Dogs and Fear of Strangers

A Weimaraner puppy peering around the shower curtain in a bathroom.
Mint Images - Norah Levine/Mint Images RF/Getty Images

Many dogs suffer from a fear of strangers. They cower, tremble, and try to hide from any new person they meet. If your dog is afraid of strangers, it's a good idea to understand the reasons so you can help your dog get past his fear.

Why Some Dogs Fear Strangers

There are a few main reasons that a dog may become fearful of strangers.

One possible reason is genetics. A shy and timid dog is highly likely to produce skittish offspring. A dog who has a general fear of all strangers, rather than a specific fear of men or children, may be genetically predisposed to being fearful.

A lack of proper socialization as a puppy is another reason many dogs fear strangers. Dogs who haven't had a chance to meet a wide variety of people as puppies are more likely to develop a fear of people they don't know.

Dogs with a history of abuse may be afraid of strangers. However, don't assume your dog was abused just because of this fear. It is more likely the cause of the fear is genetic or related to poor socialization as a puppy. However, if you are aware of a history of abuse, then you can better understand why your dog fears strangers.

Tips for Handling a Fearful Dog

A dog's fear of strangers should be handled very carefully. All dogs react differently when they are afraid. One dog may simply cower in a corner in the presence of a stranger. Another dog may react by growling or snapping at a stranger. There are several things you can do to ease a dog's fear of strangers.

  • Have visitors ignore the dog while tossing treats. Whenever anyone new comes to visit, have them completely ignore the dog. Visitors 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 for the duration of his visit. The fearful dog may slowly begin to associate strangers with rewards.
  • Allow the dog to approach a stranger on his own terms. Depending on the severity of your dog's fear, some dogs may quickly warm up to a stranger and allow petting and handling while others may take several visits to warm up to new people. It's important that the stranger ignore the dog until the dog initiates contact. Once the dog does approach, strangers should continue to avoid eye contact and make slow, non-threatening movements.
  • Never force a dog to accept handling from a stranger. Forcing a dog to face his fears in this manner can result in worsening his fears. If a dog is pushed too far out of his comfort zone and not allowed to get away, he may also resort to biting to escape.
  • Provide your dog with a safe space of his own. If your dog becomes uncomfortable with your unfamiliar visitors, allow him to escape. It helps if you have a spot for him where he knows he will be left alone. A crate makes a perfect place to escape to when your dog gets too anxious. Make sure that everyone knows that he is to be left alone when he is in this space.
  • Work on obedience training. When dogs are afraid, they tend to have a hard time focusing on anything but the object of their fear. The more you work on obedience training with your dog, the more likely it is he will respond to commands when he is feeling anxious and stressed. Having you there to give him guidance on how to behave in these situations may help to calm him down.
  • Be aware of your own body language. Often dog owners anticipate their dog reacting fearfully towards strangers. This can result in the owner tensing up or adding tension to a leash. Dogs are very good at reading body language so these things may act as a signal to your dog that someone scary is about to arrive. Be aware of what you are telling your dog with your body language, and try to stay friendly, relaxed, and upbeat when you and your dog meet new people.
  • Take safety precautions. Because dogs who are afraid of strangers may bite out of that 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 out for a walk.
  • Be patient. Every dog learns and adjusts at his own pace. This process can take weeks, months, or more. Some dogs will never fully accept strangers, but you may be able to help alleviate the dog's fear to some extent.
  • Hire a dog trainer or behaviorist. 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 have exhausted other options.