SCAREDY DOGS AND STRANGERS – PART 2
Welcome back! Today, we’re going to plow ahead with our discussion about how to help fearful or aggressive dogs feel more comfortable with visitors. If you missed my previous post on this topic, you should probably go back and give it a quick look before reading further, since today’s discussion will build on that.
Last time, I talked a bit about how I normally interact with fearful dogs when I do home visits. In today’s post, I’m going to outline some specific steps you can take to improve your pup’s opinion of visitors over time if you have a dog with “stranger danger” issues in the house. This is the same basic plan that I give most of my clients for this problem, although we may modify it for some dogs depending on the specifics of the case.
Note: for the general plan I’m about to outline here, I’m assuming that your dog is anxious or fearful but NOT overtly aggressive with strangers. Meaning that she has no history of biting (or trying to bite) visitors, and does not tend to lunge at people or approach them in a threatening way when they come into the house.
If your dog DOES do these things, it’s not the end of the world! There’s still a lot we can do to help these guys – but, it does mean that we need to take some additional safety precautions to make sure no one gets hurt. We’ll come back to this at the end of today’s discussion, and talk a bit about some of the ways I normally tweak the plan for dogs with a history of aggressive behavior toward strangers.
Okay. So, you have a dog who cowers in fear when people come over, or barks at them from a distance. What are some concrete steps you can take going forward to start changing how she feels about visitors?
Setting the stage:
First, there are some things you need to do before your visitors arrive! Just like dogs, people do best when we arrange the environment to set them up for success – so help your visitors out, here. Let them know ahead of time what you want them to do, and make it easy for them to follow the plan.
- Keep several small baggies of treats on-hand near the front door, so you can hand them to visitors as they come inside. I always recommend making these up ahead of time and having them ready to go whenever they might be needed, in case you get caught by surprise and don’t have time to prep anything “in the moment.”
- Each baggie should have a LOT of treats (think 30-50, as a starting point!), and the treats should be very small – about the size of your thumbnail for big dogs, or the size of a pea for small dogs. Remember, your dog will be eating a lot of them over the course of the visit, so you don’t want her to get full.
- Ask your friends and family to let you know when they’re coming over, and call or text from the driveway when they arrive so you can let them in. This way, they don’t need to ring the doorbell or knock on the door, which can help prevent your dog from getting all riled up before they even make it inside.
- For visitors who come over unannounced, you can also put a sign on the door asking people NOT to knock, but instead to call or text so you can get things ready before letting them in.
- If you have multiple dogs, I recommend putting your other dog(s) in a different room with the door closed before people come into the house. This way, you can focus your attention on the dog who needs help, and she’ll be able to eat treats and get comfortable on her own terms without needing to compete with her doggy siblings.
I know all this might seem like a bit of a pain at first, but trust me – a little preparation goes a long way! Once your dog has made some progress, you may be able to relax these rules a bit and go back to having visitors over without needing to micromanage everything. But for now, you’ll have a lot more success if you stick to the plan.
During the visit:
- Visitors should be instructed to completely ignore your dog. They should not look at her, talk to her, reach for her, or try to pet her – even if she approaches for a cautious sniff. This is not something that comes naturally to most people, especially if they like dogs, so you’ll want to coach them on this beforehand!
- Each visitor should get a baggie of treats as soon as they walk in, with the following instructions: toss a treat to the dog every thirty seconds or so, throughout the duration of the visit. The major point of emphasis, here, is that the treats need to be TOSSED from a distance, without looking at or talking to the dog. Most people are inclined to try and lure the dog closer to feed treats from their hand, as discussed in my previous post. So make sure your visitors don’t do this!
- Be aware that your dog is most likely to react with fear when someone stands up (such as to go to the bathroom, or the kitchen, or at the end of the visit when they’re about to leave), so that’s always an especially good time to toss a treat.
- If you have a few friends or relatives who are willing to help out and do a few short “training visits” for you, where they only stay for 10-15 minutes at a time and dole out lots of tasty treats at every visit, that can be a great way to help jump start the process for your dog! But if not, you can still use real life visits as training opportunities, as long as people are willing to follow your instructions.
