It’s a familiar situation for a lot of dog owners. A guest drops by, and your dog freaks out. Your pet might start barking, backing away, hiding, or showing other signs of fear and anxiety.
While lots of dogs bark at the postman, it’s not normal for your dog to be afraid of any and all new people. It restricts your lifestyle, makes guests nervous, and is harmful and upsetting for your dog.
So, what can you do? Can you teach your dog to feel comfortable and calm around new people?
You can, and let’s find out how.
Why Is Your Dog Nervous?
Firstly, you need to establish why your dog is nervous around new people. Well-trained, well-socialized dogs should be comfortable and relaxed in most situations, so it could simply be a case of not having socialized your dog enough as a puppy.
Your dog could have had a bad experience with a guest as a puppy, bad enough to make them nervous whenever new people come around. During the developmental stage, bad experiences or serious frights can have an impact on your dog’s future perception of certain situations.
If you’ve adopted a dog, it’s possible that there’s some sort of trauma in your dog’s history, particularly if they seem almost aggressive towards new people. Some dogs may also be particularly nervous around certain people - for example, your dog may be less comfortable around men than women.
If your dog’s fear of strangers is deeply-rooted and possibly connected to earlier trauma, it’s a good idea to visit a vet and possibly an animal behaviouralist, to establish how you should proceed without further traumatizing your dog.
The best way to make your dog feel comfortable around strangers is to start at a young age. The socialization window for dogs is between 3 and 12 weeks, sometimes stretching to 16 weeks. During that time, your dog is learning who is part of their group, and they’ll be able to enjoy new experiences without fear.
However, any nasty experiences your puppy has during that time will stay with them. Here are a few tips to socialize your puppy:
Introduce your puppy to as many new experiences as possible (doggy daycare, public transport, busy places, etc)
Invite guests to your home. Introduce them to your pup.
If possible, take your puppy to other people’s homes.
Take your puppy to parks, public spaces, and so on.
Introduce your puppy to other friendly dogs and animals.
Teach your puppy basic obedience skills (sit, stay, leave, come, and so on).
Stay calm during new experiences, Your puppy will take their cues from you.
Of course, you may not have the opportunity to socialize your dog as a puppy. You may also have an exceptionally shy dog that needs a bit of extra training. What next?
What You’ll Need
If you decide that your dog needs extra help with feeling comfortable around strangers, you’ll need to prepare. Here’s what you’ll need.
Don’t underestimate the importance of patience. Training your dog to feel comfortable around something that scares them can take time. There may be lapses and slip-ups, but stay calm and be patient with your dog.
Consistency is key with all types of dog training, especially with something like socialization. Develop a routine, and stick to it whenever guests come over.
Don’t invite nervous guests to socialize with your dog. This may sound cruel, but a guest who’s afraid of dogs will only make the situation worse. Make sure your guests know how to approach dogs. They should also know to follow your instructions and stay calm.
A calm demeanor
You should have a good relationship with your dog, and they’ll be calmer if they see you staying calm. Don’t panic and don’t be nervous.
Never use anything other than positive reinforcement. Shouting, punishing, or getting angry with your dog for being nervous around guests is going to make the situation twice as bad. Not only will your dog be even more frightened next time, but they’ll also have lost trust in you. Getting angry at your dog will only make the next interaction worse.
How To Make Your Dog Feel Comfortable Around Strangers
You may need to make changes in how you invite guests into the house. How you introduce your dog to strangers might change depending on your dog’s personality and how afraid they are. Let’s take a look at a step-by-step guide to introducing your dog to new people.
Keep your dog separate while the guest comes in.
When your guest first enters your home, put your dog in a back room or possibly even outside. Let your guest settle, so when your dog sees them, they’re already inside and settled. It’s important to supervise all of these interactions.
Let your dog greet the guest in their own time.
Let your dog into the room with the guest. It’s a good idea to open the door a crack and let your dog come in if they want.
Reward good behavior with a treat.
If your dog is calm and well-behaved, reward them with a treat. Stay relaxed, and just focus on your guest. Your dog should pick up on your calm demeanor and hopefully start to relax.
Give the guest a treat to give to your dog.
At this point, your dog may want to investigate the guest. If your dog seems interested in making friends, give your guest a treat to give to your dog. However, if your dog wants to keep their distance, that’s fine too.
Don’t allow your guest to touch, approach, or make eye contact with your dog until the dog is ready.
It’s important to let your dog do things on their own timetable. Make sure your guest knows how to handle nervous dogs. This involves not going to touch the dog or even making eye contact with the dog. Staying relaxed is important. If your dog approaches the guest with a wagging tail, the ice is broken!
Of course, if your dog is aggressive towards guests, or if their fear doesn’t start to recede with patient and consistent training, you may want to consult an animal behaviorist for further advice.