Lesson 6: Dogs Aren't Shy About Saying Hello

An excerpt from Dogs Don't Bite When a Growl Will Do

The best way for me to meet new people is to go out walking with my dogs. Blue and Celeste start wagging their tails as soon as a stranger approaches, and they strain at the leash to get even closer as our paths intersect. The dogs are always excited about a chance encounter like this -- they never run out of interest in making new friends.

John Steinbeck used this fact to great advantage for himself in his celebrated Travels with Charley. As soon as Steinbeck pulled into a trailer camp, he let his standard poodle, Charley, loose to roam around while he made camp. When Steinbeck went looking for Charley some minutes later, he encountered nothing but friendly greetings from people who were excited to meet Charley's human companion. More often than not, Charley's natural friendliness paved the way for a dinner invitation from these strangers.

Dogs have a kind of basic trust that the world is a safe and welcoming place, and the optimistic way they greet strangers reflects that point of view. That's why we humans respond so positively to a dog's friendly greeting. However we rarely greet each other with quite that same degree of friendliness.

After my dogs pull me over to a stranger on the street, and the stranger exclaims about what sweet dogs they are, I offer my hand and introduce myself. The way humans introduce ourselves to each other by exchanging formal handshakes is quite low-key compared to the enthusiastic wiggling and wagging and sniffing that is the way dogs introduce themselves.

Who dreamed up the idea of a handshake, anyway? I've heard a theory that handshakes date back to medieval times, when two people approached each other with open hands to show they weren't carrying any weapons. There's another theory that once you grab someone else's hand it stops him from coming any closer and sets up a protective boundary between the two of you. It certainly is true that we are much more suspicious on first encountering each other than our dogs are.

Once in a great while, I meet someone who uses a handshake to make some genuine, enthusiastic, doglike contact. When I was a young boy, my father's cousin Manny had a wonderful way of greeting me. He would grab my hand to shake it and then keep shaking it for much longer than is customary, all the while rapidly intoning, "Hellomyboysogoodtoseeyou. It'sbeensolongyou'relookingwonderful. I'msogladtoseeyouagaintoday..." This extended handshake always delighted me, and we both beamed at each other all the while. I always looked forward to his visits.

In a misguided attempt to be friendly, many times people we meet on the street will crouch down and try to shake hands with the dogs as well. "Come on, give me your paw!" they'll say. The dogs sniff the outstretched hand, look this person up and down with puzzled expressions on their faces, and then look back at me as if to say, "Do I have to shake his hand?"

I'm as guilty as most everyone else about teaching my dogs to shake hands. However, it seems clear to me that my dogs view shaking hands as a little performance rather than a greeting. Dogs already greet new friends so passionately they don't need lessons from us in how to make contact. Instead, we could take lessons from them. If we could learn to greet the people we meet with the same basic trust, openness, energy, and enthusiasm that is second nature to our dogs, the world would be a much friendlier place.

--Learn more--

--from Dogs Don't Bite When a Growl Will Do, by Matt Weinstein and Luke Barber, Copyright© November 2003, The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of The Penguin Group, Inc., used by permission.

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