- For one-time visitors such as plumbers, repairmen, cable installation workers, etc., I recommend just avoiding the issue by putting your dog someplace else before they come in, and letting her stay there in peace until the stranger is gone. This is also a good strategy for guests who may not always follow instructions, such as young children or your stubborn Uncle Bob who is determined to try and pet the dog no matter what you say!
So – not too complicated, right? You can do it. I have faith in you! It just takes some pre-planning, coaching your visitors appropriately, and making sure you’re consistent about following the plan EVERY SINGLE TIME, at least for now.
Okay. But… what if it doesn’t work?
The good news is, for the vast majority of anxious dogs, you should start to see some noticeable improvement in their comfort level fairly quickly. They may or may not ever want to actually approach visitors and interact with them, but that’s okay! Not every dog enjoys that, and not every dog needs to be friendly and outgoing with everyone they meet. If they can get to the point where they feel safe when people are around as long as they’re left alone, that’s a perfectly reasonable long-term goal.
But, seriously. What if you’re doing all the right things, and your dog still isn’t improving?
If you’ve been following the plan diligently for several visits now and you’re not seeing any significant difference in your dog’s behavior or emotional state, then I would definitely recommend getting some one-on-one professional help.
It may be that your dog’s anxiety level is so high that she’ll need some medication on board in order to start making headway; or, there may be something about your set-up or training plan that needs tweaking. A behavior professional can help you troubleshoot the problem and make changes so your dog can be successful.
Finally – what if your dog is aggressive towards visitors, or you’re afraid that she might be? I promised we’d talk a bit about this before wrapping up today, so here we are.
The first piece of advice I have is this: if you have any concerns that your dog may actually bite someone, don’t try to muddle through by yourself! Get in touch with a veterinary behaviorist, a behavior consultant, or a qualified trainer who can help you in person, to make sure that you have a good plan in place to keep everyone safe while you work through the problem. There are a lot of variables to juggle here, and the consequences can be pretty significant if there’s an unexpected slip-up.
So what might that plan look like?
Depending on the specifics of the case, there are a few modifications I often make for dogs with a history of aggression to visitors. First, I don’t leave the dog loose! Instead, I recommend putting her in a separate room with the door closed while visitors are arriving, since all the excitement and chaos that happens as people actually come in the door is the most high-risk time for aggression. Once things have calmed down and everyone is settled, the owner can bring the dog out on a leash.
Depending on how severe the problem is, we may be able to follow the plan outlined above at this point, with visitors ignoring the dog except to toss treats – but the owner would keep the dog beside them, out of reach of anyone else. This way, the dog can’t approach anyone, or get close enough to potentially bite. I also recommend putting the dog back in her “safe room” again before the visit ends, since there will be a lot of movement and activity happening as people leave the house.
For dogs who are more severely affected, even this may be too much, or may seem too risky – so in that case, I often start by having the owner simply bring the dog out on-leash and stand at a distance from the visitors. They can feed the dog several treats in a row for quietly noticing that someone else is in the house, then put her back in her safe room again. Come out, look at people, get food. That’s it!
This approach is very controlled, with the owner handling everything – all the visitors need to do is sit there, and be boring. The process can be repeated a few times over the duration of the visit, as long as the dog has time to relax in her room for a while after each repetition.
Lastly, I often recommend basket muzzle training if we have any concerns at all about the possibility of a bite. If the dog is trained to comfortably wear a muzzle when people visit, this can give us more options since we know she won’t be able to injure anyone if something unexpected happens. (See my previous post on this topic for further details, if you’re not sure about using a muzzle.)
Again – if your dog falls into this category, I definitely recommend having someone work with you in person if at all possible. But I hope that gives you some idea of what to expect, and what some possible training approaches might look like for dogs who can’t safely be left loose when strangers are in the house.
So there you have it! The plan for “stranger danger” dogs, in a nutshell, the way I normally outline it for my clients.
The bottom line is, if your dog thinks visitors are the boogeyman, there’s a lot you can do to help her learn that they’re actually pretty cool to have around. Hopefully, these two posts have given you some ideas to help you get started – or at the very least, some food for thought while you get a behavior professional lined up to help iron out the details.