Is your dog afraid of people? Afraid of men, or maybe men with beards? How about men or anyone wearing hats? Experience with people is often neglected with young dogs. Maybe they grew up in isolation at a breeder’s, or at a previous owner before they were rescued. We often wonder why dogs have issues with strangers, but they may truly lack any experience and have had to deal with strangers and the situations they present, completely on their own without guidance. Often they are thrust into extreme situations for them to deal with causing great stress and anxiety. This can imprint a negative response that will always be their way of dealing with it. We don’t see it often because we think as humans and not dogs.
There perspective is very different and they may not have had contact, or even eye contact from people in a positive way to learn what it means. Funny thing is, most people likely had practice and were introduced to strangers gradually; family and friends first, at home initially, it is just something you don’t remember and assume occurs without effort.
So once dogs are thrust into close contact with people in strange and stressful environments and also have nothing in their experience to make a valid judgments, they become stressed. Often these same dogs have not been introduced gradually to any aspects of their environment and therefore naturally respond to these natural fear flooding experiences with fear. A dog that has been desensitized to many situations and sounds, feelings, touch, etc. in their environment gradually as the grow, can deal with new circumstances properly. They have experience with stress and a process they can use to reduce it through curiosity and investigation even when there is stress and concern.
Removing fear of anything requires you to work where the fear is only minor, before it becomes intense, so generally you have to setup controlled circumstances to work with it. Once a dog is in fear mode, demonstrating fight or flight responses, it is tough to do anything and providing rewards only rewards the fear if they will take them at all. Dogs only have two ways out of fear, fight or flight. Taking treats while under severe stress is not likely, except under lower levels of stress as fear shuts down hunger and digestion in favor of devoting all energy to fight or flight.
I also don’t like what is called fear flooding. This is okay for real life with a confident dog, or in situations which cause minor levels of stress with normal dogs. It is normal in life for us and our dogs, but it is not something that just happens. The more skill we were given with this as young children the better we are at it. This is true of dogs too.
Puppies flooded with fear often become fear aggressive dogs. Fear flooding is one of Cesar Milan’s main techniques and he gets a lot of criticism from experts for it. Fear flooding is normal fact of life and occurs when you go into new situations, just as in dogs. If a dog has the tools to deal with stress, it becomes a normal way of dealing with the unknown and does not result in fear. This is true of people too..
Unfortunately fearful dogs often become more fearful and afraid of everything, including you, if fear flooding is used on anything that causes anything other than very minor stress. They often give up and this does happen a lot on Cesar’s show, but he often portrays this as the fear being gone, which is in my opinion rarely the case in a truly fearful dog. Some of the dogs he claims are over their fear are just exhausted. With him, he can deal with the consequences and he does know how to read dogs very well. Inexperienced dog owners are in danger of the fear aggression lashing out at them or others, especially since the fight in the fight or flight response is their only choice.
The other thing that happens is dogs become sedate and unwilling to look at the world and would rather do nothing and try nothing than put themselves in new circumstances. Again this is something I never want in my dogs or any dogs I help train for that matter. Dogs are meant to have fun with you and have a great relationship with you and this approach will not do that. They may be closer, still out of fear, but the relationship is tarnished and many circumstances can arise where you will see fear aggression directed towards you instead.
Fear of strangers is a situation that can easily be setup to desensitize dogs. Sometimes this fear is specific, so the more you know about it the better. It can be specific to children, or men, or maybe men with beards, or men wearing hats. Often these latter fears are because they cannot read the faces of these strangers well. Small dogs may have more fear, as they have less exposure to faces of people to make judgments and become confident with reading people. Young dogs have very little experience reading people and may have had even less depending on their early environment. Social isolation is a big problem especially early on as that is when the tools to deal with stress are developed in both people and dogs.
A little experimentation may be required in order to solve a problem such as this. You need to start with people you know your dog is worried about or is likely to be worried about, coming to places where your dog is very comfortable to start with. Keep them far apart to start, have them move closer to where you just see the start of the fear. (ears back, leaning away, stepping away maybe). If they step away and hide behind you they are already afraid (flight).
Then you also need something your dog really likes, the more it is the case the better. They cannot go fully into their fear or you will be rewarding fear. You need to be at the edge, where it just starts, then you can ask them to do things for their treats that they really, really love (toys can be used if they have something they really love). It does not need to be complex things either and in fact simple things are better. For garbage trucks in the alley, is used playing with toys, as they love that and se just kept getting closer to the trucks every week. This is the same for people.
Once you see they are more interested in the food and getting comfortable, you can start to slowly get closer to the cause of their fear. Do not go too quickly either. They need to get comfortable and relax first. If you push them too fast, they may become afraid of the reward you are providing even. If they look at the stranger, reward them when they look back at you. Also, always make eye contact when they look at you. Go back to playing immediately. If you need to get farther away, because fear became more overwhelming faster than you thought, have the person move away (a visual signal to move away, or come closer helps this process). Start again.
Have the person ignore them always to start with. No eye contact even. You can add these things back to the routine after they are more comfortable.
This is known as desensitization with counter conditioning, so you ask for sits and downs, or maybe fun tricks if you have them to try. The dog must have fun, but sense the possible problem. Too much and the fear overwhelms them. While doing this, you pretty much also need to avoid the extreme fear situations, or they can never get over them.
So the more they have fun around strangers, the more they will learn to ignore who they are and what they are doing. Eventually strangers an stand right beside them and they won’t care. This process is not about strangers feeding your dog and may or may not ever go there. It is safer and better if they are just there and do nothing forward to the dog. Food and feeding a fearful dog can backfire and can cause aggression and fear once the food is gone and they find themselves closer than they would like to be.
