Can Dog Training Help Dogs that are Aggressive Towards Strangers?
When dogs are afraid of strangers, they can bark, growl, and lunge just as well as cower and try to hide. They can act terrifying. It can be embarrassing. But there are ways to help our dogs with this fear based behavior.
Dog Stranger Danger can look like fear (Flight)
Sometimes a dog with stranger danger looks really scared. When meeting a new person your dog may cower, pull back, try to hide or run away. His weight may be shifted backwards, his body may be low to the ground. His ears may be flattened against his head. His tail might be lowered or even tucked tight between his legs. His eyes may look worried. He may even tremble.
Stranger Danger can look like aggression (Fight)
When your dog meets a new person, he may have his hackles up. He might growl or curl his lip. He might bark, lunge, snap, or even bite!
Dogs with stranger danger that look scared and ones that look aggressive, can be bite risks. But there are also more subtle signs that your dog is not comfortable with strangers.
Stranger Danger can even look like boredom
Your dog may yawn, lick his lips, scratch himself, sniff the ground, or sniff his own genitals. These can be normal dog behaviors that don’t mean a lot. Dogs can yawn because their tired. And we all know that dogs love to sniff. But these can also be displacement signals where a dog is trying to let us know that he isn’t comfortable.
There are two other “F’s” that dogs may do when frightened – freeze or fidget. But they are outside of the scope of this article.
What Causes Stranger Danger?
Almost everyone seems to assume that stranger danger is caused by trauma or abuse. This is especially true when we adopt a pet from an animal shelter. “He’s scared so someone abused him.” That can be true, but there are also other potential causes.
- Genetics often gets little credit for why dogs do the things they do, yet may play a far bigger role. Dogs with fearful parents seem to be more likely to create fearful pups.
- Lack of socialization can contribute to problems. There is a critical period in puppyhood where they can learn all about the world and develop positive associations. Dogs with little socialization or those in kennels during that time period, may show more fear of novelty.
- Trauma and abuse can create fear of strangers. But I’m often surprised at how many dogs from horrific dog fighting backgrounds can go on to be happy, mentally healthy, and well adjusted dogs!
- Unknown. Sometimes you have a mentally health sire and dam, with a puppy who is socialized, raised properly, and has never been abused or been through trauma…but they still are afraid of strangers.
In sum, we often don’t know why. And my dog Doodah who has fear of strangers, has a documented history of abuse, but I’m still not convinced about which came first. Maybe he was aggressive and that’s why someone hit him.
The good news is…
We don’t need to know why they are fearful of strangers!
In every case, treatment would be the same!
Quick Tips to Help Your Dog with Stranger Danger
Keep your dog feeling safe by giving him choices
It’s really important to keep your dog feeling safe. If he’s not comfortable with a person he doesn’t know, don’t make him greet the person. And if the person wants to greet your dog, don’t let them. So many people think they are so good with animals that their presence will calm a frightened animal. But your dog will be most comfortable if you let him make the choice of approaching someone or not.
If you’re at home, make sure your dog has a safe space he can go to. That might be a crate in another room or it may be in the same room but at a comfortable distance.
Coach your friends
When friends come over to visit ask them to ignore the dog. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t approach and don’t try to pet him. If your dog approaches in order to sniff, ask the friend to not pet the dog. Sometimes dogs are just starting to get up some courage and then a hand is moving towards them and that can be terrifying.
Dont ask your friends to feed the dog
Your friends should not try to feed the dog. You may see some people recommending this to help the dog see that the stranger is friendly or a source of good things. But it can often set the dog up for an internal conflict — he wants the treat but is afraid. If the stranger danger is mild, the friend can drop treats on the floor while avoiding eye contact. But in general, strangers delivering treats should only be done in a methodical manner, one step at a time.
Muzzle train your dog
If you’re afraid your dog might bite someone, ger your dog muzzle trained! Muzzles might look scary but they can keep not only other people safe, but you and your dog safe as well. Dogs can learn to LOVE wearing their muzzle because it means great things are going to happen. You can find lots of wonderful information at the Muzzle Up! Project.
Stranger Danger can be treated using systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DSCC). The desensitization exposes your dog to small doses of the fearful thing (strangers) so that he’s not overwhelmed. Counter conditioning then helps your dog create positive associations with the stranger by using delicious treats that your dog loves. Over time, your dog can learn that seeing a stranger means delicious treats are coming.
Serious Help for Severe Stranger Danger
Dogs that have bitten
If your dog has bitten, especially if he’s broken skin, this is not a do-it-yourself job. It’s important to find capable professional help as soon as possible.
Medications are not magic but for a dog with severe stranger danger, getting medications on board may help behavior modification work more easily (or at all!) Many medications that are used to treat stranger danger are the same kind of medications that are used in people who have anxiety or problems with depression. In the Sacramento region, we are lucky to have two Veterinary Behaviorists in the area – Dr Leslie Cooper at Loomis Basin and Dr Melissa Bain at UC Davis.
Stranger Danger can be a very serious problem. Your dog may be suffering. And if the dog is frightened enough, he may bite. There are many ways to help dogs with serious stranger danger and you should find a certified force-free professional in your area.
If you need a dog trainer for your fearful dog in Sacramento, Placer, or El Dorado Counties, including Roseville and Lincoln, contact me for a free 15 minute phone consultation and let’s talk about your dog’s stranger danger.