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  • Writer's pictureJenny Higgins

From Spooky to Social: There's a Flow Chart for That

Does your dog seem to think that stranger=danger? Plenty of dogs do! And while not all of them can be transformed into a social butterfly, we can help many dogs change their opinions and behaviors around strangers. If you have ever heard any advice about getting your dog to like other people, you may have heard things like: "Have strangers feed your dog food" or "Take them out to socialize more so they can get used to people". Maybe this worked for your dog, but unfortuantely it is a bit more complicated than that for many others.

I help my clients try to understand that there is some pre-work involved before we can just start training with strangers. This pre-work is often overlooked and because of that, little progress may be made. The flow chart below can help you to remember the first and most important part to helping your dog overcome their stranger fears.

BEFORE we can help our dog feel comfortable, confident and curious, we need to make sure they actually feel safe around strangers. If a dog is uncomfortable with strangers and we, their caretaker, allow people to come up to our dog and stare at them, pet them, gush all over them, your dog is not going to all of a sudden decide humans are great and pleasant. In fact, everyone in that room--including you the caretaker--just ignored Fido's wishes to be left alone.

Dogs must feel Safe in order to build comfort, confidence, and curiosity that leads to a positive Social Interaction

Many people unknowingly do not provide the "Safe" for their dog and therefore the rest of the flow chart doesn't really happen. I've been guilty of this too!

Here's a scenario:

Dog is stressed by strangers. Human takes Dog for a walk at local pet store. While walking around the store, a stranger starts to approach with a smile and wide, admiring eyes, bending toward the dog. Dog's heart starts to race and it needs to make a choice: Do I freeze? Do I warn this person to go away? Should I try to run away (but I'm attached to this leash...)?

Dog is NOT feeling safe. And once again the association is made that strangers are stressful and overwhelming even if nothing has happened yet from the human's point of view.

How it plays out: Dog could bark and growl and then we tighten up on leash and get upset, stranger walks away. For Dog, that resolved the issue--I barked and that scary person went away, phew, good thing I barked!


Dog chooses the "freeze" and "take it". From our perspective we are the ones thinking phew! He was okay with that!

But freezing and appearing calm can be completely opposite of "he was okay with that".

Dog's perspective: Ugh, I froze and they pet me anyway- that was so scary! I guess freezing doesn't work, should escalate next time maybe.


How we can help the dog feel SAFE in this scenario:

1) Teach a U-turn cue. Show Dog that you, the caretaker, can handle the situation and Dog doesn't have to. We will turn away from a stranger and show our dog that we can keep them safe.

2)Teach a safety boundary

--popular one we teach is "Middle", laying or sitting in the middle of your legs. To be a safety boundary, people may not interact with the dog while they are in their boundary. By teaching the trick "Middle!", we are also incorporating a fun job for the dog to do when strangers are nearby

4) Before the stranger approaches all the way, stick up your palm as if to halt them and say "we are working on behavior" and turn and walk away from them

Pictured: Rey, 8 months old, learning to be calm at a restaurant by having strangers ignore her.

5) Reward with super tasty treat for turning away from stranger.

To Dog this all = "Mom's got this handled, and hey that man was kinda close but nothing bad happened and I got some yummy treats! woohoo"

If the dog can have several episodes with strangers where NOTHING BAD HAPPENED (dogs point of view) AND positive associations were made, we will start to move down the (+) Social interaction flow chart.

How long it may take your individual dog to feel more safe and comfortable will vary from others. Some dogs' fears are stronger than others. This may be because of several different factors including genetics, socialization history, traumatic events, aversive training, neglect, etc. Some dogs, including one of my own adopted dogs, have stranger phobias and may never be 100% comfortable with strangers--but luckily I haven't met many other dogs with the amount of anxiety poor Bentley came with. It is believed Bentley has an unlucky pull from the genetic pool, little positive socialization and early training, generalization issues, and chemical imbalances. He is the goofiest, snuggliest, and calm dog without a stranger in the house, though! And he does so much better out and about and loves doing K9 Nosework. If a stranger does come to visit, he is calm and content to just work on a bone in his kennel or my bedroom.

Work with the dog in front of you and try not to make comparisons to other dogs. After all, we did choose to bring a living animal into our lives and not an appliance; they will not all work the same and expectations should not be uniform.

Jenny Higgins, DN-DBC, CPDT-KA

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