For any number of reasons, talking to random strangers you pass over the course of the day is usually a bad idea. Every so often, you might get lucky and strike up a genuinely pleasant conversation, but more often than not they’ll wonder why the weirdo on the subway won’t let them get through their commute in peace. Or else they turn out to be the weirdo. Either way, you’re stuck in an awkward situation of your own making.
As a human who exists in the world, you’ve probably realized this already. But what most humans haven’t realized, as Kristin Wong recently noted in Lifehacker, is that we ought to be extending a similar courtesy to dogs. You may want to scratch behind the ears of every friendly-looking pup on a leash that goes walking by, but it’s an urge you should fight: Like humans, dogs can get pretty uncomfortable when a stranger gets overly familiar.
The difference, unfortunately for dogs, is that they can’t tell you to back off (and most are too well-trained to convey that message via bark or bite). “Even if a dog seems cool with you smothering it with love,” Wong wrote, “most of them just tolerate it.” And most of the time, dogs will show subtle signs that your attention is making them miserable. A tail that’s pointed downward, even if it’s wagging, signals fear rather than happiness; if you can clearly see the whites of a dog’s eyes, that means it’s feeling anxious.
To avoid inspiring either of those reactions, make it clear that you’re not a threat: Approaching the dog from the side rather than head-on, letting them sniff an outstretched hand, and avoiding direct eye contact are all ways to gain trust and soothe nerves before going in for the belly rub. But before you do any of that, Wong explains, start with the human holding the leash:
When you see a dog you want to meet or you’re meeting a friend’s dog for the first time, ignore the dog and talk to the owner instead. A dog looks at his or her owner for emotional cues, so if the dog sees that the owner is comfortable with you, chances are, the dog will be comfortable with you, too. Plus, it’s just polite. Some people don’t want you smothering their dogs.
Even if you’ve been appropriately cautious and your new canine pal seems receptive to your touch, remember: Keep it light. Dogs hate hugs.