How to Solve a Fear of Strangers in Dogs

Scared and submissive dog: Ears back, body tucked tightly together, tail between legs, lying instead of standing.

Ellen Levy Finch/Wikimedia Commons 

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 fear strangers, the ideal reaction is one of initial wariness, 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.

Why Do Dogs Fear Strangers?

There are several reasons why your dog may be scared of people it doesn't know:

  • One possibility is its genetics. A shy and timid dog is more likely to produce skittish offspring. A dog who 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 who 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.

How to Ease Your Dog's Fear of Strangers

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 patience.

  • 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.
  • Allow your dog to approach a stranger on its own 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. Once your dog does approach, the person should continue to avoid eye contact and make slow, nonthreatening movements.
  • Never force your dog to accept handling by a stranger. If a dog is pushed too far out of its comfort zone and not allowed to get away, it may resort to biting.
  • Give your dog a safe 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.
  • When your dog is afraid, it may have a hard time focusing on anything but the object of its fear. The more you work on obedience training with your dog, the more likely it will respond to your commands when it's feeling anxious and stressed.
  • You may anticipate that your dog will react fearfully toward strangers. This can result in your tensing up or tightening your hold on a leash. Try to stay friendly, relaxed, and upbeat when you and your dog meet new people.
  • Because dogs who 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 or having your dog wear a muzzle when you're out for a walk.
  • Every dog learns and adjusts at its own pace. This process can take weeks, months, or even longer. Some dogs will never fully accept strangers, but you may be able to alleviate your dog's fear to some extent.
  • 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. This is an especially good idea if you've exhausted all your other options.