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Building Confidence with a Fearful Dog when Visitors Enter your Home

This article is specifically for dogs that exhibit shy and anxious behavior when visitors walk inside your home. The type of dog I am addressing in this article will usually bark at the visitor but will shy away when the visitor approaches. The techniques in this article are not designed for dogs that will nip or bite the visitor.

If you have a dog that is shy or fearful when meeting new people, you probably are already aware of how stressful a visitor walking into your home can be for your dog. As a trainer that makes house calls, I meet lots of dogs that display typical fear related behavior when they meet me for the first time. Often that is the reason why I am called in to the consultation in the first place.

There are various possible reasons why your dog may exhibit fear behavior around new people. In my experience the majority of cases are due to lack of socialization at an early age or a drop off in socialization as the dog matured.  There could be other reasons that also contribute such as previous traumatic events the dog has experienced or medical problems that influenced early development. Certain breeds are also more sensitive to meeting new people especially when the visitor is walking in to the owner’s home which is also the dog’s territory.  Shepherds and Mastiffs instantly come to mind.

In this article, I will focus on giving you a few proven techniques that will have a positive impact on your dog’s emotional well-being during this stressful situation. Following these techniques will start to build your dog’s confidence so you can begin moving forward with your shy dog.

If you are experiencing fearful behavior with your dog, you have three options:

  1. You will either need to coach the visitor on how to act around your dog or
  2. You will need to show the dog exactly you want them to do in this situation or
  3. You will need to manage the situation to make the dog feel more comfortable

Here ae the rules for coaching people that come to your home to visit with you.

  • Dog is always allowed to approach the visitor on their own terms- Let the dog approach the visitor when the dog starts feeling brave enough. Tell the visitor not to give any eye contact initially and don’t reach toward the dog.
  • Visitors should not be allowed to approach the dog-. This is easier said than done.  A lot of well-meaning people that love dogs find it almost impossible not to approach your dog in attempt to befriend your dog.  Putting some food in their hand is usually the best course of action. It gives the person a way they can interact with the dog that will have a positive emotional impact on your dog.
  • Food treats should be incorporated and I mean really good food.- You want to up the ante in this situation. Food is one of the easiest tools to use for counter conditioning. Let the visitor toss food to the dog instead of the visitor approaching the dog. Think cheese, soft smelly liver treats, or hot dog chunks. You may notice that your dog does not eat the treats at first.
  • Gender Specific Fear-If your dog’s fear is human gender specific, you will use food only when the dog comes in contact with the correlating gender. For example, if you dog displays anxious behavior in the presence of men only, then your goal should be to create a positive association with men using the food. Try giving the dog a special treat only when they come in contact with men.  

In my experience, it is often easier to control the dog’s behavior than it is to control the visitor’s behavior. Because of this, I find that it often works best to show the dog exactly what you want them to do in this specific situation.

Here are 2 options that work well to build confidence and make the greeting easier.

1)Teach the dog to go to specific area in the home- This is the method I generally recommend as it shows the dog exactly what you want them to do.  Train the dog to go to a dog bed when you give a command such as “Place” or “Bed”. You will follow this up by rewarding the dog with food for going to the bed and you will not let the visitor approach the dog on the bed. You should continue to feed the dog during the stay on the dog bed for a short period of time while the visitor is inside the home. Then release the dog after a few minutes and monitor the dog’s behavior.

  • It may take a few weeks before the dog can maintain a stay consistently on the dog bed. Remember, the visitor is not allowed to approach the dog, but can toss food. Once the dog seems to relax, release them off the bed and see if they want to approach the visitor. I have a step by step video tutorial in the member’s area to teach your dog how to go to a dog bed and stay.

2)Keep the dog on the leash- Having the dog on leash will give you more control over the dog’s behavior. Your goal is to show the dog that this situation is not that scary and there is no need for barking and evading. The reason why there is no need for fleeing and barking is because being close to you is the best spot to be. 

  • Now, you have to show the dog why being next to you is not scary. Keep the dog beside you and ask for your dog to do a few sits in a row. Reward the dog generously with high value food treats for compliance.Do not let the visitor reach toward the dog. In this scenario, you are rewarding a behavior that is incompatible with barking and escaping. (The dog can’t run away and bark if they are sitting) In time, the dog learns that listening to you is the safest bet.

The following 3 Procedures are management techniques that work well to set the tone for the greeting. These techniques aid in removing the dog’s natural territorial behaviors associated with someone walking into the home. Territorial behaviors and emotions of fear do not go well together.

  1. Crate the dog- Crating should only be done if the dog has been crated previously or there are current crate training measures in place. If your dog is accustomed to being crated, the crate can act as a safe place for the dog.  When you crate the dog, you stop the dog from participating in territorial behavior that happens when people come to visit.  Crate the dog before the visitor comes through the doorway. When the visitor enters the home, give the dog a special toy such as kong toy with peanut butter. Let the dog out of the crate once they finish the toy and follow procedures listed above.
  2. Put the dog in another room initially- Let your visitor come in and sit down. Once the dog settles down in the other room, let the dog come in to the same room with the visitor (the visitor should be sitting down rather than walking around). This technique also avoids territorial behavior that occurs around the doorway entrance.
  3. Meet the visitor on the street-  Meeting your guests outside the home is another technique that avoids the dog’s natural territorial behaviors. Go for a short walk with your guest and then let the guest enter the home before you and the dog. This is how I generally greet dogs that have some serious aggression issues.

Summary

If your dog displays typical fear behavior such as barking and evading when a visitor walks into your home, you need to interrupt this behavior. This is self-reinforcing behavior for the dog. The dog wants the person to stay away from them and learns quickly that barking keeps people at a distance. This becomes the dog’s go to strategy in this situation.  You can start making progress quickly by incorporating the techniques above when visitors come to your home. Give it time and stay diligent. Remember, your dog truly feels afraid during this situation. It is your job to take the lead and convince them that visitors coming into the home are really not that scary.

Published on Dec 15, 2014

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