Scaredy Dogs and Strangers – Part 1

By Dr. Jen Summerfield

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Today, I want to talk about dogs who are afraid of visitors.

This is one of the more common behavior issues that I’m called to help out with – but fortunately, it’s also a relatively easy one to address, in a lot of cases!  For today’s discussion, I’m going to go through how I normally approach these visits to help make the dog feel comfortable.  We’ll also talk a bit about the training plan that I typically give owners to work on for subsequent visits with other people.

My hope is that you’ll be able to get some good ideas from this that you can put to use if you have a “scaredy dog” in your life – whether it’s your own dog who has trouble coping with visitors, or you’re the stranger in someone’s home trying to make put a nervous dog at ease.

So, first things first.  If your dog is scared of visitors, what might that look like?

For a lot of anxious pups who aren’t comfortable with strangers in the house, it might look like cowering, hiding, or avoiding contact.  OR, it could look like barking, growling, lunging, or even biting!  Be aware that the vast majority of dogs who are aggressive towards visitors are acting like this because they’re afraid or uncomfortable – so even though the behavior might not “look” like fear, that’s usually what’s driving it.  So we can approach these guys the same way.

I’m going to give you a general overview of how I handle these visits, when I’m doing a behavior consult in the home for a dog who’s fearful or aggressive towards strangers.  There are some lessons here that anyone can apply, so hopefully you find it helpful!

(Note – there’s nothing particularly magical or special or proprietary about my approach.  This is pretty much how every behavior professional interacts with fearful dogs, although you may come across a few minor variations!  But I find that some of what we do can be a bit counterintuitive for many dog owners, so it’s very much worth discussing here.)

The arrival:

It all starts here!  If I’m doing a home visit for a dog with a history of issues with visitors, the first thing I try to do is NOT knock on the door, or ring the doorbell.  Many dogs already have a pretty strong conditioned emotional response to those noises, and it tends to start the visit off on the wrong foot if they’re already upset before I even get in the door.

Instead, if I can, I just let the owner know that I’m on my way so they can be watching for me.  Or, I can text or call from the driveway to let them know I’ve arrived.

What about actually coming into the house?  It depends.

If the dog has any history of biting or aggressive behavior (lunging, snapping, etc.) towards visitors, I generally ask the owner to have the dog on-leash at a distance from the door as I come in, or in a separate room behind a baby gate or other barrier.  This is important for everyone’s safety!  Better safe than sorry – so if we have any doubts here, I always err on the side of caution.

If the dog just wants to avoid me, or tends to stand and bark from a distance, then she can be loose.

During the visit:

All right, I’m in the door!  Now what?

This part is really important, and it’s something that a lot of non-behavior folks have trouble doing unless they’re really thinking hard about it.  Here it is:  I completely ignore the dog.  I don’t look at her, reach for her, or try to talk to her.  Basically, I pretend she’s not even there.

This is HARD for a lot of people, but truly – it’s one of the simplest things you can do to help a scared dog feel more comfortable.  A lot of visitors, especially if they’re dog lovers, have a tendency to try to “make friends” with the dog by talking to her, calling her name, encouraging her to approach them, or trying to touch her if she does come near.  These efforts are well-intentioned, but they often make things worse!

Think about it from the dog’s point of view.  If there was a scary monster in your house, would you feel safer if it seemed really interested in you – staring, reaching, making noises, or trying to approach you?  Or if it didn’t seem to care about you at all?  Remember, dogs (especially scared ones!) don’t always interpret our intentions as friendly when we do these things.

So do the dog a favor, and just don’t.  Really.  She’ll appreciate it, I promise.

The other thing I will do, from the very beginning of the visit, is toss treats to the dog.  Again, I’m doing this without looking at her, or paying any particular attention to her – just tossing treats in her general direction while I chat with the owners.  For best results here, the treats should be very small (because we’re going to be using a LOT of them over the course of the visit!), and very tasty.  Think about things like hot dog slices, small pieces of string cheese, or soft stinky commercial dog treats broken up into tiny bits.

