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How to Interact with a Dog – Respecting Personal Space

While many people recognize and address the physical health of their pets, the same cannot always be said for their pets’ mental well-being. Sadly, I’m not surprised, as some people fail to recognize the importance of mental health in humans, believing behavioral issues are character flaws rather than symptoms of illness or distress.

Behavior problems with pets are on the rise. Often, they occur due to an aspect of a pet’s mental health and emotional well-being.

Feeling Safe

Every dog, like every person, has a personal space bubble. Each person defines their “personal space bubble” at any given moment, and every dog typically does the same.

I’ve modified a definition of personal space found at Oxford Languages to:

Personal Space is the physical space immediately surrounding an individual, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them. An individual’s personal space may vary depending on several factors; the environment, the individual(s) encroaching on their space, the emotional status and behavior of either party, or many other factors.”

When a person invades the space of another; for example, hugging or kissing someone without first asking permission, they may, in some legal jurisdictions, be charged with criminal assault. Ignorance is not an excuse for human-to-human misconduct, nor should it be an excuse for human-to-dog conduct. It is the responsibility of others to recognize the signals a dog or human is giving and to respect the other individual’s space.

In other words, you are responsible for always asking for and receiving consent from a person or dog before encroaching into their physical space. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of how a dog expresses consent or believe that a dog does not have the right to give (or withhold) that consent. This gap in understanding dog body language and respect for a dog’s personal space is likely responsible for some dog bite incidents.

Canine Communication

Canine body language is all about saying “Yes, you may come closer” (a distance-decreasing signal) or “Stop, you are making me feel uncomfortable” (a distance-increasing signal). A dog consenting to interact with you will approach you with a loose and wiggly body and an open mouth with the tongue hanging out to the side. Those are some of the visual cues dogs often use to say, “You’re safe; let’s interact.”

If a dog chooses not to approach you, that is one way of saying, “Please stop; you make me feel uncomfortable.”

Other visual cues that communicate “Stop! Stay away!” include avoiding eye contact, blinking excessively, cringing, groveling, lifting one paw, lip licking, slinking away, rolling over, walking away, and yawning. If you see those signals, you must immediately stop your approach; if you fail to do so, the dog may bark, growl, lunge, snap, and bite.

Infographic of Dog Reactivity and Personal Space
©2023, Donald J. Hanson

The illustration above indicates how a dog’s personal space may vary. The dog at the top is happy and relaxed, with a much smaller space bubble (red and yellow areas) and a much larger safe space (green area) versus the frightened dog in the middle and the angry dog at the bottom.

The higher a dog’s level of arousal, the more space they may require. Please show empathy in this situation. You may not see something as a threat, but if your dog does, that fear is genuine to them.

This box contains the definition of personal space from this article.
©2023, Donald J. Hanson

Dr. Sophia Yin’s poster and book, How To Greet A Dog and What to Avoid, and Niki Tudge’s A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog! are excellent resources to help people understand and interact appropriately with dogs. Other resources on canine body language and communication can be found at

Human Behavior

In the Spring of 2023, the San Diego Humane Society released a video, How Would YOU Like It? that illustrates the many things people may do to dogs that make dogs uncomfortable. These include; grabbing the dog, taking the dog’s food away, startling the dog when sleeping or resting, stealing a dog’s toy and teasing them, yanking the dog around, sticking a hand in the dog’s face as a form of greeting, laying down on the dog when they are resting, greeting the dog by grabbing them and hugging them, invading the dog’s space, and asking the dog to come closer and then grabbing and hugging them when they refuse.

Thank you to the San Diego Humane Society for this video. I encourage you to watch the video and share it with your family, especially children and everyone else you know.

Dogs are not humans on four legs with fur. As a species, their behavioral norms are programmed into their DNA. Humans also have deeply ingrained behaviors that most dogs, even some people, will find discomforting. Humans often do things that dogs find rude and threatening. Some of the more obvious actions are hugging and direct eye contact.

Sadly, some humans have misguided attitudes towards dogs due to ignorance or an arrogant attitude of superiority. They believe they, or anyone else, can do anything to any non-human simply because, as humans, they are superior. Please, don’t be that person.

Whether you are sharing your life and home with a puppy or a gray-faced senior dog, it is your responsibility to understand and monitor their body language so that anytime they feel threatened (by a person, animal, or scary situation), you can intervene on their behalf and help them feel safe. It is up to you as your dog’s guardian and trusted friend.

About the Author

Author Don Hanson and his dog, MuppyDon Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop and founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB) and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), serving on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairing the Advocacy Division. He is also a founding director of Pet Industry Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show podcast. The opinions in this article are those of Don Hanson.

©2023, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved

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