Reduce Your dog’s fear of Strangers in one simple step

Working with dogs who are afraid of humans can be tough. Sometimes we may find our dogs are aggressive towards unfamiliar people, barking and lunging at them. Sometimes our dogs may well have bitten guests, groomers or vets.

Other times, our dogs may well be very fearful around new people, be they people we meet on walks or people who come to the home. Perhaps they try to make some space, lick their lips or cower away from anyone who approaches them.

If we work in kennels or a shelter, we may find that certain dogs are aggressive or fearful with employees, making it hard to care for them.

Even if our dogs are simply more agitated than they are normally around visitors, perhaps approaching them or fussing them for attention, it can also be a sign that our dogs feel uncomfortable with strangers. Just because they seem really friendly, it doesn’t mean that a dog who is jumping up or harassing guests is actually any more comfortable with unfamiliar people than a dog who is growling or flinching.

We may well have labelled our dogs ‘reactive’, for those sensitive, shy souls who we hope wouldn’t ever bite but who still make a lot of noise around people they don’t know.

The most straightforward programme to work with dogs who are afraid of strangers will include two compulsory elements and a third option for those who are really struggling to cope.

The first compulsory element will be management. We need to make sure our dogs aren’t habitually running into people when they’re unable to cope, simply because most of the time, they end up practising the behaviour over and over. Management means making sure we don’t put our dogs in situations they can’t cope with. It means avoiding busy places like cafés and shopping centres until we’ve put in a lot of ground work and it means not hoping for the best. It might mean setting up a safe place in our home, in our garden or making sure our dog is safe on walks. I’m managing my stranger danger dog right now: we’re taking early morning walks, using doors and making sure the neighbouring gardens are empty when we’re outside. Management may be all you need.

But management doesn’t really treat behaviour. For that, we need a behaviour modification programme. In fact, I said this was a compulsory element and I’ll correct that to say that, if I’ve got a dog in a sensitive fear period, if I’ve got a dog who’s unwell, if I’ve got a dog who is old, or if I really haven’t got the time to dedicate to training, then management may take all the weight. However, management for the rest of a young, healthy dog’s life is not just restricting them to the smallest life they could possibly live, it may also be depriving them of future friends, of contact and of being a functional member of a social species. Management will undoubtedly fail in the course of a young dog’s life, which is why, for most dogs, it’s just not enough.

Behaviour modification programmes may have many elements, but the main retraining will fall into two main approaches: changing the dog’s emotional response to unfamiliar people and giving them some skills to help cope. This is where, depending on the level of your dog’s problems, a well-qualified trainer or behaviour consultant can really help. Not only will they give you the benefit of many years’ tips and tricks, but they should also make the whole process more efficient and also more effective. That, in turn, improves the welfare of your dog. It doesn’t really need saying that we need to do this thoughtfully, kindly and systematically. Flooding a dog by overwhelming them until they shut down, or suppressing both emotional expression and behaviour through punishment such as choke chains, prong collars, shock collars or slip leads are methods that are doomed to failure. Not only that, they fail to take into account the dog’s view of the world and these approaches dismiss their feelings recklessly and insensitively. What you do with your dog to help them cope is very much dependent on what works for both the dog and their guardian. That said, no matter the dog and no matter the guardian, punishment and flooding are both methods that no good trainer will need to use. There are plenty of safe, reliable and efficient methods that don’t cause harm to our dogs and risk the health of people they come into contact with.

Medication may be the third strand of a programme, dependent on your dog’s needs and your vet’s recommendations. There are also many nutraceuticals and herbal remedies that may help your dog cope if they are anxious around strangers. My dog Lidy is not generally an anxious dog, so the vet has never felt that anti-anxiety medication would be necessary, although she does have moments when she’s afraid. That’s normal and adaptive. She didn’t understand all the cheering she could hear following the goals in football matches, and she doesn’t understand thunder. But generally speaking, she wouldn’t benefit from medications to lower her anxiety. Feeling afraid or uncertain following various changes in the environment is normal and adaptive if we’re not sure what’s going on and it scares us. When our dog does not adapt to scary stuff, or when they have an extremely strong reaction to things in the world around them, panicking even when they can’t see, hear or smell things they’re afraid of – those would be times that seeing a veterinarian would be a sensible precaution. In part, this is not least because noise phobias can be related to underlying musculoskeletal pain, and it may be that, especially if your dog’s fears have got worse gradually over a period of time, or if they suddenly changed, then a health check is always vital.

