Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Pandemic Problems: Is My Dog Afraid of Strangers Now?

I've received about a dozen calls in the last few days from owners concerned about their dogs' reactions to strangers.  Now that shelter in place restrictions are relaxing here in the San Francisco Bay Area, dogs are seeing more people on their walks.  People are starting to have friends and family over to their homes and in their yards to visit. Dogs are noticing all of this.  Even dogs that were well-socialized before the pandemic had us all housebound seem to be a bit more vigilant when meeting new people both at home and out in public.  And for dogs acquired during the shelter in place restrictions all of these new people getting close to them is a potential cause for concern. And the pandemic puppies?  They seem to fall into two groups, those that are timid with these new people and those that are so desperate for attention from the new people they see that they are jumping up, barking, spinning, and pulling on leash to get to them! Whether your dog is excited to meet all of these new people or wary about it, both are issues you will want to address right away as neither problem will go away on its own.

For the dogs who are super-excited to be meeting new people, you will want to embrace their joy (I mean, really, isn't it nice to see people again?!) but make sure it isn't infringing on other people's rights not to be jumped up on or mouthed by your dog.  While I agree it would be nice if every dog sat down when they wanted to meet someone new, this just isn't always possible.  It IS reasonable, however, to expect that even if they aren't sitting, they are doing something that makes greeting them a positive experience for everyone involved. If you are out on a walk, acknowledge to your dog how nice it would be to meet that new person.  Stand on your dog's leash so that all he can do is sit or stand in place for greeting.  Encourage people to pet your dog under his chin and along the front of his chest rather than ruffling his ears, patting his head, rubbing his back, or worse yet leaning in for a kiss or hug.  That under chin stroke or chest rub is perceived as non-threatening by your dog and is less likely to result in your dog trying to jump up to reach that outstretched hand; the hand is already low and aimed at a neutral spot on your dog's body.  If you know your dog will still try to lick that approaching hand, simply warn the new person that they might get their hand licked. That allows them to decide what they want to do rather than have them behave in a way that leaves your dog wondering what they did wrong!  Licking someone's hand is not bad, it's just not for everyone.  And if your dog mouths people's hands in greeting, be ready to have your dog's mouth busy doing something else; you can have treats to reward your dog or carry a toy for them to hold in their mouth during greetings. The last thing you want is someone to misinterpret your dog using its mouth to  hold their hand as something aggressive.

For visitors to your home, remember you can still use your leash!  Have your dog leashed for arrivals of guests so that they continue to display good behavior and get reinforced for being calm.  You can coach your guests to ignore the dog until he is calm and then reward him for it.  Tossing a toy, or even tossing treats for a dog to chase as they move away from guests works well. For outdoor parties, be ready to have your dog engaged in an activity that will keep them busy for a while.  As long as your dog isn't a resource guarder, you can give them a bone or a chew to work on while people visit with each other.  If you have a puppy or adolescent dog, it might be time for a nap in their crate after the first rush of greetings is over.  And if your guests include children, you must supervise.  Children who run will get chased, so you want to be right there to make sure that doesn't happen.  Let children work with your dog on their basic behaviors and give your dog treats, all while being supervised. This will help your dog view kids in a more favorable light.

For dogs who are wary or timid about meeting new people, don't force them.  Rather, try to make those experiences as positive as possible.  Make sure that you aren't making it worse by panicking and racing across the street away from approaching humans!  Don't death grip your leash or ball it up so that your dog is struggling to walk on the shortest leash ever.  Instead, keep your leash firmly in your grasp, but left loose and drapey so that you're not cuing your dog to react.  Happily acknowledge the people you see.  Keep your dog at a distance that you know keeps them alert and comfortable.  You can use treats to reinforce calm behavior, but don't use treats to distract them or bribe them to look at you.  Rather, give them treats when they see new people and stop giving treats when those people are out of view. If your dog is too anxious to take treats on walks, that's okay too.  Use your voice and your attention to reward them for calm behavior until they relax to the point where they are able to take treats on your walks. Adjust your walking route or the time of day you walk to help deal with the number of new people your dog will be seeing.  As they get better with seeing  a few new people, you can again alter your walking time or route so that you see a few more new people and so on.  You can also take a lawn chair to the park and sit with your dog there, handing out treats and/or attention for calm behavior when they see strangers in and around the park. For visitors to your home, remind folks to ignore your dog. Let your dog decide when and if they want to interact with that new person. It's perfectly fine if your dog chooses not to interact with your guests at all.  It isn't a requirement that dogs like everyone that you like; they just can't behave aggressively!  If your dog just can't settle down in the presence of guests in your home, even when he is being ignored, try redirection.  Offer your dog the opportunity to go in another room or into their crate to chew on a bone.  A lot of timid dogs are relieved to know that they don't have to stay and hang out with people they don't know.  If your dog knows he has a safe haven, he can choose that himself when overwhelmed.  And if your dog always gets something fun to chew on in his safe place when guests are in your home visiting, he will start viewing them a bit more positively.

The bottom line is this:  we don't like everyone we meet, and there is no reason to expect our dogs to do something we can't even do ourselves. It is reasonable, however, to expect our dogs to behave properly around new people.  No jumping. No mouthing.  No lunging. No incessant barking.  Observe your dogs.  Are there particular people who trigger their anxiety? Is it kids?  Elderly people with walkers or canes?  Teenagers on skateboards?  People in sunhats?  If you can narrow down your dogs' triggers, you will be better able to help them to see those things as not threatening in the future.

I know that a lot of dog owners think of stranger anxiety or over-exuberance with strangers as being the result of a lack of socialization or training.  While that may sometimes be true, it isn't always the case.  Some dogs are just wired to be timid; it's their personality, it's in their DNA.  Much as with shy or introverted people, this isn't a bad thing, it's just a personality thing.  We all make accommodations for our introverted friends and family.  Let's do the same for less than social dogs.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

These three all approach strangers differently.  Ozzie is aloof.  He doesn't really want to meet new people; sometimes he doesn't even want to engage people he knows!  He is allowed to be an introvert.  Westley is extremely social.  He treats everyone like they are his best friend in the whole world.  He jumps and practically turns himself inside out showing strangers just how happy he is to meet them.  We stand on his leash and encourage controlled greetings.  Desi is a social butterfly too, but he is gentle, although still persistent. He, too, assumes everyone is his friend and wants to meet him (and he's usually right!). He will nuzzle your hand, lean in for love and be completely forgiving if someone forgets good dog etiquette and ruffles his ears or pats his head hard.  That's why he's perfect for pet assisted therapy.  I appreciate each of these dogs, introvert or extrovert,  as they all have something to teach me and a lot of love to give.

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