Calming a Fearful Dog around Strangers

I’m often amazed at how well-intentioned owners reinforce their nervous dog’s fears without realizing it.  These folks really love their dogs and don’t realize that their behavior can inadvertently be making their dog more fearful.

shy-dog-croppedIt’s not uncommon to see someone walking their nervous, afraid dog and handle a meeting with strangers in ways that make their dog more fearful – without realizing they’re making things worse.  Here’s what to do – and what NOT to do.

What NOT to do with your fearful dog

  1. Do not drag your dog to the person saying it’s OK, or shove a small dog into a stranger’s reach
  2. Do not cuddle them, pet them, and repeatedly tell them it’s OK
  3. Do not clutch the dog’s leash and drag them right next to you

Why

Think about what happens if you’ve ever had a shy child and you force the child to meet someone new by pushing them towards a stranger.  What you’re effectively doing is forcing the child into something they’re not emotionally ready for and they find it scary and frightening. The child may get hysterical and try to run behind you. It’s exactly the same thing when you try to force a shy or fearful dog to meet someone they don’t feel ready for.

Often, people who know their dog is shy or fearful will try to comfort their dog and reassure them that it’s ok.  The problem with this is that often the owner is nervous because they know their dog is nervous.  Dogs are very, very sensitive to people’s emotions – much more so than to their words.  If the dog is picking up on the owner’s nervousness, their first thought is “uh-oh!  There’s something to be worried about here!”  And their fear grows, causing even greater resistance.

dog-pullingThen there are those who know their dog is a worrier, and when someone new approaches, they clutch the leash tightly and drag the dog right next to them.  Again, the dog immediately picks up on the owner’s nervousness and all alarm bells start ringing for them.  This can actually cause them to become aggressive because they start thinking their owner is in danger!  I had a neighbor once who managed to take two normal dogs and turn them into fear aggressive monsters because she was convinced THEY were afraid.  She never understood that her own nerves were the cause of their behavior.

What TO do

There are three important, and very simple, steps you can take to deal with a shy or fearful dog when meeting strangers.

  1. Tell the stranger to quietly stand there and not reach for your dog
  2. Be patient!  Give your dog time to come to their own decision about the new person
  3. Keep the leash loose and let them take their time and work their way to the new person if they decide to do so.  And if they don’t want to this time – it’s ok!  Next time, they may decide to be brave

It’s all about empowerment and trusting your dog.  If you stay calm and patient, your dog will feel safe and will often decide that the new person might be ok after all.  The more you do this, the more your dogs will relax and, perhaps, even start looking forward to meeting new people.

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