By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Clients sometimes hire me to help with dogs who feel threatened or frightened by strangers entering their homes. These dogs bark, growl, snap or otherwise display signs of fear-based aggression on encountering new people. Owners sometimes attempt to have guests hand the dog a treat, but find that this earnest attempt at establishing a human/canine friendship backfires. Why is that, and what’s a better alternative?
Dogs are emotion-driven animals with a highly developed aptitude for complex communication with humans and with other dogs. Because they are a social species that live in groups, this communication helps to maintain peace and defuse volatile situations. Over millennia, the dog’s capacity to read and react to humans has evolved well beyond the abilities of any other species on earth.
However, this capacity must be fully exercised in early puppyhood for dogs to feel entirely comfortable in our presence. Puppies who are intensively socialized will almost always learn the ins and outs of communication. But puppies who do not spend lots of quality time early on with a variety of humans can sometimes become fearful later on.
Dogs use gestures to clearly communicate when they are feeling threatened or stressed—ones they sometimes employ when strangers enter your home. If your dog barks, growls, snaps or otherwise shows stress via raised hackles, a lowered head, flattened ears or a slow tail wag, the last thing you want to do is further stress him by having your friend directly offer food. The problem with this strategy is that it forces an already-stressed animal to go outside his “safety zone” to retrieve the treat, increasing his internal conflict rather than decreasing his stress about the presence of this new person.
An alternative I often employ was developed either by veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar or renowned dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, both of whom employ the technique (but both of whom attribute its discovery to the other.) Regardless, the method relies on clearly communicating to a stressed, potentially reactive dog that he is free to NOT move closer to or meet the new guest. And I have seen it succeed spectacularly as part of a comprehensive strategy for in-home introductions. Here’s how it works: