The Three Second Rule

It's everywhere and we hardly notice it!

Friday, August 4, 2023

Call me crazy, but I have a theory that we unwittingly practice the 3-Second Rule in many different human contexts as a matter of course.

The rule is a part of our cultural norms.

How long is too long for a handshake?

Consider the common handshake. How long does an appropriate handshake last? About 3 seconds? What happens if a handshake goes on too long or is on the weird side, if the other person doesn’t let go? It’s probably uncomfortable and you just want to escape, pronto. Then there are the occasional times when we happen to make eye contact with strangers. How long before that gets creepy? Less than 3 seconds for sure. If you are the only person on an elevator and a stranger stands extra close to you for more than 3 seconds, you’d probably be concerned.

Are you with me now? There’s a fine line in time that marks when something is acceptable and when it suddenly isn’t. Things can go from fine and friendly to downright dangerous when that line is crossed.

Yes, this topic does relate to dogs, their interactions with the world, and our interactions with them.

Humans Interacting with Dogs

We can be more respectful of dogs and help them feel more comfortable around us if we give them choices. I encourage people to practice the 3-Second Rule when they meet a new dog. Engage for no more than 3 seconds, then withdraw your attention. By doing this, you are asking the dog if he is comfortable. If he wants more, he’ll stay. If he’s not comfortable, he’ll move away. In essence, it’s a metaphorical handshake. We should practice this with our own dogs, too. Don't creep them out by trying to maintain the equivalent of a Trump handshake.

Owners of puppies and small dogs will often carry their pups and force them to interact with other people and dogs while held, setting them up to be reluctant or even fearful greeters. We can’t see their complete body language when they are held, so their communication system is affected. If given the choice, these puppies and small dogs might say “no thank you.”

Playing with Your Dog

Most of us enjoy “wrestling” with our dogs. This is fine as long as both parties are in agreement and there are rules involved. If there are no pauses in our play, things can get too rough very fast. Add those pauses and see how it changes the interaction. Pausing means withdrawing your hands, briefly freezing, turning away, etc.

Out and About with Rex

Where is Rex’s attention? Has he suddenly focused on a trigger or distraction? Individual dogs are different as far as where that fine line is, but there’s a good chance that if the focus has lasted more than 3 seconds, the 4th second will be a problem. Interrupt! Change the subject. Of course it's fine that Rex is observant and enjoys studying his surroundings, but we need to understand where our dog's attention lies in order to keep him out of trouble.

Dogs Interacting with Dogs

Appropriate, mutual dog-dog interactions include pauses, lots and lots of pauses. This means that there’s a dynamic, mutual, giving and taking of personal space. Pauses may be in the form of moving away, turning away, doing a play bow, etc. Guess how often these pauses occur? Yup, about every 3 seconds (I’ve counted).

When two dogs meet for the first time, it’s best to interrupt the info-gathering session at 3 seconds. You can let them go back to get more info but sniffing and circling and other greeting-related rituals can go sour if allowed to go on too long


There you go - that’s my defense of the relevance of the 3-Second Rule. I’ll bet you can find more examples. In the meantime, have fun with your dogs and do a lot of counting to three!