Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.
“My dog is aggressive towards strangers.
“My dog is fearful.”
“My dog is skittish.”
I hear these phrases constantly. Some dogs are goofy, fun-loving balls of affection who have never met a stranger. Then we have dogs who have what I call a healthy sense of self-preservation. My Orion used to be like that.
No, Orion wasn’t abused, which is a common misconception with dogs such as these. As humans we try to rationalize and explain behavior. It must have a cause! Something precise that has caused our dogs to be wary of the world.
But the world doesn’t work like that. For example, my daughter, River, is the most fun-loving, outgoing creature I have ever met. She explained to the pizza delivery guy a few days ago that if he ever encountered a monster, she’d protect him. She then gave him a hug. River is the equivalent of a goldendoodle: the life of the party who thrives on any type of human interaction.
My son Eric is completely different. He’s more circumspect. He has wonderful social manners, but it takes him a long time to warm up to someone and feel comfortable. He needs to feel out a situation before he participates in it.
Neither of my kids have been abused. Both have been raised exactly the same way. We accept that kids can have different personalities, but we don’t allow much wiggle room for our canine companions. They have to be wriggly balls of fun, just desperate for human interaction, regardless of with whom, in order for the to be healthy, happy dogs. But just as not all humans are of that caliber (I certainly am not), not all dogs need to fit into the one-size-fits-all mould of “dog behavior”.
Orion, for instance, is a lot more wary and aloof than a typical Labrador Retriever. Orion is a Papillon. As a matter of fact, when I first met Orion, he bit me. Completely not his fault: he didn’t know me, and I had thrust my hand inside his carrier to retrieve him, as he had gotten caught in the back of it somehow. Any creature with a lick of sense (especially one weighing 5 lbs.) would do the same thing! It doesn’t mean he’s damaged, it means he has a sense of self-preservation.
Gradually I built up Orion’s trust in me. I started by not yelling, kicking, hitting or otherwise abusing the dog. Common sense, right? The longer I went without kicking Orion, he figured the more likely it was that I wasn’t going to start. But then we moved beyond that. There’s a difference between a friend and a protector. I was to become both. I needed to Pilot Orion. In other words, I needed to not only answer all of his tough questions (such as, “Is that person a threat?” and, “Should I be afraid?”), but I had to get him to trust me enough to forgo his own determination of a situation and accept my answer.
Look at it like this: What if I told you to sell everything you own and invest a certain stock? Your reaction would probably be, Why on earth should I listen to you and do something so potentially catastrophic?! You’d be crazy to just listen to me regarding such a decision. However, what if I started off with small suggestions, such as putting $5 towards something. You take a look at my situation, which seems financially comfortable, and decide to take the $5 plunge. That $5 turns into $10. Your faith in my decisions is boosted. I give you another suggestion, you take it, and make more money, or, at the very least, don’t lose any. Pretty soon you’re actively looking to me for suggestions.
That’s how it works with dogs. You have to give them a reason why your answers to their questions are better than what they can come up with. That’s what Piloting is all about. Now obviously you can answer their questions with force, and with pain and anger, but that’s losing the most important part of the Piloting equation: trust. So how do you get a dog to trust you? Easy! Put them in very simple situations that require only a very small leap of faith, and then gradually up the ante.
I recently boarded the world’s most adorable Labradoodle, Cody, in my home due to his owner’s injury and anticipated long convalescence. How did I get him accustomed to me, and used to my answering his questions? I started with agility. Teaching him to jump over a yardstick placed directly on the floor. Then adding stimulation: placing one end on a soup can, raising it just a bit. Then the next side is raised. Pretty soon Cody is trusting me enough to go bounding back and forth across the “jump”. If I had started out with the jump raised all the way…well, that’s a bit of a stretch. He didn’t know me very well, and that’s an awful lot to ask of a dog. But by adding gradual amounts of stimulation to the situation, raising it slowly, I was able to expand his level of comfort with my decisions until eventually he trusts my answers more than he trusts his own. That is what Piloting is all about.
So how do we put this in play with regard to stranger danger? Well, we need to start with the fact that it is okay that your dog is wary of strangers. We aren’t trying to change who your dog fundamentally is. But we can indeed broaden their horizons a bit. Get your dog to trust your answers with the small things, like walking by the man on the other side of the street. Answer their questions as you are walking, and make sure you are Pilot during the walk. Don’t just drag your dog along past the stranger – that’s forcing them past a point, not answering their questions. It may take a bit of mental fortitude on your part to make it past the first person, but if you are Pilot, take your time, and keep your patience, you will do it. Remember, this is difficult for your dog: this is the first time you are Piloting them past a perceived danger. It is a huge leap of faith on their part and should be treated as such. Just because you realize that the other person isn’t a threat doesn’t mean they do. But if you get them past the first person, answering their questions all the while, the second person is easier to get by, then the third, and so on. Pretty soon your dog is looking for your answers rather than coming up with their own.
Orion is still wary of strangers. I allow him to be. Unless I don’t. That’s the beauty of Piloting. If you don’t abuse the position, you can ask your dog to do marvelous things. Orion and I worked on his stranger danger, gradually upping the ante each time. First he had to walk calmly by strangers, which is difficult when you barley reach someone’s ankles – no wonder everything looked like a threat! You try walking among a herd of elephants without being apprehensive, and then you’ll understand what a small dog can feel like on the sidewalk.
Next we worked on strangers approaching. They would ask to pet my dog, and I would let them…in a very controlled way. I would pick him up and present him rear first. If Orion would ask a question, such as “Can I make them stop petting me?”, I would answer his question by very gently tapping him on the derriere with all five fingers, similar to the way one taps out an email on a computer: no harder. It’s not about pain, it’s about getting him to refocus on me and the answer I was giving him.
Trust is integral. If I’m asking Orion to trust my judgment about someone, it’s up to me to keep him safe and make wise judgments. So if the individual who wants to pet Orion seems very hyper or is giving off a lot of negative energy, my answer is no. My first duty is to my dog, not to social graces. It’s up to me to put Orion in situations where he can thrive, not situations that test his faith in me to beyond capacity.
As Orion accepted being pet by strangers, he was always given a reward. For Orion, food doesn’t do much, but calm gentle praise certainly did. He wanted to know he was on the right track, and I most definitely assured him of it. Answer his questions, give positive when he chooses to accept the answer.
Orion is still wary of strangers, but rather than immediately cowering in fear or lashing out when someone decides to pet him, he takes a different approach now. He looks at me. He expects me to answer his questions. Sometimes he has to accept that he will be pet, but since I’ve always protected him during the petting, he isn’t afraid anymore. Kinda like a kid who is forced to hug Aunt Bertha at family functions: he isn’t afraid of Aunt Bertha, it’s just not his favorite thing to do.
Orion has come a long way from that frightened little creature he once was. Yes, I have put a lot of effort into Piloting him and answering his questions, but it’s always easier to be the one answering questions than the one who has to take a leap of faith. That’s why I’ll always strive to be worthy of the Pilot position and never shake his faith through ego or vanity or putting him in situations that we haven’t worked towards yet. I’ve earned his trust, and it’s up to me to make sure I don’t abuse it.
Dog training in Cleveland, Ohio