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Help! My Dog Is Scared Of People!

This blog post addresses what to do if your furry friend is frightened of humans.
an outstretched hand reaching towards a scared dog wih the caption help my dog is scared of people

Canine anxiety can have many forms – some suffer from noise phobias and are frightened of loud noises, some don’t like being left home alone and some dogs are anxious on walks and worried by new people. This blog post addresses what to do if your dog is scared of people.

Contents of this article:

  1. Why is my dog scared of people?
  2. How to help a dog that’s frightened of humans
  3. The Treat and Retreat Game
  4. Help – my dog is scared of people!

Why is my dog scared of people?

In some cases, a shy or afraid dog may have a history of abuse or had a traumatic experience during a critical time of puppy development. A bad incident during a fear period in those early weeks of age can have lasting effects which can lead to serious fear-related behaviors as an adult.

In other cases, there is no clear reason for it, or they may simply have a genetic predisposition to being a nervous dog. Sometimes even the best socialized puppies can still grow up to have issues.

Regardless of what caused your pup’s anxiety and why your furry friend is frightened of humans, we have some great advice to help them become more relaxed around people!

Pet owners with a pooch that suffers from a lack of social skills often wonder what they can do to help Fido deal with it. The key to helping a shy pup is actually quite simple: be patient and never force them into a situation they don’t want to be in.

How to help a dog that’s frightened of humans.

Many make the mistake of trying to lure a scared dog to approach them with food to help them to overcome fears or they start feeding the dog when a stranger approaches.

This can actually backfire and make them more fearful, as Fido can put themselves in a position where they are conflicted in order to get the treat.

They find themselves too close for comfort, and once the food is gone they panic, resorting to practising the reactive behaviours we’d really rather they didn’t exhibit, such as barking, lunging, and maybe even nipping and biting.

If being around strangers scares your furry friend, there is a simple game you can play to help them become more comfortable.

The Treat and Retreat Game.

The Treat and Retreat game, devised by renowned canine expert and author Suzanne Clothier, is the perfect way to help reactive dogs become more relaxed.

I have regularly used this method with success with my own clients, and it’s a great way to help your pup feel calmer around new humans.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Without making your dog get too close, give the person some high value, special treats that you know your dog loves.
  2. Tell them to avoid making direct eye contact with your pup, as many find this threatening and you may find it triggers your dog. Your helper should do their best to ignore Fido.
  3. Have the person throw a high-value treat behind your pooch. This way your dog has to retreat to a safe spot in order to get their reward!
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat…!
  5. Watch your dog’s canine body language to make sure he’s still within his comfort zone and if he shows any signs of being worried, or submissive postures that could signify he’s having any kind of fear reaction, end the session and try again another day.

The exercise focuses on changing your dog’s emotions using desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC), which will help him learn humans aren’t anything to worry about and that when new people are around, good things happen. This process takes practice though, so be patient and go at your dog’s pace.

Meanwhile, make sure he’s not put under pressure by visitors, don’t let anyone get too close to him or attempt to touch him. We’re not trying to trick him into letting humans near him. He needs to trust that people won’t overwhelm him, and this may take many sessions.

Moving away from the person to get a treat allows your pup some space for himself to relieve stress, which he needs after all that scary human interaction. This reduces any chance of barking or lunging and it’s rewarding your pooch with extra distance from the human as well as a delicious treat.

This is reinforcement for choosing to move away instead of vocalising or lunging.The Treat and Retreat game is a fun way to keep your dog’s stress levels lower around people whilst they gain confidence.

It teaches them a new default behaviour (to move away from the trigger), meaning they are less likely to overreact, whilst also changing their underlying emotional response to seeing humans as Fido learns through positive exposure that good things happen in their presence.

In most cases, you will quickly see dogs take the initiative to move closer to humans whilst remaining calm as they realise they’re not under pressure to go closer and can do it at their own pace. I find this game a great tool for increasing a dog’s level of comfort around new humans without putting them in a stressful situation.

Help – my dog is scared of people!

As always, if this is a new behaviour, please consult your veterinary specialist to rule out pain or illness.

If you are experiencing problems with your dog, it’s always a good idea to enlist the help of a certified dog trainer or animal behaviorist who may recommend a behavior modification training plan along with management strategies to keep your furry friend under their threshold.

I hope you find this exercise useful in assisting your pooch over come their issues and have an easier daily life. Here’s another article with information about reactivity in dogs which you may find useful. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next post.

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