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Stranger Danger: When You're Dog Has Stranger Anxiety

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.

- Shirley MacLaine

“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, just an unknown friend. 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 when she was five, explained to a pizza delivery guy a that if he ever encountered a monster, she’d protect him. She then gave him a hug. River is the equivalent of a golden doodle: the life of the party who thrives on any type of human interaction.

My daughter Robynn is completely different. She's more circumspect. She has wonderful social manners, but it takes her a long time to warm up to someone and feel comfortable. She needs to feel out and observe a situation before she 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 mentality of “dog behavior”.

Orion, for instance, was a lot more wary and aloof than a typical Labrador Retriever. Orion was my Papillion. 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 him. 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 there's more to it than that.

I let him be. Be calm, be scared, be anxious, or be affectionate. I let him be curious or shy. But most importantly, I let him be safe. I didn't force affection on him, nor did I immediately try teaching him tricks or commands (I hate that word: "commands"). If he didn't feel safe enough to be close to me, why would I force him to do commands that I would then have to enforce if he didn't do them.

So I let him gradually come out of his shell, letting him set up the pace, but with me setting up the boundaries. I created a safe little haven for him that he could retreat to. I didn't praise him with a lot of energy, nor did I try to bribe him into being my friend with food (although that works with some dogs, it didn't with Orion).

Above all else, I watched my body language and my energy levels.

Calm and monotone words, if used at all. My body language was soft, but under control. I made sure to never point my stomach at him, only coming at him from the hip, or almost backing up to him. After only about 24 hours of this, he was decompressed enough to start to trust me just a little bit. I was able to sit on the floor and he would sidle up to me. I didn't use that as an opportunity to force affection on him; I would simply sit next to him. Gradually, he would accept me touching him. I never moved past his boundaries for comfort, and I gradually introduced him to life in our house. Things went pretty quickly after about 3 days.

There’s a difference between a friend and a protector. A friend is someone you love; a protector is someone you trust. And there is a big difference between love and trust. 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. One of the easiest ways to start is by teaching a new trick, such as sit, stay, etc., or even things like agility or fetch. You’re working together as a team with a common goal: communication.

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 several years ago, I 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; a leap of faith that I hadn't earned yet. 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 situation, not answering their questions about the situation.

Anxiety: fear of the unknown

You need to Pilot your dog, and answer their questions about that situation to make the unknown, well, known. 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 was always wary of strangers. I allowed him to be. Unless I didn'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 barely 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. Calm, gentle positives if he accepted the stranger's touch calmly.

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. I politely explain that my dog isn't friendly. If they persist, I politely explain that I'm not friendly either.

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. I also didn't force Orion to take affection without a good reason. I never made him be pet just for the sake of being pet. Affection has to be mutual. My goal was to make sure he was acclimated to being touched by anyone, just in case circumstances arose where he needed to be (vet, boarding, etc.). I still make him accept being pet randomly, but only for one of two reasons: he truly wants to be pet by that person, or I need to work on his accepting touch to keep him from backsliding into not accepting touch from a strange human.

As Orion gradually accepted being pet by strangers, he was always given a reward. For Orion, food didn't do much, at least not at first, 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 chose to accept the answer. Wash rinse repeat.

Orion was always wary of strangers, but rather than immediately cowering in fear or lashing out when someone decides to pet him, he took on a different approach. He would look at me. He expected me to answer his questions about the situation. Sometimes he had to accept that he will be pet, but since I’ve always protected him during the petting, he stopped afraid . He turned into the dog who will warm up to a stranger after a bit, and actually “asked” to be pet – even to the point of visiting a local nursing home, something that I never thought would happen when I first got him.

Orion came a long way from that frightened little creature he once was. Yes, I 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. It's easier to say "trust me" than it is to trust. That’s why I’ll always strive to be worthy of the Pilot position with any of my dogs, and never shake their faith through ego or vanity or putting them in situations that we haven’t worked towards yet.

The only negative I'll ever accept from a dog is "don't touch me".

I've worked with any and every dog behavior you can imagine: from a dog who was terrified of the oven to the point of actually attacking it, to your average puppy kindergarten. From separation anxiety to aggression. I use the PAW Method to train these dogs, and Piloting to communicate, but no matter the issue, the moment a dog asks me not to touch them, I respect that request. Afterall, they have ways of enforcing that request. And part of the mantra of Piloting is control your self, control the situation. So if I try to #HarveyWeinstein them, of course I expect them to retaliate.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if your dog likes someone or not. I don't like every human, but I know how to be social. I have the bounds of polite society to protect me; rules we all live by. Taboos we avoid. These things make us feel safe as humans. Dogs have these rules, too. They're just differently enforced and communicated. By taking a dog and thrusting them into a human world, it is our responsibility to ensure we help translate this world for them, and make them feel loved and protected, and that protection comes from answering their questions about our world.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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