We frequently have dogs come into our rescue who are “shy” or “fearful,” most commonly toward strangers. I would say that close to 50% of the dogs I have met in my time as a dog enthusiast, trainer, and volunteer, have some sort of aversion to new people. Some dogs fear all strangers, while others seem only to fear a certain type of person, e.g. men, children, tall people, etc. We tend to assume that these dogs must have been abused, or treated poorly in the past, but the most likely explanation is that they did not receive proper socialization, have a fearful temperament, or a combination of both.
Puppies go through different stages of development and learning, with the socialization period being from 3-12 weeks. It is during this time that puppies need to be exposed to many different stimuli in a positive fashion. Dogs that come from puppy mills, reserves, shelters, and even some inexperienced breeders, may have very limited exposure to new things and may barely interact with humans at all, predisposing them to be fearful toward strangers. Just like in people, temperament traits can be passed to puppies by their parents, so if one or both of a dog’s parents were shy or fearful, there is a higher chance that their offspring will also be fearful. Another factor that contributes to the temperament of puppies is the occurrence of stress on the mother while puppies are in the womb: if a dog is malnourished or under some other form of stress during pregnancy, this can affect the psychological development of puppies. Fear of strangers may manifest itself in different ways such as a dog who seems to be more “independent” or aloof around strangers, to one that actively barks, growls, or hides when unfamiliar people approach.
If this sounds like your dog, what do you do? There are many important dos and don’ts when dealing with a fearful dog.
- Give your dog a safe space. Make sure that your dog has somewhere to go (like a plastic crate) when he is uncomfortable or frightened. Dogs generally respond to fearful stimuli through fight or flight, so allowing your dog to have somewhere to flee to will decrease the chance of him acting out aggressively toward the threat.
- Comfort your dog. Talk to your dog in a calm voice when he is scared, and tell him that he’s okay. There is a well-established myth that suggests you will teach your dog to be more fearful if you comfort him, but this is NOT true: you cannot reinforce fear (read more here).
- Learn to read your dog’s body language. Many dogs do not vocalize when they are afraid, but show their emotion through non-verbal cues. By teaching yourself to recognize these signs, you will be able to better understand your dog and are less likely to put or keep him in uncomfortable situations.
- Respect your dog. If your dog is barking, growling, or trying to retreat from a person, respect this. Ask guests to refrain from making eye contact with your dog, or from touching him unless he initiates it.
- Teach your dog an alternate behavior. If you have a dog who rushes strangers at the door, or who nips at people when they leave, teach him to lie down and stay on a bed or mat instead. Not only will this prevent him from rehearsing the unwanted behavior, but the mat or bed can also act as his “safe” place. Let all visitors know that they are not to approach his bed or mat, and make sure that it is never used for punishment, but only for relaxation and security.
- Create a positive association. When you are out and about, or when you have guests over, toss your dog a treat anytime he looks at a stranger, or orients towards them. This is called classical counter conditioning and is a way of changing your dog’s emotional response to being exposed to strangers. For classic conditioning to be effective, your dog must be given a treat every time he encounters a stranger, regardless of if he is reacting (barking, growling, lunging) or not. The key thing to remember is that we are changing the emotion associated with a previously scary thing, not teaching or rewarding a behavior.
- Talk to a professional. It never hurts to get some help. There are many force-free trainers and behavior consultants that offer personal assessments and training plans, as well as group classes (depending on your dog’s level of fear).
- Take your dog to the vet. If your dog’s behavior has made a sudden change, it could be medically rooted. Dogs can also suffer from anxiety disorders which can cause fearful behavior. There are many different medications used by veterinarians to help control anxiety and fear, when combined with a behavior modification plan.
- Don’t force your dog to interact with people he doesn’t know. Do not hold him so that others can pet him, and deliver treats yourself, or have strangers throw treats – do not make your dog take treats from strangers’ hands. Although your dog’s motivation to get treats may appear to be greater than his fear, this can inadvertently make his fear worse.
- Do not punish your dog for acting out in fear. Growling, barking, snapping, etc. is how dogs communicate their discomfort. Generally if a dog does any of these things, we have missed his earlier requests for distance and the onus is on us. Other ramifications of punishing these attempts of communicating include suppressing a dog’s warning signs (so you may end up with a dog who bites “without warning”), or making his fear worse: your dog could associate the punishment with the thing he is afraid of (the stranger), and thus have even more reason to be afraid.
- Never use aversive training tools like choke chains, prong collars, or electronic shock/spray collars to deter your dog from reacting to strangers. These are all punishment tools and can affect your dog as stated above.
- If your dog has bitten someone, do not put off consulting a professional. Contact a qualified behavior consultant or trainer for help. The sooner the better, as the longer your dog’s fear is left untreated, the harder it will be to fix or manage in the future.
- Don’t feel ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty about having a fearful or reactive dog. There are many other dog owners experiencing the same things. Join a Facebook group for fearful dog owners, or look for a reactive dog class in your community for some added support.
- DON’T GIVE UP! Most dog behavior can be modified or managed with a bit of knowledge and dedication. Just keep your head up, and remember, your dog loves you!
Lindsay Zomers, ABCDT