This is a special guest post by the Synergy Behavior Solutions Team, a stellar veterinary behavior and training team dedicated to improving the lives of pets with behavioral issues. To learn more about them, read on and then visit them at their website.
It is not unusual for dogs to be worried or fearful of new people in their homes. For some dogs these behaviors are more pronounced when the owners are present. Some dogs are more worried when they are alone and a stranger (like a new dog walker) comes into the house. Here are a couple tips to help your dog feel more comfortable.
The first step to helping your dog be more comfortable is to learn how to “speak” dog by reading your dog’s body language. Dogs have a lot to communicate, if we just open our eyes to see them, instead of just our listening with our ears. Many people recognize the overly fearful dog who is hiding in the corner or the ones who are barking and lunging at people. What many people miss are the more subtle signs of stress and worry they might be showing before they are “screaming” (shaking, barking) with their body language. More subtle signs might include: avoiding eye contact, pinning ears back along the head, panting when it’s not hot, or refusing food. If your dog is giving you those more subtle signs of stress, remove them from the situation before they feel the need to escalate to more aggressive behavior. To learn more about dog body language and learn more about how to speak “dog” check out http://www.ispeakdog.org.
The second step is to let your dog choose when to (or when not to) interact with the new person. Frequently, strangers want to make friends instantly with your dog. Like many people, dogs need time to warm up to strangers. When we let our dogs choose if they want to meet a person, it can be on their terms, when they feel comfortable. Don’t force your dog to interact by dragging them to meet the person, or even having the person hold out treats. Once your dog wants to approach the new person, have them ignore them. Have them avoid staring at the dog. Reaching out or leaning towards or over them can be an invasion of their personal space and scary. Instead let your dog sniff, approach and retreat as they deem necessary without physical interaction. Let your dog set their own time table of comfort. It may take minutes, it may be hours and it may be days. Slow and steady is the safest path to making new friends.
The next step is letting your dog choose how to interact with the new person. This is where reading body language is very important. Some dogs might like to play a game of treat tossing, where the person throws a treat away from them and your dog gets to find it. Then when they start approaching the person again, they toss another treat away. With this game, the dog is being rewarded for approaching but they do not need to come all the way to the new person. They are getting a double reward of the treat and also increasing distance away from the new person.
Some dogs eventually like to be touched. We suggest “touch testing” for these dogs. Start petting their chest or shoulder, but only for one to 3 seconds (yes seconds!) and stop. See if the dog moves closer or maybe nudges your hand, that is a yes from the dog to please continue. If when you stop the dog steps away, then it is time to stop touching them and give them a break. Do not encourage them to come back, wait, remember it’s their choice.
These are just a few helpful tips to get you started understand what your dog is saying and helping them be more comfortable. If your dog is showing signs of aggression towards strangers we recommend keeping everyone safe and avoiding interaction with strangers. Then, we recommend reaching out to your dog’s veterinarian, then an experienced reward-based behavior professional, for suggestions on training and behavior modification. Remember that using punishment may suppress reactivity towards people, but won’t address the underlying reasons (the emotional causes) for the negative behavior. There is a lot that can be done to decrease a dog’s anxiety and improve their relationships with people, so don’t wait! Ask for help.