Being Respectful of Shy or Fearful Dogs
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
I regularly work with dogs who are shy or fearful of strangers. Behaviorally, this can look different from dog to dog. Some may do their best to retreat from the ‘scary person’ with body low, tail tucked, and ears pulled back. Others may freeze and turn their eyes or head away from the stranger, looking like they wish they could become invisible so the stranger doesn’t try to engage with them. Still others may develop a more proactive approach to make the scary person go away by barking, growling, lunging, air-snapping, or even biting.
In this picture, you'll see a dog who is stressed by an interaction with a new person. It's not earth-shattering for him, but he shows his unease with lowered head, ears back, whites of eye showing, penis-crowning, and front paw lifted.
Note how the person's hand is reaching to touch the top of his head or body, something many dogs do not happily welcome from a stranger.
Although this dog tolerated this contact, it certainly didn't make him happy.
Based on prior experiences, dogs learn what strategies are likely to work for them, and they repeat what works. And though the overt behavior they display can be quite different, they wish to accomplish the same thing, i.e. maintaining or adding distance from the stranger.
When the dog is big and displaying aggressively, only a fool would try to walk up and pet him. But what if the dog is small, or cute, or displaying his fear in subtler ways? They need our respect, too. Yet I see so many people doing the exact opposite, and though they may mean well, they’re significantly adding to the dog’s stress.
Here are a couple examples of what not to do when meeting a fearful or shy dog:
Hold your hand out towards the dog’s face, thinking it’s necessary for him to sniff it. This movement, in fact, is often perceived as threatening to a fearful dog, and could result in a bite.
Walk straight up into the dog’s space, loom over it as you reach to touch it, saying, “Oh, all dogs love me!”
Ignore the subtle signs that say the dog is uncomfortable with your interaction.
In truth, many people are woefully unaware of what fearful body language actually looks like, especially when the signs are subtle. Without being able to read these signals, the stranger is going to stress the dog, and may even be at risk of a bite. Often these bites are described as “coming out of nowhere” when in fact the dog was emitting all kinds of signals to express his unease or fear.
There are some wonderful online resources to help you learn how to better read dog body language. Anyone who spends time with dogs should learn this. And kids really need to be taught this to keep them safe, too. Here’s a wonderful video primer.
So, how can we be more respectful of dogs we don’t know? Take these suggestions to heart:
Before moving up close to a dog, ask the owner if it’s okay to interact with the dog.
Even if the owner says it is okay, the dog may be saying NO WAY! So rather than invading an unknown dog’s space, encourage him gently and wait for him to walk up to you instead. Watch his body language. Is his body loose and waggy? Is his face relaxed? If the dog won't approach you, leave him be. When in doubt, don’t interact!
If the owner is trying to build her dog’s confidence and gives you treats to share with the dog, don’t automatically reach out to hand feed. I meet tons of dogs who really LOVE treats, and seeing that temptation may cause them to slink in closer than they otherwise would feel comfortable doing. Once they have the treat, they find themselves way too close to the scary stranger, and things can go downhill from here. It would be better to stand a few feet away, and gently underhand lob the treats to the dog, or simply drop the treat to the ground and walk away to give the dog some breathing room. If he approaches again, repeat the sequence.
Just because a dog takes a treat from you, it does NOT mean he wants to be pet!
Just because a dog approaches to sniff you, it does NOT mean he’s asking to be pet. Keep your hands off unless/until the dog truly relaxes, shows waggy/loose body posture, etc.
Just because a dog’s tail is wagging, it does NOT mean he’s happy. Tail wagging is simply a sign of arousal, and plenty of tails will wag as a dog is about to bite. One can learn the nuances of different wags (i.e. the height of the tail, speed and amplitude of the wag, etc.), but the wag alone is not sufficient information. One has to take in details about overall body posture and other environmental details.
If a dog is just a little bit shy, but looks like he wants to say hello, you can adjust your own body and behavior to make it a pleasant experience for him. Some suggestions:
Don’t stare at the dog.
Turn your side to the dog.
Crouch down or sit in a chair.
Let the dog approach, rather than you approaching him.
When touching the dog, try a gentle scratch on the chest or under the chin. Don’t try to pat the dog on the head, and avoid petting on top of neck or back.
Pet for just a few seconds, then stop and wait. If the dog solicits more petting, go ahead for another few seconds. If he doesn't ask for more, don't keep petting him.
In this photo, the dog is displaying a variety of signals to indicate he's stressed: weight shifted backwards, tongue flick, whites of eye showing.
Be sensitive and courteous to shy or fearful dogs. They deserve to have their space respected, and we are safer for it, too.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120