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 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.
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. Every dog learns and adjusts at its own pace. This process can take weeks, months, or even longer. Some dogs never learn to fully accept strangers, but you may be able to alleviate your dog's fear to some extent.
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 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, 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 or having it wear a muzzle when you're out for a walk.
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.
It doesn't 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 totally safe.
While most dogs love to do tricks to please their owners (and to receive treats), don't expect your dog to perform tricks in front of people it doesn't know. Your dog is already feeling the stress of having a stranger around, and you don't want to confuse it by asking it to perform when it's feeling afraid.
However, obedience training could help to relieve some of your dog's stress. 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, even when it's feeling anxious and stressed.
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.