One thing that can be really difficult is when we need to interact with people. Lidy has mastered the fine art of coping with people who don’t interact with her. She’s watched men with diggers. She’s come across picnickers in the forest. She’s kept her beady eye on the people in the supermarket car park. We’re fine with people we don’t know. I protect her from their unwanted attentions, and absolutely everybody has been amazing about leaving her alone.

What is hard is moving from non-contact strangers to contact. It can be very hard for dogs to learn that people are not scary, and progress can be glacially slow. I worked with a lovely setter a couple of weeks ago, and it took two hours before the dog was really relaxed around me. And I’m a professional who keeps my hands to myself.

As you know, asking strangers to give your dog food can really backfire. If your dog approaches, your dog is drawn into the space of someone they perhaps feel uncomfortable with, and when the food runs out or the energy changes, you may find that your dog reverts to aggressive, fearful or reactive behaviour.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat and I have a couple of other protocols I designed myself so that I can approach dogs when I need to. I mean, when you’re in a shelter, needs must. Treat and Retreat is surprisingly easy and also insanely effective. However, I can’t ask people to play Treat and Retreat with my dog.

Lidy had a vet appointment just before we came away to make sure she’d had her wormer and to check her health. Can you imagine, in a very busy, noisy vet surgery asking if your vet will play Treat and Retreat with your dog for ten minutes or so? You’d have to run them through what it was… then pass them some treats in the hopes that they could manage it… give them a bit of coaching to get it right… manage your dog… hope that the vet nurse didn’t walk in…

Yet there is one thing that you can use to help your dog cope with humans. An item that has a magical power, if you will.

Some dogs in shelter kennels have a really hard time with all the staff passing. One day, I noticed that one dog was an absolute lamb for the guy who brought him his dinner. The volunteer who turned up with the lead got the best reception. Yet this dog regularly threw himself, barking and lunging, at his kennel gates in a display so terrifying you’d have had no doubt it would have ended in a horrible way if he’d got out.

Turning up the next day with a bowl in my hand, I got the same reception. When I walked past later, I got the same response as the day before – a real telling off to move out of his space. Bowl = cute ‘yck-yck-yck’ behaviour and a lovely sit with a charming smile. Lead = delighted ‘whoo whoo’ behaviour and some joyful dancing. Nothing = barked at and lunged at from behind the gate. Eventually, because I took him out often, that lead transferred its magical power to me and the dog was as pleased to see me as he was with the lead.

The process by which this happened is not new. If you’re a trainer, you’ll know that this is Pavlov at work. Instead of bells, we’ve got bowls. It’s pure magic at work. However they feel about the food or the object, then that’s how they come to feel about the person holding it. It does work the other way, too, by the way. Not just for dogs either. Working with New Caledonian crows who are captured and then studied before being released, the researchers soon learned that the crows remembered who’d captured them and attacked them in the enclosure. It was so bad that they had to send novel researchers in who had no connection to the initial capture.

In shelters and in kennels, you can really use this power to help fearful or aggressive dogs out. When there are objects like these which have a magical power to bring out an emotional response, you can use them to make the shelter world routine and to help dogs (and cats) overcome their fears of strange kennel workers.

The word I use for these magical items is a talisman.