At some point when the dog is more relaxed, they can have food and even eat. Watch for signs of aggression and end any lessons where you see the dogs pushing or getting aggressive for food. No biting, no barking to start (this can be just fine later when fear is not an issue). If the dog goes to them, great, maybe have them drop some food for them. Don’t have them lean over though, just drop it. As they get more comfortable they will come closer to the person to get the food. I generally ignore the dog when eating around a fearful, or more aggressive dog. I let them come to me, but only as close as I can see they are not too afraid. That is where I will place food. Once I see them calming, I will allow them to come closer for he food and even let them take it from me. If I see aggression for the food, in most cases I will back off and suggest to others to back off. There is no need for strangers to provide food if it creates trouble.
After they are comfortable with people hanging out nearby (add more than 1 person too), then take it on the road to places that also cause some anxiety. You need to find other people in other places too, because fearful dogs do not generalize well to other situations. Confident dogs generalize their comfort much easier. Take this one step at a time, more familiar places first. This might mean the sidewalk in front of your house, or even the front yard initially, Then the neighbors and then parks nearby. Then maybe a dog show or something where knowledgeable people might be found (I use dog agility trials for this).
Once the people get close enough and the dog is more comfortable with them there in a variety of circumstances and you are comfortable with the fact that your dog is not afraid, they could present food. I would not allow just any stranger to do this in most circumstances and may not allow it at all if a dog is not capable of being gentle when they take food. No fear or aggression should be present, so it is up to yo to recognize this and stop. For some dogs it is just easier not to allow strangers, friends or even family feed a dog that may not be able to control its behavior well enough to do so.
One of my basic rules with others feeding my dogs is I don’t allow them to lean over them, I may have them sit if the dog has enough self control and is not likely to jump on them.. This is better even than kneeling as it is much less intimidating to a dog, however, I would not allow any of this though if I thought the dog was at all aggressive. Kneeling, or standing straight up while offering food, is safer in many ways, as it does allow for more flexibility in the event of fear. In the case of aggressive dogs, experience with feeding and the behavioral responses associated with fear and aggression is required.
AS for timid, but not aggressive dogs, I also do not let any person reach out to give the food to the dog, at least not until a dog shows absolutely no sign of fear. Throw it lightly near them, not at them (if they move away don’t throw it so close to them). Make them come a little closer to get it. If they won’t just throw the food a little farther so they don’t have to come as close to get it, but preferably they are already close getting food from you for doing tricks, or getting toys playing close to the stranger and comfortable being near the stranger. We don’t get to this phase without success in the previous phase. Only then the stranger can present the food.
When I am trying to get close to a fearful dog I also just sit on the ground and eat and let them come to me, the stranger. I like using red licorice, or maybe cooked chicken. Something we can both eat that they will like. I have had little silky Terriers become my friend and climb on me to get food in 2, or three sittings when no one had ever been able to before and in fact they were more afraid of the owner, who always ignored them and stepped on them regularly. This is because I never extended my hands out, I just ate, then gave them a taste of the food near me without reaching for them. Reaching and leaning over them is scary, they think you are trying to grab them and become fearful.
Depending on what I am working on and hte conditions met above, I might try food delivery by knowledgeable strangers at dog activity events I attend. Asking strangers to offer food for you is easier there often (word of caution though, stay away from entrances and exits to rings). Ask nicely, maybe even before bringing your dog out if people are hanging about. Often outside the buildings they compete in is fine. I once was outside the front doors of the largest conformation show in Canada having people visit my young pups as they came and went from the show. This is only something you would try if there is no sign of aggression toward strangers. Again I see no need to take every dog to the level of receiving food from strangers. Family maybe, friends maybe, but strangers? Only in some cases, but is not something I consider necessary for every dog to do.
Eventually you can stand in a parade, strangers and noise everywhere, or be in a stadium with 10,000 cheering people like Stevie Ray, or in the concourse, which is probably the most crowded place I have ever hung out with a dog. With Dylan, I would start to have them raise their arms and lean over her ONLY after she was completely comfortable with them standing beside her and giving food without and forward motion, or leaning over her. The more they try to get her attention, the greater her fear. Each step provokes a little incremental stress and concern, but not fear.
I desensitized my newest dogs to garbage truck pickup as this is loud and scary, for real, but now my pups can walk on sidewalks next to streets with semis and buses racing by, or Harley Davidson motorcycles without showing any fear. They both go right up to the garbage can being picked up and dropped right beside them now and look for the person that might be there. When I started Jimmi in particular would not leave the back step of my house, or ran to the back step when she heard the truck. Now she runs to the garbage cans.
Some of the difficulties you may have include the following. Staying away from fearful situations while training them to handle the stress of strangers without fear. Finding great and powerful rewards to use. The better they are the more a dog will work for them and the more they respond with excitement for the reward, overwhelming the stress they are aware of that is nearby. Recognizing when they start to get afraid, but before they become immersed in fear. This threshold is important as that is where you want to work. Too close, you have overwhelming fear and fight or flight. Not close enough and they are not even aware of the person, so there is no desensitization going on. Creating the controlled situation, where to go, who is a good choice as a person. Finally working patiently and carefully. Watching the behavior and changing what you do based on what you see.
Feel free to ask questions, this is harder to do without experience and easier for those of us that are very aware of behavior and what we cause to happen. This is a complex process and it is better to get it right throughout the process.