Hi friends! It’s Maddie here with my best friend Bella, my sweet and adorable Golden Retriever puppy. I’ve been busy learning all sorts of things about dogs like how to interact with Bella so she feels safe and happy and learns to trust me. I want to share all of this with you!

Remember last time we chatted when I told you that dogs and people speak and communicate in different ways? And that there are many things people do that dogs might not understand that might make them feel stressed or worried? This is important because dogs that are worried or stressed are more likely to bite. I can’t imagine Bella biting somebody, but Bella’s vet told us that any dog can become scared or worried enough to bite, so it is our job to help them feel safe.

One of the most important things for everyone to learn, including kids, is how to greet a dog. We see dogs everywhere we go—on walks, at the park and even in some stores. I know I would feel really worried if a stranger came right up to me and reached out to grab my hand or hug me, so I can imagine how worried dogs might be when this happens to them.

When people say hi to each other, we face each other, we look each other in the eyes, and we may even lean forward and reach to shake hands or hug. But all of these things can make dogs feel worried. We might even bend down over the top of the dog if the dog is small, and that is scary too for the dog. So, how should we say hi to a dog? And when should we say hi to a dog?

First, I want to tell you about something that just happened yesterday. I was walking with my mom and Bella in a new neighborhood, and we passed a lady getting her mail from her mailbox. The lady commented on how cute Bella was and immediately got close and bent over Bella while reaching and patting her on the head and loudly saying, “Aren’t you the cutest little thing,” right in Bella’s face. Bella tucked her tail low, put her ears back, lowered her head and ducked behind my mother with really big eyes. My mom didn’t even have time to tell the lady how she’d like her to greet Bella. The lady had just rushed right in without asking. I knew that all of those body language changes meant that Bella was scared. The lady laughed, stood up and walked up her driveway.

My mom was a bit frustrated and said to me that the woman didn’t even realize the negative experience she’d created for Bella. This made me feel worried that Bella would be afraid of other people now thinking they might rush up and get in her space and scare her, so I knew we would have to make sure that future greetings were polite and that people asked Bella’s permission before saying hello and petting her. But how do we ask a dog’s permission? I know that sounds strange, but it is really the most important part of greeting a dog.

Here is what a proper and polite greeting looks like:

• Person approaches calmly and quietly.

• Person asks the dog’s owner if they can say hello to the dog.

• If the owner says yes, then the person waits for the dog’s permission by standing quietly nearby, with their body sideways and looking at the dog’s feet instead of right at their face and eyes, and wait for the dog to approach. If the dog stays away and doesn’t approach the person, the dog doesn’t wish to say hello, and we have to respect that and just walk away.

• If the dog does approach the person and the dog’s body language is happy and relaxed, the person can calmly reach to pet and rub/scratch the dog on their side or chest or shoulder instead of reaching over the top of their head. Our vet says we should pet with just one hand and that a good test is to pet for 3 seconds and stop and see if the dog wishes to have more petting. Many dogs will nudge your hand or put themselves closer as a way to ask for more. Be sure to bend over next to the dog and not over the top. Better yet, if the dog is small, crouch down next to it so you seem less threatening. (Remember, a happy dog is loose, wiggly, with squinty eyes, relaxed ears and tail).

My mom also says it is very important to be quiet and calm so no talking loudly right in the dog’s face or jumping about. It is also best to keep the interaction brief, and don’t hug or kiss the dog. It is so important for parents to teach their kids how to properly greet a dog. Remember, if we scare the dog, the dog could bite. Practicing with a stuffed dog works really well.

Finally, is it okay to ask to pet every dog we see? The answer is no. We wouldn’t want random people approaching and hugging us, right?

If you don’t know the dog, it is best to walk on by. Just because they are cute and fuzzy and soft doesn’t mean we get to touch and feel them. Some dogs are very afraid of strangers and/or kids, so it is always best to assume unfamiliar dogs need some space. If we know the person and dog or if the person is clearly encouraging interaction (e.g., maybe they’re teaching their new puppy that seeing and meeting other people is safe and okay), then we can follow the rules above so that it is a good experience for that dog or puppy as well as for us.

