new friendship. The provision of a little food item at this point will seal the deal, probably forever. If you give a dog food in an affectionate manner, the dog will remember you forever, and fondly.
Most of what I know about dogs I learned carrying the mail for the Post Office in Jamaica, Queens. Not the best way to learn, but the training was intensive. I’m no “Dog Whisperer,” but I’ll stand behind the advice that I’ve offered here.