I encounter a lot of scared, stressed dogs in my work as a professional dog trainer. I recently received a
call from a woman who was trying to help her shy dog get more comfortable in the presence of new people. When I went to meet her for the first time, it was very obvious that her dog was very nervous about the presence of a stranger in her home – her tail was tucked, her ears were pulled back and flattened against the side of her head, she kept hiding behind her owner, and her eyes were bulging outwards so much so that the whites of her eyes were clearly visible from across the room.
A previous trainer had suggested that the owner give treats to strangers that they could then offer to her dog. The idea was that her dog would associate strangers with yummy treats, and with some time, her dog would be less afraid and more comfortable. This woman had been working diligently with this training plan for nearly two months and was handing out treats to anyone that would help her. The problem was that she wasn’t seeing any progress with her dog’s behavior. In fact, her dog seemed to be getting even more fearful around strangers. After telling me about her training plan, she asked if I thought that this was the best approach to her problem.
No. It’s not.
Try putting yourself in the dog’s position. Imagine that you are walking in the forest and all of the sudden a giant bear appears, begins to move towards you, stares straight at you and reaches a giant paw towards you. Maybe that bear is reaching out to pat you on the head, or maybe he is reaching out to take a swipe at you. You don’t know. In that situation, most of us would choose to move away from the bear and avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Now, imagine that you are tethered to a tree with a 6 foot rope. What do you do now? Most of us fall into one of two categories: 1) We try to scare the bear away by making a ton of noise, jumping up and down, throwing things, etc. or 2) We curl into a ball and hope that the bear doesn’t eat us.
Our reactions to the bear are actually really similar to a dog’s reactions when confronted with something scary. If given the option, most dogs will try to move away from the scary person, place, or thing and avoid an interaction that they perceive as potentially dangerous. The problem with that strategy is that, a lot of the time, the dog is on a leash and can’t retreat any more than 5 or 6 feet away from what she is worried about. And once the option to run away is removed, she can either try to scare the scary thing away by lunging, barking, growling, etc. or she can hold still and hope that she survives the encounter without too much damage.
In order to deliver the treat, the stranger has to move closer. At least to within an arm’s reach. Not only are we moving into the dog’s space without being invited, most of us will unconsciously try to make eye contact with the dog as we do so. Making eye contact is one of the ways that we humans try to get to know each other – it’s a way to build trust and show that our intentions are open and friendly. Unfortunately, direct eye contact is pretty rude and threatening for dogs. From the dog’s perspective, the scary person is staring her down and seems to be asking for a conflict, and backing her into a corner where there will be no escape. It doesn’t set the dog up a stress free greeting and oftentimes the dog is too uncomfortable to take the treat being offered.
If the dog does take the treat, it’s really natural for most people to want to reach out further and try to pet the dog as another “friendly” gesture. Again, the stranger is moving even further into the dog’s space without being invited and pushing the dog even further towards her breaking point. We know it’s meant to be friendly, but the dog doesn’t. Continually pushing the dog’s boundaries will eventually result in one of two outcomes: 1) Increased aggressive responses in which the dog learns to escape a scary situation by growling, barking, lunging, or biting, or 2) Learned helplessness in which the dog learns that she is helpless to escape from terrifying situations and physically and emotionally shuts down.
Again, put yourself in your dog’s position. Imagine if a stranger came up to you and offered you a $5 bill on the street. If you take the money, does that automatically give the stranger the right to hug you or rub your back? No, it doesn’t. You don’t know that person and you don’t know what his/her intentions are. Even if they are “just being friendly,” it is inappropriate behavior from a stranger and we don’t expect other people to tolerate it. Why do we expect our dogs to tolerate it?
So, what can you do instead to help a scared dog feel more comfortable?
Keep a respectful distance. It’s ok if your dog doesn’t want to greet everyone that she encounters. We don’t greet every human or animal that crosses our path every day; there is no reason to expect that of your dog. Allow your dog to keep her distance from scary things while she is learning to be braver. It can feel counter-intuitive to us, but it can actually help your dog feel more comfortable more quickly.
Reward your dog for calm behavior around strangers. I encourage my clients to use extra special treats when helping their dogs overcome their fears. The difference is that I want the treat to come from them, not the stranger. By having the owner deliver treats they are able to reinforce calm behavior more quickly, they are reinforcing the dog for focusing on them, and they are teaching their dog how to trust and defer to them in scary situations.
Keep interactions short. Being in a stressful situation for long periods of time is difficult for any species. Make sure that your dog gets to take a break before she gets overwhelmed. In order to get the best results from your training program, you need to work with your dog while she is under-threshold.
Avoid situations that are too difficult. If you know that a particular situation is likely going to be too stressful for your dog to succeed, it’s ok to avoid it. If there is a group of school children approaching you while you’re out for a walk, cross the street or turn around and go a different route. If you have guests coming over to the house, let your dog stay in her crate in a different room and give her a yummy bone to chew on. Management can make your life and your dog’s life a lot easier during the training process!
Seek professional help. A certified, professional dog trainer will be able to help you develop a customized training plan for your dog. Accomplished Canines specializes in helping fearful dogs build confidence so that they can enjoy normal activities and daily life! Give us a call and learn more about how we can help!