By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
I sometimes help clients with dogs that are fearful of and reactive to strangers entering their homes. These dogs bark, growl, nip, snap or otherwise display signs of fear-based aggression when encountering houseguests.
Owners sometimes encourage guests reach towards and give the dog a treat—a reasonable idea—but find that this earnest attempt at establishing a human/dog connection backfires. Why is that, and what’s a better alternative?
Avoiding Stranger Fear
The dog’s capacity to understand and cohabitate with humans has evolved well beyond the abilities of any other species on earth. Because dogs are a social species that live in groups, this communication helps to maintain peace and defuse volatile situations.
However, this capacity for communication with humans must be exploited early in puppyhood for dogs to develop life-long comfort in the presence of people—and especially of strangers. Puppies that are properly socialized will almost always learn the ins and outs of communication. But young puppies that do not spend a great deal of quality time with a wide variety of humans may sometimes develop life-long fear of us.
The most important step you can take to avoid stranger fear from developing at all is to introduce your puppy to at least 100 people by 12 weeks of age, especially to children and men. These meet-and-greets should be positive experiences and fun for the puppy.
Dogs use gestures and vocalizations to communicate that they are feeling threatened or stressed—behaviors an under-socialized dog may employ when strangers enter your home. If your dog barks, growls, snaps or otherwise shows stress via raised hackles, a lowered head or flattened ears, the last thing you want to do is further stress her by having your friend directly offer food.
The problem with your guest directly giving your dog a treat is that it forces an already-stressed animal to go outside her safety zone to retrieve the treat. This increases her internal conflict instead of decreasing her stress about the presence of this new person. Your dog is thinking, “I really want that treat but do not know or trust this person”, so might take the treat, but then run away, still feeling threatened.
Treat/Retreat: a better strategy
A different strategy 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 she is free to NOT move closer to or meet the new guest. I have seen it succeed spectacularly as part of a comprehensive strategy for in-home introductions.
First impressions are just as important for dogs as they are for people. Therefore, the one change I have made from Dr. Dunbar and Suzanne Clothier’s original strategy is that the houseguest meets your dog outside of your home for a brief walk. (In fact, with rare exceptions, I meet ALL my clients and their dogs outside of the home because this reduces the territory aggression and guarding that many dogs naturally feel.)
On the walk, first have your guest completely ignore your dog. A few minutes into the walk, have your guest toss your dog some treats, with no eye contact or other gestures. If your dog appears relaxed, the guest can ask for some basic commands, to sit or lay down, with a tossed treat reward for complying.
Now, in your home
Next, when you, your dog and the houseguest (let’s call him “Bob”) enter your home together, have Bob toss a treat down the hall or into the room, so that your dog (“Sybil)” moves AWAY from Bob to get the treat. Repeat a few times, making sure that Bob’s body movements tossing the treat are subtle and non-threatening. You can verbally coach your friend through this casual performance.
Once Sybil is getting into the swing of the game, have Bob toss an even better treat between he and Sybil, so that she must move TOWARDS Bob to retrieve it, followed by another (just okay) treat tossed past Sybil.
Over time, drop the better treats closer to Bob (still no direct eye contact!) until either Sybil approaches directly, or she makes it clear where her comfort zone ends. ONLY if Sybil finally approaches Bob he can kneel perpendicular to Sybil, perhaps stroke under her chin or on her chest, still with soft movements, quiet voice and no eye contact.
Management is important
If your dog does not willingly approach your guest after employing the Treat/Retreat strategy, end the game and have your guest leave, or put Sybil in another room for the remainder of the visit. Another option is for you to teach your dog wear a muzzle in these situations, keeping your guest completely safe.
If your dog has extreme stranger fear or you feel someone might get injured, please consult with a professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist who can help you customize a protocol for your specific situation and guide you through this process the first time.