A talisman, an object thought to have magical powers, brings good luck. Our talisman in this example doesn’t bring good luck. It brings good science. Any object can take on magical powers to elicit responses from your dog. Bowls, harnesses and leads are common ones for us in the home. Some of us resort to saying W-A-L-K-I-E-S because even the word walk takes on magical properties. Actions like putting shoes on can cause immense excitement. Weird confession: the second time I go to the toilet in the day gets my dogs excited. Walks come next. Brushing my teeth makes my dogs excited. Brushing my hair makes my dogs excited. No, they’re not just excited by my occasional attempts at personal hygiene. Putting on my boots brings them to near delirium. Picking my keys up? Same. Putting my bag in the car? Utter ecstasy.

It’s not just objects like bowls, boots and leads. Nor is it just actions like picking up keys. Dogs respond to noises. Words like ‘walkies’ and tea can bring out the most giddy puppy in the most sedate pensioner. My alarm goes off at 6am and 6pm to give my boy Heston his medication. That invariably means Good Stuff At The Fridge. What do my dogs do when the alarm goes off? Get excited and run to the fridge. My mum’s been using the magical power of noise to announce herself to Lidy as she arrives, so that by the time she gets to the room, Lidy’s already dribbling with delight.

You think it’s just visual stuff, noises and words?

Don’t overlook the dog’s biggest and most powerful sense – smell. In shelters, it’s very easy to use smell to help dogs learn who new people are. Using zoopharmacognosy scents or even pairing up items of worn clothing from kennel workers can be one way to link smell with food or walks. One of my clients had adopted a sweet little girl who was very dog-aggressive. Unfortunately, her daughter was coming to live with her and she had a dog. We thought things would be okay, but to shorten the odds, we paired up the other dog’s bedding with food. The first day, we just put some treats inside a blanket that we’d wiped over the other dog. The next, a blanket we’d wiped over the other dog’s feet and interesting bits. If you don’t know what’s an interesting bit to a dog, pick off bits that’d normally make us cringe. Then we had a blanket the dog had slept on for an hour. Next, a blanket he’d slept on for the afternoon… you get the picture. When the dog finally arrived, we kept them separate for a few days, then we set up a meet and greet that was very carefully staged using walks and neutral spaces. When we came to introduce the dogs, she already knew all there was to smell about him, and she also knew that the smell of him meant fresh roasted chicken. Sure, we did a bit of work at a distance and we continued to take it easy, but pairing up smells with good stuff can be an amazing way to help your dog progress.

Even people can be a talisman. If your dog associates the presence of another person (or even of you!) with good stuff, then you can use them as a talisman to predict the arrival of good stuff, but also to predict safety and how events will unfold.

A talisman can be a word, then. It can be a smell. It can be a sound. It can be an object. It means, ‘when this thing is present, good stuff happens.’

It is a way for your dog to know that, in the presence of that magical item, it’s nothing but good stuff. It’s reliable. It’s predictable. It leads to more good stuff. I also use mats very often for exactly this. The mat comes out and good stuff will happen.

What you want is a full ‘whoo hoo!’ to whatever object you choose. Ironically, you can do this with virtually any neutral item. I get a whoo hoo when we see the muzzle. What you want, though, is a talisman that you can pass to the other person. Whoever carries the thing has the magical power.

I use a paté pot with treats and paté in it. Whoever holds the paté pot is magical. When I took Lidy in for her wormer, the vet was holding the paté pot. Lidy didn’t lunge. She didn’t growl or freeze. No hackles went up. No tail went between her legs. She trotted up to the vet, sat at her feet and was A Very Good Girl.

Aww, how lovely, you’re thinking. Surely this Lidy that she is describing had some mild worries about people. Not so. Lidy is more than capable of some very frightening behaviour.

Now when we have all the time, it’s great to take it. My mum has gradually been getting to know Lidy for a few minutes a day. When the Mother is here, nothing but good stuff happens. Meals, walks, snacks. She announces her presence so Lidy isn’t taken by surprise. And Lidy chose to approach her for cuddles. Don’t get me wrong: we’re not up to the point where I’ll be letting Lidy off-lead just yet, or hoping she’ll cope in moments of tension. This stuff works and it is just fine.