Next time, we’ll talk about more ways we can help our dogs to feel really safe and comfortable and the best ways to play with and spend time with our dog.

Note to parents: Use this story and the following resources to teach dog safety to your child and how to continue to foster trusting relationships between dogs and kids.


If you’d like to read more about Maddie and Bella, Bella’s First Checkup is available on Amazon, or you can contact Dr. Kohler for a signed copy by emailing her at helpinghanddvm@gmail.com.

QUESTIONS for Maddie can be emailed to maddiespettips@gmail.com

Hi there! My name is Maddie, and I’m just your average fourth grader. Well… maybe not quite average but, rather, a perfectionist and a worrywart with an overactive imagination and a flare for being dramatic. At least that’s how my mother would describe me!

One of my best friends in the whole wide world is our 5-month-old Golden Retriever puppy Bella. We named her Bella because Bella means “beautiful” in Italian, and she really is beautiful. She has become an important part of our family, even though she isn’t human.
At each of Bella’s puppy checkup visits at the veterinary clinic, Dr. Lacy teaches us how to help Bella grow up to be a happy adult that is comfortable in our human world. Dr. Lacy said that even though we think of our pets as part of our families, it is so important to remember that they are, in fact, animals. So they think like animals, and they talk like animals. We think like humans, and we talk like humans, so we have to help our pets understand us, and we have to learn how to understand them whether they’re a dog, a cat or some other critter.

Mom told me to imagine what it would be like to, all of a sudden, find myself in a foreign country where no one spoke English, all by myself unable to understand what anyone was saying. Would it be scary? Frustrating? With my overactive imagination, you can just guess what I thought of this idea! Yep, I immersed myself in this daydream and pictured myself trying to let the people around me know I was hungry or lost (and scared) or that I had to use the restroom. Ugh! It wouldn’t be easy. That’s for sure, and this opened my eyes to how Bella must feel as part of our human family.

Bella barks when she’s excited, like when we play ball, and whines when she needs something such as getting us to open the door so she can go out to potty. Dr. Lacy taught us, though, that most of what Bella says is with her body language—her face, ears, tail, mouth and body.

The first things we learned were how to tell when Bella was happy and how to tell when she was worried or scared because worried or scared dogs are more likely to bite. “Happy dogs” are loose—with relaxed ears; level, sweeping tail; squinty eyes; open mouth. “Worried dogs” are more tense—closed mouth; ears back; wrinkles around eyes or forehead; tail might be wagging but will usually be low and stiff with only the tip of it moving; and they may also yawn or lick their lips or look at you out the sides of their eyes (half-moon eye); or slouch/hunch their body, try to hide or move away. I thought wagging tails meant the dog was happy, so I was so surprised to learn this isn’t always true.

Dr. Lacy taught us that there are many things that humans do that dogs can find stressful or scary, such as hugging/kissing the dog (which can make them feel trapped), staring at the dog and patting them on top of their head and that, kids, most of all, can seem scary to many dogs because we move quickly, make screechy noises, are unpredictable at times and might do scary things such as pulling hair or body parts, climbing on the dog or going up to the dog when it is resting or has a special treat, food or toy item.

Just yesterday, my little sister, Katie, who’s 5, was jumping around just a few feet away from Bella, and my mom noticed that Bella yawned, put her ears back, turned her head away and closed her mouth. Mom said was Bella saying she was worried. She asked Katie to play further away, and then Bella relaxed and closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Maybe Bella wasn’t sure what might happen next? Would Katie jump on her? It makes sense that she’d be worried.

This really is a very big topic, so in the next issue we will explore more about how dogs talk and all the things that humans, and especially kids, do that can make dogs worried. All of this will help us to know how to interact so that the dog is happy and comfortable.

Note to parents: Use this story and the following resources to prompt/support a family discussion about dog body language and how to foster trusting relationships between dogs and kids:


If you’d like to read more about Maddie and Bella, “Bella’s First Checkup” is available on Amazon or you can contact Dr. Kohler for a signed copy by emailing her at helpinghanddvm@gmail.com.