To put it mildly, some dogs are not particularly fond of humans they do not know. They may not like them approaching or even being around them, and can thus, behave in ways we are not happy with when they are confronted with said stranger. If your dog is growling, barking, snarling or snapping at a new person when they approach, I promise it is not because your dog is a jerk, he is AFRAID (for various reasons, possibly completely unknown to us) and trying desperately to get that person to back off. If your dog is showing any fearful behaviors towards people, here are steps to take for approach and handling. These should be done in conjunction with a specialized counterconditioning and desensitization (CC/DS) training plan for your dog’s individual triggers. A very brief explanation of CC/DS is below but please seek professional help from a positive trainer (I’m for hire!) or veterinary behaviorist to implement a full training plan.
Let’s start with a couple notes on giving treats in a “stranger” scenario…
Do NOT have the stranger give your dog treats. Often people make the mistake of having the stranger offer the dog treats but if your dog really likes treats you may be luring him to the stranger with the food and thus creating conflict in your dog (“I want that treat but don’t really want to get close to that scary human”). Once your dog gets up to the stranger he may take the treat but then find himself now too close for comfort to the stranger and even more frightened.
Initially, any treats should be coming from you when the stranger appears. If the “stranger” is a person who you do eventually want be in your dog’s life, once your dog is comfortable (read his all-important body language!) then you can start having the “stranger” toss treats away from his body and gradually work closer only when your dog chooses to get closer without the lure of a treat. Your dog should always be able to initiate the interaction and have the freedom to choose to get away if he wants.
Keeping in mind all interactions and handling should be done with the intention of allowing for the least amount of fear, anxiety and stress placed on your dog, here are some steps:
- Observe body language and stress signals before contact and throughout the interaction as your dog may change his mind at any time. Body language should be loose and wiggly. If you see stiffening/stillness, tucked tail, side eye, hard stare, do not get closer or let the stranger approach.
- If you are in your home, you may put your dog in another room when the stranger arrives and then have the stranger already seated when you bring your dog out. Most dogs will be more comfortable with a stranger in their house/space if the person is seated and still (but relaxed) first. Any movement on the human’s part (standing or walking) can trigger the dog and scare him, even if he was fine with the human sitting before.
- Go slowly. Your dog decides the pace. The stranger should completely ignore your dog. The stranger should turn his head to the side and avoid direct eye contact and make himself “smaller” by sitting, standing sideways or crouching to the ground. The stranger should not look at, talk to, or reach out to touch your dog. If the stranger is seated prior to your dog entering the room, have the person do something else like read or look at their phone so they are not tempted to look at, or engage with your dog.
- Wait and let your dog approach the stranger first. Give your dog the choice to interact or not. Let your dog approach and sniff the stranger and retreat as he wants. He may do this several times; allow him to check the stranger out without the person reaching for him immediately.
- Sniffing is not consent to touch or pet your dog! Wait for body movements from your dog that solicit the stranger’s attention or touch such as pressing his head or body into the person’s hand or body. Your dog should have a relaxed, loose body posture.
- Once your dog is comfortable with the stranger’s presence have the stranger throw the treats away from his body so that your dog does not need to come right up to him in order to get the treat. If your dog doesn’t want to approach the stranger, don’t try to lure him closer. As stated above, luring sets up a conflict for the dog. He may want the food but doesn’t want to be near the stranger. As the dog gets more comfortable approaching the stranger, he can slowly toss the treats closer to his body. The “stranger” should be aware of his arm movement and the effect it may have on your dog, since an arm swing can be threatening to the dog.
- Implement a counterconditioning and desensitization protocol to your dog’s “triggers” or, the things he is scared of…
Basic Counterconditioning/Desensitization Protocol (CC/DS): In CC/DS we are trying to change the way the dog FEELS about the trigger (stranger). We are not “training” the dog to do anything. Think of CC/DS as, stranger appears and great things happen to Fido!
- Identify triggers. Examples: stranger’s entering space, stranger’s presence in room, movement from sitting to standing or walking across room, hand coming toward body/head/feet….
- Present trigger (stranger) at a distance where the dog is still comfortable and give a treat.
- Continue to pair the treat with the trigger/stranger always staying at the level where the dog is relaxed then gradually get closer.
- Stranger in room = treats appears. Repeat until dog does not care about stranger in room.
- Stranger stands = treats. Repeat as above.
- Stranger moves across room (sideways, not directly towards dog) = treats. Always repeating steps until dog “doesn’t care.”
- Stranger takes a step towards dog = treats.
- Stranger takes 2 steps towards = treats.