Many dogs react fearfully when they see or are approached by strangers. Gentle behavior modification can help calm those fears, boost your dog’s confidence, and transform him into a “people pooch”.
If your dog is loving and gentle with you and your family, but cowers, growls or even snaps when he sees someone he doesn’t know, you’re not alone. Many dogs are anxious or fearful around strangers. Although it can make things difficult, especially if you’re hosting a party at your home, there are lots of things you can do to soothe your dog’s emotions and help build his confidence.
Recognizing signs of fear in your dog
Understanding how a dog communicates is essential when trying to address behavioral concerns, such as fear of strangers. The first step is to know what your dog’s normal is.
Start by focusing on his overall body language and the way he displays tension. If you touch your dog when he’s happy and content, he’ll likely feel soft and loose. When he begins to get stressed or agitated, his body will start to feel and look tense and stiff.
Once you are a pro at detecting tension, choose one body part and observe it throughout the day. Find your dog’s neutral position. Where does his carry his ears, tail and back line, and how does he walk? What does his face look like during the day? Are his eyes loose and soft? Does he have a soft expression around his mouth and cheeks? Being an expert in your dog’s neutral and content body posture will help you see when he is becoming anxious.
When dogs show signs of fear, their body posture tends to go back and down, and become stiff. You may notice your dog’s ears flatten and start to move back during stress. He may hold his tail tight to his body, his eyes may become glazed or almond-shaped, and his lips might pull back with tension around his face. He may move his entire body by walking or turning away, or ignoring your requests.
On the other end of the spectrum, some dogs have learned to be more defensive, and their bodies will move forward instead of back. Their ears may also move forward, or they may pucker their lips. A lot of dogs display a combination of defensive and retreating behaviors. The bottom line is that the dog is uncomfortable and needs help dealing with the situation.
4 steps to build your dog’s confidence
Behavior modification and counter-conditioning can be very successful in helping a fearful dog build confidence around people he doesn’t know. In order to have the best and quickest success possible, follow these four steps.
- List your dog’s specific triggers. Be as specific as possible. For example, instead of listing “strangers” as a trigger, break it down. Maybe it’s men with beards ten feet away, or children under ten.
- Put good management protocols into place. In order to change your dog’s response from a negative to a positive, it’s important to ensure he does not have exposure to his triggers outside a planned training session.
- What does your dog love? The rewards used during this process need to be something he truly thinks is the bomb. A variety of cooked, dehydrated or freeze-dried meats tend to be good motivators for most dogs.
- Training a fearful dog is not about teaching him what to do, but how to feel. Fear is not a behavior but something the dog feels internally and without reason. He doesn’t “know better”, so he’s reacting out of fear and panic.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning is one of the best ways to change your dog’s emotional response from fear to safety. Introduce a trigger in such a way that your dog does not have a fearful response, then reward him with something he loves. This type of training teaches him that when “X” is present, good things happen.
If your dog isn’t fearful when a man walks on the sidewalk across the street, reward him each time he looks at the man. This is the basic premise of all your desensitization and counter-conditioning sessions.
With multiple training sessions and experiences, your dog will start to predict that the man across the street leads to good things. When you see this shift in your dog’s behavior, it’s time to increase the difficulty level, usually by decreasing the distance between your dog and the trigger.
Possible reasons why a dog may fear strangers
Many people assume that when a dog is fearful or shy, he has suffered some kind of abuse or trauma. This is certainly the case for some dogs, but not all. In reality, a dog may be fearful of strangers for a variety of reasons.
- He may not have been well socialized as a puppy. Puppies begin their socialization period around five weeks of age, and continue through adolescence, until they reach adulthood at around two years. During a dog’s first two years of life, it is critical to introduce him in a positive way to people, places and situations. If a puppy was not introduced to hundreds of new people in a positive way, he will likely develop a fear of strangers and the unknown.
- Harsh training methods such as shock collars, choke chains, pinch collars and yelling is another reason some dogs are afraid of people they don’t know well. Instead of learning that people offer safety, support and comfort, a dog that has been trained using punitive methods learns that people can lead to fear, anxiety or pain.
Living with a dog who is afraid of strangers can be challenging. But with good training and management, you can help modify his behavior and reactions. The suggestions presented in this article, along with lots of patience and persistence – and the help of a good trainer if need be — can turn your fearful dog into someone who loves people.
Tonya Wilhelm is a dog training and cat care specialist who has traveled the US promoting positive ways of preventing and managing behavior issues with a holistic approach. Named one of the top ten dog trainers in the US, she has helped thousands build happy relationships with their dogs with humane, positive training methods. She wrote Proactive Puppy Care, and other books. Tonya offers group and private dog training classes, provides training and behavior services via phone and online, and does workshops at pet expos (raisingyourpetsnaturally.com).