Living with a dog that is afraid, especially of people, is very hard. It is very hard for the people, and of course, a living hell for the dog. While every case is unique, there are certain things people can do to make everyone’s life better.
I am working with a couple who have a dog that is quite uncertain of everyone with the exception of a few people who he has learned to trust. These folks go through the same issues that most people with fearful dogs have to go through. They report to me that they cannot have anyone come over for dinner, let alone out of town visitors. When they walk the dog, their dog will lunge at a passerby regardless of if the person is ignoring the dog, or walking with another dog, etc. If approached, this dog will lung towards the person.
Most dogs that are afraid of people are also more afraid when the space is reduced in size, such as the inside of homes. From their perspective, it is hard to get some much-needed distance from the person. Add to that the inherent unpredictability of people moving in the home; be it to get some water from the kitchen sink, move to the living room for an after-dinner chat or simply visiting the powder room. These are things that people do inside their home and things most visitors will do while at the home. So, if the dog is very concerned about the presence of the person, now throw in a monkey wrench into the mix with the unpredictability of movements from a stranger and you have a recipe for disaster.
In addition, the duration of the visit, will most likely overwhelm the dog and now he is incapable of “keeping it together.” This is what living with a fearful dog looks like a lot of the times.
My answer to the many scary situations like the one above is to teach both the dog and the family protocols that will give everyone predictability. I cannot say enough how important predictability is for dogs that are afraid of strangers. My first goal then, is to have the dog relax – to let its guard down sort of speak, under very predictable circumstances. Yes, indeed, following up with the protocols as if someone’s life depended on them is at the crux of keeping everyone safe, and the possibility for the dog to be able to learn new alternatives to the fear induced behaviors.
Normally these new “alternative” and more socially acceptable behaviors are taught to the dog without the presence of scary individuals. Yes, many times I too have to make sure the dog is comfortable with me, my voice and moving before I can teach the dog appropriate alternatives. As both parties become more confident with their new repertoire, it is time to bring it to the road. Stay tuned as I dive into more specifics of protocols for fearful dogs next time.