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My dog is afraid of strangers. What can I do to ease its fears?

Most dogs that are fearful of strangers are lacking socialization. This is to say that as puppies they were not exposed to many different people, situations, noises, other animals, sites and sounds of life. They suffer from a “fear of the unknown.” Some breeds, and certain individuals within breeds, have a predisposition to grow up shy, cautious and fearful. This can often be countered with early socialization efforts. Puppies need to be handled by many different people and exposed to a variety of life situations so that they grow into secure and confident adult dogs.

Socialization can begin at any age in a dog’s life but the earlier it happens; the less likely a dog will grow up fearful. Once a dog has learned to be afraid, it takes longer for the process of socialization to be effective.

To help a fearful dog it is important to teach him that he can survive the presence of strangers. Walk him on leash in new places. Do not permit him to hide behind you but do not force him to advance towards a stranger either. Instruct strangers to ignore the dog, give no eye contact, and wait for the dog to make the first move to investigate. You can give a stranger a tasty treat to offer the dog, but if a dog is highly stressed, he will often refuse food.

Strangers should never crouch down to a dog’s level and make eye contact. This is actually more threatening then an adult standing up looking away from the dog. Never let a stranger approach your dog head on, only from the side. (Dogs approach each other from the side and see this kind of approach as a friendly advance.) A stranger seated in a chair, making no eye contact is another positive way to introduce people to a fearful dog.

While an owner may empathize with his dogs fear, he should never use a comforting voice in an attempt to calm the frightened pup. Dogs understand tones better then words. If you say to a dog “its okay Fluffy, you’ll be fine; there is nothing to worry about”, the dog senses the worry in your voice which supports his initial concerns. Keep it simple. Praise your dog for the behaviors you want. Continue to walk and introduce him to new things and say nothing when he exhibits fear. Time and experience will improve the behavior of most fearful dogs. There are some individuals where training may need the help of medication. Anti-anxiety drugs have been successfully used, in conjunction with socialization training, to overcome severe phobias.

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