Some dogs suffer extreme fear of strangers. They cower, tremble, and try to hide from any new person they meet. While it's not unheard of for dogs to be afraid of strangers, the ideal reaction is one of open friendliness, not hiding or running away. If your dog is excessively fearful around strangers, it's a good idea to understand the reasons why so you can help it get past its fear.
Reasons for Fear
There are several reasons why your dog may be scared of people it doesn't know.
- One possibility is its genetics. A shy or timid dog is more likely to produce skittish offspring. A dog that has a general fear of all strangers—rather than a specific fear of men or children, for example—may be genetically predisposed to being fearful.
- A lack of proper socialization as a puppy is another reason some dogs fear strangers. Puppies that don't have a chance to meet a wide variety of people are more likely to develop a fear of people they don't know.
- Dogs with a history of abuse may also be afraid of strangers. If you're aware of a history of abuse, then you can better understand why your dog fears strangers.
Easing the Fear
A dog's fear of strangers should be managed very carefully. All dogs react differently when they're afraid. One dog may simply cower in a corner in the presence of a stranger. Another dog may react by growling or snapping. Teaching a dog not to be afraid usually takes lots of time and consistent training.
You may expect your dog to react fearfully toward strangers. This can result in your tensing up or tightening your hold on its leash. Try to stay friendly, relaxed, and upbeat when you and your dog meet new people. Some dogs never learn to fully accept strangers, but you may be able to alleviate your dog's fear to some extent. Do not force your fearful dog to meet people or accept pets if it does not want them as this can sometimes lead to fear biting. Depending on your dog's reaction, working with a certified dog behaviorist to help identify cues and management strategies to practice is be very helpful. Every dog learns and adjusts at its own pace. This process can take weeks, months, or even longer.
Prepare New Visitors
Whenever anyone new comes to visit, have the person completely ignore the dog. The visitor should not attempt to pet or make eye contact with the dog. Have some treats on hand for your visitor to gently toss on the floor close to your dog during the visit. With consistent application, your fearful dog may slowly begin to associate strangers with rewards.
Some dogs are more afraid of men than women. If you notice your dog tensing up, whining, or growling around strangers of a particular gender, you can prepare your guests accordingly. Allow your dog to approach a stranger on its terms. Depending on the severity of your dog's fear, it may quickly warm up to a stranger and allow petting and handling, or it may need several visits to warm up to a new person. Some dogs with very severe behavior may need to go to a comfortable place in the home away from visitors where they can rest and not be anxious when visitors come. If you have noticed growling or any form of aggression from your dog, it is very important to work with a certified dog behaviorist to help figure out triggers and if your pet can act safely with visitors. You never want to put visitors or your dog in a situation where someone may get bitten.
Once your dog does approach, the person should continue to avoid eye contact and make slow, non-threatening movements. Never force your dog to accept handling by a stranger, especially a child. If a dog is pushed too far out of its comfort zone and not allowed to get away, it may resort to biting. Because dogs that are afraid of strangers may bite out of fear, it's your job to make sure that everyone stays safe around your dog. This may mean putting your dog in a different room when certain people visit.
Keep Things Stress-Free
Give your dog a space of its own. It helps if you have a spot, such as a quiet room, for the dog where it knows it will be left alone. A crate makes a perfect place for your dog to escape to when it gets too anxious. Applying a thunder shirt or spraying calming doggy pheromones in its safe spot may also be helpful. If your pet is in a safe spot, do not allow people to go in there and pull it out or even try to pet it as the dog must have an area where it can be left alone and unbothered.
Removing your dog from potentially fearful situations is perfectly acceptable especially if it will help keep both visitors and your dog safe. Safe spots for dogs do not need to be a large space; a corner of a comfortable, quiet room where your dog can curl up with its favorite toy or blanket will serve just fine. Make sure no one goes in this area without checking first; the dog must feel like it won't be interrupted or surprised to feel safe.
Veterinary Care and Pharmaceuticals
Discussing your pet's fear with your veterinarian is important as he or she can help guide you on tactics you can use at home and discuss if medication may be warranted. Veterinarians may even recommend a consult with a boarded veterinarian behaviorist who specializes in dogs with behavioral problems such as fear. Or he or she may recommend at-home training with a certified dog trainer (CDPDT).
Obedience training can be very helpful in managing fearful behavior and relieving some of your dog's stress. Because a severe fear of strangers can lead to aggressive behavior, including growling, snapping, and biting, it can be useful to work with a dog trainer or behaviorist to come up with a plan to deal with your dog's fear of strangers. Finding a certified dog trainer to work with you and your fearful pet is helpful at any stage. Typically the sooner a trainer is involved with a fearful pet, the better.
CDPDT trainers can approach situations objectively and teach you how to help your fearful pet safely interact in the environment. For some pets, they may set up a specific desensitization and training plan. For others, they may determine that the best way to keep a pet and others safe is to remove them from potential fear-inducing situations. And yet for other situations, a trainer may recommend a modality such as a wire basket muzzle that can help limit biting while still allowing a pet to pant and drink water. Basket muzzles (or any muzzle) are best used as guided by a certified trainer or veterinarian who can assure they are only used for limited periods, in appropriate situations, and with a proper fit. Muzzles are never to be used for punishment and nylon or cloth muzzles are not recommended outside a veterinary office because dogs can not pant well through them, which can lead to emergent situations.
Fearful pets can provide challenges for owners but practicing patience, smart management of your pet and seeking help from trainers and veterinarians can be instrumental in helping fearful pets manage their fears.