What you DON’T want to do, here, is use the treats to try and lure the dog closer.  This is a common mistake that I see with a lot of well-intentioned visitors, and it usually looks something like this:  “Here pup pup, come on over here and get a treat!  Look, it’s so yummy!  Come on over here and say hi!”  All while brandishing the treat in an outstretched hand, and staring at the dog.

There are a couple of major downsides to this approach, which is why I don’t recommend it.

First, doing this puts a tremendous amount of social pressure on the dog, which is virtually guaranteed to make her uncomfortable.  Again, from the dog’s perspective, how would this make you feel?  She may really want the treat… but she doesn’t want to get close to the scary person that’s holding it.  We’ll often see a lot of really conflicted behavior from the dog when someone does this – lots of approaching and then retreating (often with barking, or other signs of frustration or aggression), and stretching forward to try and snatch the treat without getting any closer than absolutely necessary.

Basically, this is a coercive move on the human’s part – even if it doesn’t look that way at first glance.  After all, we’re just offering a treat!  Right?  It’s not like we’re grabbing the dog by the collar and trying to drag her closer.  But it actually feels similar to that, to the dog.  If she’s very food-driven and wants the treat so much that she can’t say no, making it contingent on approaching a scary stranger is still forcing the issue in a way that’s unfair to her, and often makes things worse in the long run.

Secondly, it’s not uncommon to see very fearful dogs FINALLY creep forward enough to grab the treat, and then explode with a dramatic aggressive display or even bite the person’s hand as soon as the food is gone.  Obviously, this is not the outcome we’re looking for!

So why does this happen?

In a case like this, we’ve basically used the allure of a treat to convince the dog to come past her “comfort zone” and get much closer to the scary stranger than she actually wants to be.  While she’s focused on getting to the food, she may not really notice – but as soon as she snatches it up and eats it, she suddenly realizes that she’s in a very uncomfortable position.  The scary person is RIGHT THERE!  Super close!  And now the treat is gone.

So she reacts in the only way she knows how, in the moment.  She may explode in a big display of defensive barking.  Or, she may bite the outstretched (now empty) hand that’s much closer to her than she’s comfortable with.

The bottom line is – we don’t want to do this!  At worst, it can cause a bite.  At best, it’s still making the dog uncomfortable and not doing much to help the problem.

Instead, I always toss the treats.  I try to toss them in the general area where the dog wants to be anyway, or even a little bit behind her.  I NEVER use them to try and convince the dog to approach – the treats are free.  No strings attached.  She gets them just because I’m there, not because of anything she’s doing or not doing.

With this approach, it often doesn’t take long at all for the dog to figure out that having me come to visit is a pretty cool thing!  Once she starts to feel more comfortable, if she wants to approach me, that’s fine.  I am happy to give a treat from my hand at that point, if the dog has come up to me on her own and has loose, wiggly, relaxed body language – but even then, I’ll often end the interaction by tossing the next treat at a distance from me to allow her to move away.

(A helpful tip – nervous dogs often seem to “forget” that they have the option of simply moving away from someone if they get anxious or start to feel uncomfortable, rather than barking or growling.  So tossing a treat behind them can be a great way of reminding them that they can still move away if they want to, after they’ve come in close for a quick sniff.)

So what does the rest of the visit look like?  It really depends on the dog.

Some dogs relax very quickly as long as the treats keep coming, and go from barking, growling, and avoiding me to voluntarily approaching and asking for pets and snuggles within twenty or thirty minutes – which is always great to see!  Other dogs may need a LOT more time to feel comfortable.  Sometimes, it takes multiple sessions for them to feel safe enough to stop barking and relax in my presence, and some may never want me to actually touch them, which is perfectly okay.

The end point is different for every dog, and so is the timeframe for getting there.  But we virtually always see consistent improvement on every visit with this basic approach.

And best of all, it’s easy to do!  No special training skills required.  😊

In my next post, I’m going to go into more detail about the specific recommendations I normally make for my clients in cases like this – including how to manage a fearful dog around strangers when you’re not actively training, and how to set yourself, your visitors, AND your dog up for success when people come to the house.  We’ll also talk a bit more about how to modify this protocol for dogs who have a history of biting or lunging, and may need to be managed a bit more intensively to help keep everyone safe.

So stay tuned for that, if you’re interested!

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