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How to Work with a Pet that is Fearful of People

By Jason Wright

November 8, 2023

As many dog owners know, owning a dog is a big responsibility. And it’s one that extends beyond companionship, as it is the obligation of every pet owner to ensure the physical and mental well-being of their dogs. 

Regarding social interactions, it's normal for any dog owner to want their dog to engage with new people confidently, especially their family and friends. However, some dogs develop a fear or anxiety of strangers, causing not only discomfort for them but also adding a layer of stress to the owners' lives. Every pet owner must take the responsibility of addressing these fears and anxieties in their dogs and work with them to overcome them. 

In this blog post, we will address what it is like to train a dog fearful of people. We'll also break down the reasons behind such fearful behaviour, provide you with practical techniques for training your dog, and emphasize the importance of managing your energy during this process.

Understanding Why Dogs Become Fearful of People:

The first step to training a dog that fears people starts with understanding the root causes behind this troubling behaviour. It's important to recognize these underlying factors to guide your training efforts effectively. 

These reasons include a broad spectrum of influences, including early experiences, genetics, and learned behaviours:

  • 1. Lack of Early Socialization: Dogs, much like humans, need social experiences during their developmental stages. If a dog misses out on these crucial interactions with various people during their formative weeks, it can lead to hesitation and fear when encountering new individuals later in life. Early socialization is key to bolstering their confidence.
  • 2. Traumatic Experiences: Trauma, whether physical or emotional, can deeply affect a dog's perception of people. Past negative encounters, such as mistreatment or frightening situations, may leave lasting scars, causing dogs to become fearful of others.
  • 3. Genetic Predisposition: Some breeds exhibit a genetic predisposition towards wariness or reserved behaviour around strangers. While genetics play a role, appropriate training can help mitigate these natural tendencies.
  • 4. Lack of Exposure: Limited exposure to diverse individuals during their early years can result in fear or anxiety. If a dog's social circle remains small, they might not develop the confidence to interact with new people comfortably.
  • 5. Unintended Reinforcement: Well-intentioned owners can inadvertently reinforce their dog's fear through excessive comforting or attention during fearful situations. While the owner's intentions may be to reassure, the dog may perceive this as validation of their fear.

Working with and Training a Fearful Dog:

Training a dog that is fearful of people demands a structured and consistent approach. The journey to build confidence and alleviate their anxieties requires the use of several techniques:

  • Desensitization: Gradual exposure to new people is the cornerstone of fear management. Begin with individuals your dog already knows and gradually introduce them to new faces in controlled settings. Reward calm behaviour with treats and praise, helping your dog create positive associations.
  • Obedience Training: Consistent obedience commands, such as "sit" and "stay," can offer your dog a sense of control in social situations, bolstering their confidence and making them feel secure.
  • Counter-Conditioning: Counter-conditioning is a technique that alters your dog's emotional response to new people. When your dog sees a stranger, offer high-value treats or toys to create positive associations and replace fear with anticipation.

While these training techniques are beneficial, there’s one more element that plays an important role in helping your dog get over their fear of people. That particular element is arguably one of the most important and that is learning how to manage and control your own energy.

Managing Your Energy:

As a responsible dog owner, your energy and demeanour significantly influence your dog's reactions to new people. Maintaining the right energy is pivotal to helping your dog remain calm and attentive in these situations, whether it’s in a setting where you are training your dog or in a more relaxed environment such as when you’re on a walk. 

Here's how to manage your energy effectively:

  1. Stay Calm: Dogs are keen observers of human emotions. Keep your emotions in check and maintain a composed and serene demeanour during introductions and training. Avoid transmitting anxiety or stress, as dogs can easily pick up on these emotions.
  2. Confidence: Instill confidence in your interactions with your dog and new people. Confidence is a reassuring presence for your dog and communicates that there is no real danger.
  3. Consistency: Consistency is key to effective training. Your dog thrives in an environment with clear, predictable rules and boundaries. Inconsistencies can lead to confusion, undermining your training efforts.
  4. Positive Energy: Infuse positivity and enthusiasm into your interactions during training and introductions. Dogs respond well to an upbeat atmosphere, and a joyful, calm, and relaxed energy encourages your dog to feel safe and relaxed.
  5. Controlled Approach: When introducing your dog to new people, take charge of the situation. Use a leash to maintain control and create a structured, calm environment for the meeting.

It’s also important that the person meeting your dog watches and controls their energy as well. Be sure to ask your friends or house guests to greet your dog in a calm and well-structured manner to prevent your dog from being overwhelmed or overstimulated, allowing your pet to build confidence around strangers. 

The iTK9 Way: Training a Dog that’s Fearful of People

Training a pet that’s fearful of people takes a great deal of consistency, time and monitoring of one’s energy. However, with daily work, your dog can overcome their fear and anxiety, living a happy and healthy life that involves socializing with others.

If you're struggling to work with your pet or unsure where to start, our trained professionals can help. They fully commit to working with them through behaviour, obedience training, and continued learning safely and effectively.

We do the hard work for you to attain a happy home and a healthy relationship with your pet.

Included in all of our programs are the following;

  1. In-Person Learning: Midway progress training video, two go-home lessons.
  2. Online Learning: Owner education course, instructional training videos, iTK9 member community, e-books & additional training resources.
  3. Owner Support: Photo updates of your dog training with our team and access to our team for questions & support.

Contact us today for more information on our programs, including Board & Train.

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