Dog’s Eye View: Stranger Danger! Understanding more about reactive or fearful dogs
If someone we don’t know comes up, sits right next to us and makes physical contact, we become apprehensive and uncomfortable. We’ve been taught to give each other space on the sidewalk, in an elevator and on the bus. I feel uncomfortable on airplanes, because there’s no way I can own any space being belted into a seat 20 inches wide. I fly, anyway, but sometimes, it’s not a relaxing experience once I’m seated between two strangers.
The title above implies something we often mistakenly do when meeting dogs. We invade their space. I have heard countless stories of people offering a hand for a dog to sniff and being bitten. We mean well by offering a hand to sniff, but the interpretation by a fearful dog is similar to a threatening invasion of space. Knowing what I know about how a dog’s nose works, I can tell you they’ve already smelled you. What we often miss is the subtle physical communication the dog is giving us about his comfort level.
Of course, we have also been around those rambunctious dogs who wantonly jump all over you, whether you like it or not. Teaching dogs early on that humans deserve a bit of space and permission to make contact is often lacking until the dog’s size becomes problematic.
The fearful dog will not want to approach you. If you observe his body slightly leaning back or his head turning away, along with tail down or tucked, I would suggest not stepping closer, not making eye contact and pretending the dog isn’t there. Allow the dog’s arousal level to drop, or wait until he observes you long enough to feel no threat and initiates contact.
This type of dog really needs a lot of time to settle. The quiet ones just want to be left alone. The dogs who bark and move away are telling us we don’t have any business that close. Again, this communication should be respected, for this type of dog might be more inclined to make his point with his teeth if you push the confrontation by moving in toward him. We humans need to be mindful of what the dog is communicating.
My last article addressed public encounters with off-leash dogs or well-meaning people. The information I’ve presented in this article really helps illustrate why dogs need to remain on-leash in public places. It also explains why we humans should watch for canine communication signals and not let our friendly dogs make contact with a dog on-leash.
Dogs who are tethered outside a business should not be petted by strangers either, for all of the reasons listed above. This is another situation in which people make assumptions and decide it’s OK to approach and interact with a dog tied out. I am of the opinion that dogs should never be tied out in a public place outside their handlers’ visual and physical contact. o me it’s kind of like duct taping your 3-year-old to a park bench and telling him you’ll be right back. Does this make any kind of sense at all?
We love our canine buddies, and it’s up to us to learn about how this amazing animal operates in our human world.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, as well as certification as a nose work instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.
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