Having a dog that is anxious or afraid of people is a bit of a bummer.
Dogs that are fearful of strangers may run and hide, bark, nip and even bite at strangers coming into your house. This makes entertaining guests a bit tricky. If you want to have people over you have to make a choice between putting up with the behaviors or secluding your dog to another room. Either choice is not fun for you or your dog.
If you have one of these dogs that is uncomfortable around people and you would like to work on helping them get over this fear, I have good news. You can (and should) help your dog improve.
First thing to keep in mind is that doing nothing will not make the issue get better – it will only get worse and harder to treat over time. Remember, dog behavior is all about repetition and consistency. Whatever your dog does is what he’ll continue to do unless an alternate behavior is introduced and repeated.
Both humans and dogs are social animals, so having an antisocial dog makes life difficult for everyone. Every day your dog is anxious around people his – and your – quality of life goes down. You can do less things with your dog, take him less places and have less people over your house. No fun.
The usual treatment plan
To get a dog over his apprehension of people we need to first understand what your dog is experiencing. We may think it’s pretty silly that he doesn’t want to go anywhere near your Uncle Joe – after all, Uncle Joe is your favorite relative and he’s an all around great guy. To you.
However, to your dog he’s a strange, unknown man and causes anxiety. The fear is very real to your dog.
To treat this, the best thing to do is to change your dog’s perception of strangers. First we need to make sure the person is acting as non confrontational as possible (no eye contact, not directly facing the dog, relaxed body posture and slow movements) and then have them toss some of the dogs favorite treats (for fear I like to pull out the chicken, steak or hot dogs) at a distance of the dogs choosing. If the dog takes the treats, then you toss them gradually closer until you are eventually hand feeding (this may take minutes, hours, days, weeks, months etc, depending upon the dog – and it’s always at the dog’s pace).
This is nothing new and nothing you probably haven’t heard before. It’s an effective way to treat fear of people but I have found another way that, if used in conjunction to the above techniques, can improve your results tenfold.
Simple but effective
Over the years I’ve worked with a number of dogs that were anxious around people and I discovered an amazing tool to help them drop their guard, open their mind up to a new experience and show them how harmless and cool other people can be.
It’s not some kind of super meat treat that dogs can’t resist. It’s not some new dog training device. It actually requires no additional supplies and is something you (hopefully) already do all the time.
Walk your dog.
That’s it, that’s all. Just walk your dog with people.
If your thinking that’s a bit anticlimactic, you’ve never seen this in action. I have. It’s amazingly powerful and is something that is so overlooked by dog owners and trainers.
This is something I use all the time with my clients and I’m always amazed by the results. Just this past weekend I had a session with a cute little white fluff-ball that always barks at guests from a distance. His body language is very anxious and his problem is a common one – lack of socialization as a puppy (he’s now six-years-old).
When I first came in he barked at me from a across the room, letting me know be wished I would leave immediately. I offered some freeze dried liver which he wouldn’t take while I was standing but accepted when I sat down. As I talked with the owners for the next 45 minutes I worked my way up to hand feeding, however he was still very nervous of every move I made and if I was to stand up, he would go back to barking.
I knew that if we just continued this regularly over time he would come around and eventually learn to like people. But I wanted quicker results, so I went to my secret weapon: walking. The owners and I took the dog for about a 7 minute walk around the block. They had the leash at first, then me. During the walk I never gave a treat, but just chatted with the owners and totally ignored the dog.
And the little pooch did the same. He ignored me and got lost in the sights, sounds and smells of a nice walk.
When we returned home we sat down on the front steps where the little guy came right up to me for a sniff and was happy to let me pet him all over. From that point on, he was my best bud.
This was definitely one of the best turnarounds in a dog I’ve had and it doesn’t always happen that fast, but the walk always, always, always does more than the treats in the house technique.
Why it works so well
Walks are the single best thing you can do for
your dog and the benefits of regular walks with your dog are endless (for both you and you poochy pal).
For fearful dogs it accomplishes a bunch of things at once.
1. It alleviates eye contact and direct frontal positioning. Everyone is moving the same direction and all eyes and bodies are facing forward.
2. Gives the dog something else to concentrate on. When a visitor enters your home it’s the only thing the dog focuses on, but outside there’s so much to grab his attention that the stranger is often forgotten. Then when he does suddenly notice that the person is still there, he’s in a very different state of mind and never really fixates for any length of time.
3. The walk unifies everyone as a singe entity. When your dog is on one side of the room and your guest is on the other they are two very different groups. Me and them. But when everyone is walking together as a single unit, you’re all together and seen as one pack. This automatically bonds you by default.
4. The walk is one big reward. The reason you don’t need to give treats on the walk is that the walk is one big treat. There is so much great stuff out there and it’s all happening in the presence of this once scary person, who now doesn’t seem so bad.
5. When you move a dog’s body through space, his mind goes along for the ride. Inside, your dog is stuck stationary in familiar behavior patterns and by moving him forward we’re inviting change.
Although outcomes will vary depending upon the dog, I’ve always have the walk be a positive step in helping change a dogs association to people. Give it a try and let me know how you make out.