Your dog may love cuddling up with you and show all the affection at home, but when approached by an unknown person, they may become withdrawn or skittish. If your dog is uncomfortable about meeting new people, you aren’t alone. For some dogs, this is a natural instinct that is appropriate for their breed’s temperament. For others, it can be their individual personality or the result of a traumatic experience they may have had with people in the past.
Although your dog might not ever learn to love all people or want to greet everyone they meet, with training most can learn to be more comfortable around people, which can help you go out in public with your pet.
Many people expect all dogs to naturally engage with other people. But that isn’t always the case. Even dogs who genuinely enjoy engaging with people may be stressed, nervous, or uncomfortable meeting new people. In fact, one of the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test items is the acceptance of a friendly stranger to make sure they’re well equipped for this.
To teach your dog to positively and appropriately engage with a stranger, you’ll want your dog to practice meeting and calmly being petted by a variety of people. But for dogs who are uncomfortable with strangers, it can be a bit more challenging.
Don’t Force Introductions
Many people want their dogs to be friendly and social, but the way to achieve this desirable behavior isn’t by making your dog engage with strangers. Although some people want to push their dogs to overcome their discomfort by forcing introductions, this is more likely to cause more issues for your dog who feels threatened and uncomfortable, which can lead to an escalation of behavior and result in a biting.
If you have a dog who is fearful or uncomfortable around strangers, it’s important to reevaluate the expectations you have for your dog. Instead of forcing your dog to meet people, build their confidence by just being near people without having to interact.
Signs Your Dog Is Uncomfortable
Monitor your dog’s behavior, demeanor, and their body language to see their level of comfort. Dogs who are uncomfortable meeting or being near strangers may express their discomfort in different ways. Discomfort with strangers can be expressed in overt ways, such as barking, lunging, growling, or snapping, to warn the stranger to stay away. Dogs who are uncomfortable with people can also try to run away or hide to get away from the person.
But just because your dog isn’t lunging or trying to escape doesn’t mean they are OK. A stiff body, yawning, lip licking, and hard eyes are all indications that your dog might not be comfortable engaging.
Building Confidence Around Strangers
For dogs who are uncomfortable near people, it’s helpful to do the training in an area that’s near people but at a distance far enough where they feel safe. This may mean being a foot or two away from people or only having the sight of someone down the block. Expose your dog to the sights and sounds of strangers but stay at a threshold where they are comfortable and not reacting, and if people approach you ask them to ignore your dog.
You should also pair the presence of the stranger with rewards like small pieces of high value treats. Through desensitization and counterconditioning you’ll be able to help your dog make positive associations to the presence of people and slowly shift your dog’s feelings and behavior around meeting new people.
Real World Training Opportunities
Real-world situations can help your dog become more confident and comfortable when around strangers. If your dog trains best with a lot of space, you can practice in a park where you can see people in the distance but you’re still far enough away from them.
Once you’re confident your dog is focused on you and can ignore other people, you can begin bringing your dog to pet friendly businesses. Start during quieter times of day when your dog is less likely to be bothered.
You can also create real-world training opportunities in your home when you have friends or family visiting or when you have someone do repair work in the home. In these instances, have your dog leashed and praise them for any calm behavior. The goal here is to reward your dog for being disinterested in the visitor, rather than praise them for forced interactions. This helps to shift a dog’s emotional perspective and build positive associations with strangers coming into your home.
As your dog is learning how to appropriately interact with people, especially if they are fearful or distrustful, you’ll want to closely manage all interactions your dog has with people. Keep your dog leashed when out or when people are coming into your home. Always give your dog opportunities to opt-out of the training if they become overwhelmed or over stimulated.
If you know you won’t be able to give your dog your full attention or you think a public interaction will be too much for your dog, it’s perfectly find to leave them home. Additionally, If the situation is too stressful in your home you can crate your dog or secure them in another area of your home. For a distraction, you can give your dog a food-stuffed toy or interactive game in their safe area while an unfamiliar person is at your home.
You are your dog’s advocate. If you have a dog who isn’t excited about meeting new people, it’s always OK to tell strangers your dog doesn’t want to say hello. This can have a positive training impact as it helps build your dog’s trust in you to not allow other people to make them uncomfortable.
Don’t Punish Your Dog
Working with your dog through their fear or discomfort around people can be stressful and overwhelming. It’s important not to punish your dog during training or for any their reactions to people. Punishing behaviors like barking or growling won’t change how your dog feels about the person who triggered the reaction. Instead, it’s just suppressing the behavior. This can be dangerous as you suppress early warning signs of discomfort, it can lead to an escalation of the unwanted behavior. For example, if you punish a dog for growling, it increases the likelihood they might bite the next time.
If you’re struggling with supporting a dog who is shy, anxious, or otherwise uncomfortable around strangers, it’s always a good idea get support from a qualified and experienced trainer in your local area. If your dog has ever bitten someone or you are concerned your dog could bite someone, start working with a trainer first instead of trying to work on these behaviors on your own.
A trainer will be able to help evaluate your dog’s behavior, and if necessary support you with muzzle training for everyone’s safety. Make sure to find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement training techniques who will be able to support you with helping your dog to make those positive connections when engaging with people.