Dogs can become fearful of people because of inadequate handling and socialization during the first few months of life, previous unpleasant experiences with people, medical problems, or genetics.
No matter what the cause, the goal is to teach your dog to be relaxed around people and enjoy their company. You can do this by carefully controlling interactions with unfamiliar people so your dog is less likely to feel threatened and more likely to relax and have a positive experience.
What Not to Do
Don’t make the mistake of forcing your dog into social situations. He needs to gradually learn to feel comfortable around people. Encouraging visitors to approach or reach for a pet that is fearful only makes matters worse. Even if your dog allows strangers to pet him, it doesn’t mean he enjoys it. If your dog feels trapped because he is on a tight leash or can’t escape when someone approaches, he might become aggressive. If you try to console him when he growls, you may inadvertently reinforce the aggressive behavior.
Since the goal is to change the association from ear to something that is positive (known as “counter-conditioning”), any unpleasant encounter can worsen the problem. Don’t raise your voice or yell and never use physical punishment or harsh corrections such as pinning, using a pinch or prong collar, popping a choke collar, or hitting. Although punishment may temporarily stop the undesirable behavior, it will only heighten your pet’s fear and anxiety.
During the initial stages of training, keep your pet away from situations that might make him anxious. For example, avoid crowded areas during walks and confine him to a quiet room during noisy social gatherings in your home.
Control Social Situations
The first thing you can do to make your dog feel more comfortable is to instruct visitors how to act around him. The less threatening the person appears, the better. Most dogs are more comfortable if visitors squat, avoid eye contact, and keep hands to their side. A quiet tone of voice and slow body movements are also important.
Your dog may also feel less threatened if he can avoid the situation. Too much tension on the leash or holding the pet tightly will likely make him more nervous. Be sure you have adequate control and keep enough distance between your pet and unfamiliar people to ensure safety and keep your dog calm. Your dog also takes his cues from you, so if you are anxious or nervous, you should avoid stressful situations until you are comfortable and able to calm your pet.
Help Your Dog Relax with People
To lessen your pet’s anxiety, you need to repeatedly associate something very positive with the presence of people. Special food treats can help your dog warm up to people. Be sure to select treats or bits of food that he thinks are absolutely fabulous. Small pieces of chicken meat, cheese, freeze-dried liver, or semi-moist dog treats are good choices for most dogs. To really enhance the association between food and unfamiliar people, these special treats should be given only when introducing him to unfamiliar people.
If your pet is extremely anxious around people, begin where he is most comfortable—perhaps in your home or yard. Be certain that he is reward-trained to sit and relax immediately on command. Next, begin exposure training by setting up a greeting with a friend or relative with whom your dog is unfamiliar. Have the person stand at a far enough distance that your dog is relaxed and shows no sign of anxiety. Ask your dog to sit when he first notices the person and give him the special treat. Then have the person move a step closer. Give your pet another treat if he stays relaxed.
The person should gradually approach while you continue giving treats. If your dog begins to show any sign of tension (for example, if he won’t take his eyes off the person, seems agitated, shows less interest in the treats, or responds more slowly to the command), the person can move sideways instead of forward; if your pet takes the food and settles down, the person can then move forward again. The exercise should go so slowly that the pet should show no sign of anxiety, such as trembling, pulling away, or whining anxiously. Be prepared to stop the session before you reach your pet’s limits. The goal is to end on a positive note and begin the next session at a distance that elicits no sign of anxiety in your dog, until eventually he relaxes and takes treats from the visitor.
Improving Control and Safety
Consider the use of a head halter and leash if you need more control, especially if your dog shows signs of aggression. Head halters are a quick and effective way to turn the dog’s eyes and head away from the person, close his mouth, or make eye contact. You should release the tension when he is calm. Confine your pet to a room or crate in that room before your company arrives. You can then bring the dog out wearing the head halter to begin the introduction process. Once the dog is comfortable with the exposure exercises in your home, practice at the homes of various friends, and then in a wide variety of situations.
Making Progress Step by Step
Once your dog learns to accept unfamiliar people who move slowly and calmly, he should gradually be introduced to similar but progressively stronger stimuli, including quicker movements and various tones of voice used by the person who is approaching. If there is risk of aggression, seek the assistance of a behaviorist before starting these exercises.
Specific things about a person may make a pet anxious, such as beards, glasses, hats, carried objects, uniforms, vanes, wheelchairs, and tone of voice. Pay attention to what makes your pet most anxious and avoid these stimuli in your initial training sessions. For example, if your dog is especially afraid of beards and glasses, wait until he is comfortable with people without beards and glasses before including them in the conditioning sessions. Slowly add accessories such as hats, large purses, sunglasses, and backpacks, and gradually change the type of person (for example, from a man with a beard to a woman with a walker).
If your pet is overly fearful or anxious, anti-anxiety medications, natural supplements, or pheromones may help to calm him and improve treatment success. Discuss these options with your veterinarian.
Preventing the Fear of People
In most cases, dogs will not become fearful of people if they have ample opportunities to socialize with a wide variety of people during the first few months of life, are frequently handled in a gentle manner, and are raised without harsh training techniques or physical punishment. Enrolling in puppy classes at eight to ten weeks of age can be an excellent way to ensure socialization with a variety of people, dogs, and environments.