Is your dog scared of strangers?
Having your beloved family dog fearful of strangers can feel overwhelming. When you pictured living life to the fullest with him, you weren’t expecting him to cower when around strangers or in some cases growl, snap, or bite. You may feel like you are all alone in your worries, but the reality is, there are a lot of dogs who are anxious around strangers. Luckily, there are also a lot of things you can do to soothe his emotions and help build up his confidence, and yours.
Possible reasons a dog may be fearful of strangers
Many people often assume that when a dog is fearful or shy, they have suffered some kind of abuse or trauma. This most certainly is the case for some dogs, but not for all dogs. In reality, a dog may be fearful of strangers for a variety of reasons.
A dog may be fearful of strangers simply because he was not well socialized as a puppy. Puppies begin their socialization period around five weeks and continue through adolescence, until they reach adulthood at around two years of age. 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. Instead of learning that people offer safety, support, and comfort, a dog is learning that people can lead to fear, anxiety, or pain.
How to recognize 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 in his everyday activities is. Take a good look at his body posture, body parts, and his fur.
At first, this may feel overwhelming, so focus in on his general body and tension. When he’s happy and content, if you were to touch him and wiggle him, he would likely feel soft and loose. When he begins to get stressed or agitated, his body would start to feel and look tense and stiff. Once you are a pro at detecting tension, next choose one body part a day and observe it throughout the day.
Find your dog’s neutral body position. Where does your dog carry his ears, tail, 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 in interpreting when he is becoming anxious.
When dogs showing signs of fear, their body posture tends to go back, down, and become stiff. If your dog has floppy ears and you know his normal, during stress you may notice they flatten and start to move back. He may hold his tail tight to his body, his eyes may become glazed or almond shaped, and his lips pulled back with tension around his face. He may move his entire body by walking away, turning away, or ignoring your requests.
On the other side of the spectrum, some dogs may have learned to be more defensive, and their bodies will move forward. Their ears may move forward, body posture forward, or puckered lips. A lot of dogs do a combination of defensive and retreating behaviors. The bottom line, is that the dog is uncomfortable and needs help dealing with the situation. Learn more about a dog’s body language.
Four steps in building your dog’s confidence using behavior modification and training
Behavior modification and counter-conditioning can be very successful in helping a fearful dog build confidence. In order to have the best and quickest success possible, follow these four steps.
- List your dog’s specific triggers. A trigger is something that elicits a response, in this case, a negative or fearful response. Be as specific as possible. For example, instead of listing “strangers,” break it down. Maybe something like men with beards ten feet away. Or children under ten approaching the dog.
- Put good management protocols into place. In order to change your dog’s response from a negative to a positive, it’s important to do your utmost to ensure he does not have exposure to his triggers outside a planned training session.
- What does your dog love? The rewards for your dog need to be something he truly thinks is the bomb. Something he doesn’t get in his everyday life. Food tends to lend itself really well to training because when you use it as a reward, your dog doesn’t need a lot of room to train, unlike a toy. Toys can certainly be used, but they can be a bit problematical in some situations and locations. A variety of cooked, dehydrated, or freeze-dried meats tend to be good motivators for most dogs.
- Behavior modification and training. Training a fearful dog is not about teaching him what to do, but rather how to feel. Fear is not a behavior but something the dog feels internally and without reason. He doesn’t “know better,” 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. You will want to 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 your dog 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.
Living with a dog who is afraid of strangers can be challenging. With good training and management you can help your dog’s behavior and reaction to strangers. You don’t have to tackle your dog’s anxiety alone. A good dog trainer can help you help your dog learn to be more confident. Together with the suggestions presented in this article, along with lots of patience and persistence, you can help your fearful dog. I offer both in-home and phone/Skype dog behavior training. Please feel free to reach out.
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