But I don’t have 7 days to go live in my vet’s house and ask her to do these things with the dog. So passing her the magical talisman meant that – just for that short period of time – the vet had a magical charm. Of course, I’m still relying on management (Lidy had two leads on and she was muzzled) and modification (I’ve spent a lot of time charging that paté pot let me tell you!). But, for the five minutes in the surgery, the presence of the paté pot meant that good stuff was assured.

Anything can become a talisman. In fact, you can make use of the super powers of having several work together. It needn’t even mean that the stranger is going to give out food. It simply means that the stranger is safe. It’s a transferable icon that means there is nothing to worry about and predictable things will unroll. Our paté pot is easy. It means paté. But we can also ask people to use words or ask for specific behaviours. When unfamiliar humans can ask for a behaviour like ‘spin’ and the dog knows it will lead to predictable results – the world really is your oyster.

Some final thoughts about the object you choose. The first is that it should be portable and fairly small so you can take it with you and your dog will know what is about to happen. It should also be unusual. You can of course hand a dog bowl over to your vet although it may be confusing – eating from bowls tends to happen in predictable places. Our paté pot comes out at regular intervals. On walks. In car parks. Just for fun. It’s small. It’s portable. It is very well charged. By that, I mean that paté and treats have come out of that pot at least a couple of times a day since as far back as I can remember. I don’t overdo it. And I try to keep lots of surprising things going on. Sometimes it might contain a piece of liver or kidney, a bit of black pudding, a piece of salmon, a bit of cheese. It’s always massively yummy human-grade food. I usually ask for a behaviour with it too, like hand touch.

Talismans come from the Arabic verb meaning ‘to complete’ or ‘to perform a rite’. A talisman that you use with your dog can be just the same. The talisman will be produced. The dog will be asked for a behaviour. The dog will do the behaviour. Treats will rain from the sky. Magic will happen.

I use a talisman frequently to make the world predictable for the dogs I work with. It helps them understand how the world operates. When we know what’s going on, we don’t have anything to be afraid of. It makes for confident dogs who understand the world.

I don’t place all my faith in them, and certainly not for long. But they form a central role in helping the dogs I work with move to interaction with humans when I need to do that a little more quickly than the dog would like. As I said… growling at the vet one visit, sitting for a wormer at the next. That’s not a speed I like to work at because it’s a speed that has been coerced unnaturally.

But if needs must… a talisman can work wonders. It can also, if used properly, form a bridge in building relationships of a longer duration.

Understanding the power of objects, sounds and smells can also help shelter managers ensure kennel safety. Imagine knowing that you could go into a block of kennels, say ‘Hi dogs!’ and be greeted by lots of wagging tails because they know that ‘hi dogs!’ always means snack time! It ensures safety for new kennel workers if they can pick up items with which dogs are familiar. They may not know you, but they know the routine. Certainly, having Lidy’s little green harness on display when I was away from the shelter meant anyone who approached her kennel with it must certainly be a friend because they were carrying the Magical Harness of Joy. Lidy knew what that harness meant and what it rituals it predicted. If you know much about Pavlovian conditioning, you’ll also know that it doesn’t take many pairings at all for an association to be formed. What you have then is a baton that can be passed from staff member to staff member and can be used to help dogs understand the world around them.

Unlike asking strangers to give your dogs food from their hand and risking a nasty bite when the dog realises they’re closer than they wanted to be, the talisman can be used at a distance, even behind fences or guards, or when your dog is on lead. Food, if that’s what the talisman predicts (mine do) can be given by the guardian or dropped and moved away from. Quite often, as I did with my vet, they might do the feeding (well, giving of wormers) and then I’ll move the dog away and feed them before returning again so that dogs who are startled by movement aren’t suddenly thrust into a situation where things were okay while the person was still but all bets are off when they move away. I’ve seen a few butt bites in those situations, so it’s well worth moving your dog away before the person starts to move.

Used well, Pavlovian conditioning can go a huge way to helping our dogs make sense of the world around them. A talisman tells the dog that they are safe and predictable events will occur. We try so hard to tell our dogs using words that they don’t understand. Why not use the objects that they have faith in to really make a difference?