It is a classic introduction: you meet a new dog and extend your hand for them to sniff, slowly and carefully. The dog smells you and decides whether or not you are going to be friends. You are always careful not to be aggressive in your approach, because you do not want to give your potential new friend the wrong idea. But why is this such a traditional way to greet dogs? Who decided you should offer your hand to a new furry friend? Why is it so important that a dog like the way you smell when they sniff your hand? Let’s talk about that!
The Root of the Behavior
We know that as humans we primarily use our eyes to assess the world around us; sight is generally our main sense for absorbing information. But dogs, on the other hand, are primarily smell-based. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, dog psychology expert, “Dogs are living in a totally different world than we are, filled with much, much more information than we can possibly process about smell. That’s the way they parse information.” Essentially, dogs 'see' the world through their nose instead of their eyes, because their eyes are comparatively far weaker than our own. Dogs can have up to 300 million olfactory receptors! Compared to people, who have about 5 million, dogs are super-smellers. And that’s why they sniff outstretched hands, other dogs, and everything around them.
Dogs can tell a lot of things from the scent of your hand; to a dog, your scent is completely unique and tells them a lot of things about you. They can learn about your health, your hormone levels, and more. Plus, dogs can tell different family members apart from smell alone, even if they are identical twins! Every human has their own unique smell made up of a variety of factors, and to a dog, it’s as special as a fingerprint or a face. Think of it this way – if you are meeting a date for the first time, you don’t immediately go in for a kiss, right? You get to know them first, shake hands, share a meal or a drink, then go for a hug. In a similar way, a dog sniffing you and your hand is like your 'first date.' You’re exchanging information, and the dog is deciding whether or not they’re going to let you pet them. In the same way, you wouldn’t want a total stranger running up to you and giving you a hug, most dogs don’t want unknown humans coming up to them and petting them without so much as a hello!
Encouraging the Behavior
You should want your dog to sniff hands as opposed to other places when they meet new people! For a dog, humans smell roughly the same all over, and some dogs are just as inclined to sniff a crotch as they are an outstretched palm. If you’d like your dog to sniff hands only, you can train them to do so. One way is to distract a dog from a visitor when they first arrive, by putting them on a lead or using a toy. Once your visitor has settled, let the dog sniff your visitor’s outstretched hand and reward them for being calm and behaving properly. Soon, your dog will learn that sniffing a hand (instead of a butt or another inappropriate place) is the preferred behavior.
It is important to remember that dogs see the world through their noses, and that means it is possible for your dog to get overwhelmed if they’re being introduced to a lot of new people or scents at once. Your dog may also have negative reactions to certain types of perfumes or lotions because of the scent; if that’s the case, try to have your dog meet the same person several times, to establish a bond and let your dog know that this person is a safe friend no matter what they smell like.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Whether you’re letting a new dog smell you or letting someone introduce themselves to your dog, it’s important to go by the dog’s terms. Do not aggressively thrust your hand into a dog’s face, don’t cover their nose with your hand, and don’t force an introduction. Many dogs will happily sniff your hand if given the opportunity to do so at their pace! Pay attention to the dog’s body language and treat them accordingly. Different dogs have different overall temperaments, which is important to remember when introducing your dog to new people or meeting new dogs – some dogs may be shy or unwilling to meet you right away, and that’s okay. Give it time and be gentle!
Dogs smell hands because it is a natural part of their world. They learn about you – and everything else – through their powerful sense of smell. Remember to respect this part of them, and that it is a totally normal behavior for your dog! Encourage them to sniff hands instead of other places and you and your dog should make a lot of new friends.