Does your dog avoid or react to strangers? Bark, growl, run away, or hide? Here’s what we suggest. (Note: Please consult with a professional trainer for biting.)
- Make sure you are familiar with the dog’s behavioral history, what has and has not worked in previous introductions.
- Use correct equipment (collar/harness and non-retractable leash) and have high-value treats with you.
- Have a helper with you when introducing a dog that may struggle with new people. The helper can assist with handling the dog if there are problems, coach the guest and narrate what they are observing, provide a second set of eyes to monitor body language, and stay with the guest if you need to move the dog further away or remove them from the room.
- Handler should remain focused on the dog throughout the interaction – it may help to have the second person coaching and talking with the guest.
Prepare Your Guest
Speak with the guest before getting the dog. Give them some background on the dog, and give specific instructions on what they should do. Give the guest a bag of high-value treats that you know the dog likes (Cheese, deli meat, etc). Plan to have them seated where you will meet when you bring the dog in, and instruct them to:
- Avoid direct eye contact.
- Talk softly.
- Keep hands neutral and in their lap. Do not reach towards the dog or try to lure/coax them over.
- If dog orients towards them, they can toss or roll a treat in their direction with an underhand motion. They should try to have the treat land behind or near the dog, so that the treat doesn’t cause the dog to move forward.
- Wait to pet/touch the dog until the dog solicits contact. Have them pet three seconds then pause, and to pet the dog’s preferred areas of the body (usually neck/chest and shoulders). Petting may not occur at all.
Prepare Your Environment
- Meet in a quiet area with plenty of space to get distance, ideally a location where the dog is comfortable. Possible areas include yards, living room.
- Have the guest seated on the opposite corner from the door or gate.
1) As you enter, stop, read the dog, and proceed slowly based on what the dog is telling you:
- If the dog starts to react with barking, growling, lunging, hard-staring, etc., then increase distance.
- If the dog is showing escape/avoidance, increase distance.
2) If the dog is approaching in a “bee-line” fashion, rapidly and directly, straining on the leash, and hyper-fixated on the person DO NOT continue to approach. Stop the dog and move them further away.
- Dogs approaching in this fashion may still be uncomfortable, but may be getting “magnetized” to the person and are trying to get close and seek information. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily OK with the situation, and too often, these dogs might panic once they have gotten too close, and could escalate to aggressive behavior. For the same reason, we don’t want to lure the dog in with food.
3) Stay at a distance where the dog is able to be under threshold, can show some curious interest in the guest, and can also be easily disengaged. You can be offering the dog treats during this time, especially if the dog looks at the guest.
4) Gradually, get closer. Err on the side of caution and going slower than necessary.
5) If/when the dog does interact with the person, keep contact brief to begin, call the dog away, and give them the choice whether to re-engage.
- Move the dog away before any environmental change or transition, such as the guest standing up, walking, etc. as this can sometimes re-trigger a dog.
- If the dog is growing more comfortable in the person’s presence, you may try to take a parallel walk together. Again, don’t force any interaction.
For some dogs, you may not proceed through these steps all in one visit, and additional visits may be needed if the guest is willing. On subsequent visits, start the process the same and build up again – don’t just jump to the place you ended on at the last session. Hopefully the process will go faster with subsequent visits. If not, it may not be worth pursuing beyond a couple attempts.
If you cannot get the dog under threshold at all as long as the person is in view, or if at any point you are uncomfortable with either the person’s or the dog’s behavior, end the interaction.
Body Language “Cheat Sheet”:
Dogs looking like “playful” or “appeasing” dogs may be OK to allow to approach. Let “alert/aroused” and “fearful” dogs keep their distance.