Dogs who have stranger danger are fearful or reactive to new people. This can occur at home, on walks, or anywhere else in public. Common reactions for these dogs are fight, flight, or freeze.
If you have a dog who is a little (or a lot) nervous around people, there are a few things you can do to help alleviate your dog’s stress overtime. While your dog may never readily accept pets from people she doesn’t know, with enough work you’ll be able to decrease your dog’s fear responses.
Here’s some information about how you can help create an environment for your dog so that everyone is safe. We’ll also review some skills to help teach your dog to cope, along with resources that might be helpful.
*NOTE* If your dog is struggling with fear of new people, especially if they have tried to bark, lunge, or bite at strangers, please consult a certified, positive reinforcement behavior professional. If you're in the Austin area, you can book your virtual behavior consultation or see our referrals page for other local professionals. This blog has lots of general tips and tricks, but every dog (and situation) is different!! A blog cannot substitute the help from a qualified professional.
General Tips for Setting your Dog up for Success
Here are some general tips for training a dog who is fearful of strangers:
Give your dog choice: Allow them to choose when they’re ready to do things.
Celebrate small victories: Most of the time you’re not going to have huge leaps in progress, so you’ll want to celebrate any small wins.
Teach your dog skills they can use: This gives them more potential options instead of the behaviors you don’t want.
Create good associations: Negative associations tend to be strong, and it takes a lot of positive associations to overcome them. The way to work on good associations is to get at their underlying emotion by making an educated guess on how they’re feeling and responding accordingly.
Keep people around your dog safe, but keep your dog feeling safe as well: Always advocate for your dog and think ahead. (Keep reading for more tips on that).
How to Set up a Safe Environment for Your Dog and the People Around You
Always set up the environment so your dog has enough distance to feel safe. There are lots of ways you can do this, but it often takes some planning ahead and an awareness of your environment.
Use management tools like basket muzzles, leashes, harnesses, baby gates, pens, or crates to create safe scenarios for your dog and any new people.
As much as you’re able to, don’t put your dog in a situation where they feel the need to protect themselves. This means you might need to think ahead to how your dog will react to any new situation.
If necessary, use two levels or management to keep unexpected and potentially harmful interactions from happening. So you might combine a baby gate and a muzzle if your dog is a bite risk and you have someone visiting your home.
Remember that your dog can’t skip from kindergarten to college! Let them learn at their own pace.
Steps for Managing a Dog Who is Fearful of Strangers
You’ll always want to start slow, but first you want to get your dog to a place where they’re comfortable with strangers from afar, and slowly work up to strangers being closer to your dog. You may eventually get to the point where new people can pet your dog, but if you never get there that’s OK too!
Step 1: Strangers at a Distance
Here are some things you can do at a distance in order to start getting your dog more comfortable with people when they aren’t right up close.
Work with desensitizing and counter-conditioning your dog to strangers by associating them with great things. For instance, if you see a stranger in the distance and your dog also sees them, feed your dog a treat or scatter treats on the ground. When the stranger is gone, the treats should also stop. Strangers should be the predictors of treats appearing.
You can also use clicker training for this. One way is to use a clicker when the dog looks at the stranger (or any stimulus that makes them nervous) and reward your dog with treats.
Step 2: Strangers Up Close
Don’t rush this step. Let your dog take as much time as she needs to greet people up close. Watch your dog for stress signals, and allow them to move away if need be. Dogs who are nervous about people should only approach them when they are ready.
We also don’t recommend having strangers give your dogs treats before they are ready. Start by having the person toss treats to your dog, ideally a little behind your dog so they don’t feel pressured to get closer to the person who they are afraid of. This allows your dog to move closer if they want to, but doesn’t require them to move closer to the person in order to receive the treat.
We always want our dogs to feel empowered that we aren’t going to force them to say hello to anyone before they’re ready.
Teaching Alternative Behaviors and Skills
There are lots of alternative behaviors you can teach your dog so they have something to do instead of barking and lunging.
Teaching your nervous dog a cue like “look at me” can be really useful.This cue prompts your dog to look at you and get a treat when he sees a stranger rather than bark or lunge at the stranger.
If your dog doesn’t like to be petted or approached too closely, teach your dog to do a trick for strangers. This can be something easy like spin or sit pretty. This way, your dog can greet people with a cute trick rather than a pat on the head.
People who want to pet your dog are often satisfied with this interaction when you explain the dog is shy, but he can do a fun trick to say hello!
Commonly Misunderstood Body Language Signs of Dogs Who are Nervous or Fearful
While there are a lot of signals our dogs give us that are meant to alert us to the fact that they’re uncomfortable (ears pinned back, lunging, growling, etc.) there are two we want to highlight here that nervous dogs can display that are often misunderstood as friendly.
Belly up: This does not always mean that our dogs want a belly rub. Sometimes it can be the dog trying to say that they aren’t threatening. A dog may roll over and expose his belly but have very stiff body language, licking his lips or having his eyes dart around.
Licking: This is often seen as a friendly behavior in dogs, but sometimes can also be a plea for safety. If your dog is licking but they also seem very tense or deferential, these are signs you should consider as possibly signaling that the dog feels unsafe.
If you notice your dog displaying these behaviors, it’s important to remove them from the person or the situation before it escalates.
This blog was adapted from a webinar given to Every Dog by Sarah Bond, CDBC, CPDT-KSA of Bond Dog Training. You can find the recording here.
Ready to start training with a professional? You can book your virtual behavior consultation today.