By Jeff Stallings
Folks sometimes hire me to help with dogs who feel threatened or frightened by strangers entering their homes. These dogs bark, growl, snap or otherwise display signs of fear-based aggression on encountering new people. Owners sometimes attempt to have guests hand the dog a treat, but find that this earnest attempt at establishing a human/canine friendship backfires. Why is that, and what’s a better alternative?
Dogs are emotion-driven animals with a highly developed aptitude for complex communication with humans and with other dogs. Because they are a social species that live in groups, this communication helps to maintain peace and defuse volatile situations. Over millennia, the dog’s capacity to read and react to humans has evolved well beyond the abilities of any other species on earth.
However, this capacity must be fully exercised in early puppyhood for dogs to feel entirely comfortable in our presence. Puppies who are intensively socialized will almost always learn the ins and outs of communication. But puppies who do not spend lots of quality time early on with a variety of humans can sometimes become fearful later on.
Dogs use gestures to clearly communicate when they are feeling threatened or stressed—ones they sometimes employ when strangers enter your home. If your dog barks, growls, snaps or otherwise shows stress via raised hackles, a lowered head, flattened ears or a slow tail wag, the last thing you want to do is further stress him by having your friend directly offer food. The problem with this strategy is that it forces an already-stressed animal to go outside his “safety zone” to retrieve the treat, increasing his internal conflict rather than decreasing his stress about the presence of this new person.
An alternative I often employ 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 he is free to NOT move closer to or meet the new guest. And I have seen it succeed spectacularly as part of a comprehensive strategy for in-home introductions. Here’s how it works:
Ideally, have the person and dog meet outside of your home, on a short walk, and have them toss the dog some treats, with no eye contact or other gestures. When the new person enters your home (let’s call him “Bob”), have him squat or kneed sideways to the dog, ignore your dog entirely; direct eye contact is threatening to dogs. With no fanfare, have Bob toss a small treat PAST your dog (“Sybil”) so that she has to retreat to eat it. Repeat five to eight times, making sure that Bob’s body movements tossing the treat are subtle and non-threatening. You can verbally and in real-time 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 the dog, so that she has to move forward 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. If the dog finally approaches your guest, he can stroke under her chin or on her chest, still with soft movements, quiet voice and little eye contact. If your dog does not willingly approach, end the game and have your guest leave.
This treat/retreat game is typically part of a guest-in-home protocol that might also include meeting outside on a walk; crating the dog until she calms down; and other strategies. I recommend that you work with a professional dog trainer who can help you customize a protocol for your specific situation and guide you through this process the first time.