For people who are afraid of dogs, the Dog Trainer has simple tips to avoid problems and read dog behavior so you can tell what a dog is likely to do. Remember, almost no dogs want to hurt you!
#1. Freezing up. Dogs do a full-body freeze when they’re guarding something and also right before they bark and lunge or start to fight. So when a person stands stock still, not moving a muscle, the message he sends is, more or less, “I’m about to blow up at you.”
#2. Staring. Well, of course you want to keep a sharp eye on that dog as he walks by, since who the heck knows what might happen, right? Except, you guessed it: staring sends a strongly hostile message to a dog.
A friendly, confident dog may just ignore the stiff, staring person – or may come over to investigate. I think of this as the “What’s up, friend? Why are you acting so weird?” behavior. A dog who’s on the anxious or defensive side himself may react by barking or even lunging. And so your anxious response can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rather than the freeze-and-stare, I suggest moving away until there’s enough space between you and the dog that you feel comfortable. (By the way, I give exactly the same advice to people who have stressy, barky dogs!) Take a deep breath, keep moving, and by all means watch the dog if you want to. But try to avoid staring and instead just look at the dog as you might look at anything else interesting you pass.
#3. Edging past, then breaking into a run at the last second. Kids tend to do this more than adults do; worse yet, kids have a way of screaming in fear as they run past. To a dog, slow, sidling movement probably looks like stalking or like the lead-up to a fight. Throw in sudden fast movement, and from the dog’s point of view you’ve just charged something – maybe the dog. If there’s a high-pitched kiddy scream involved, you can probably see why dogs sometimes freak out.
Again, the key here is to keep enough space between you and the dog that you can walk past naturally. If you’re the parent of a kid who’s afraid of dogs, guide your child’s behavior to avoid another self-fulfilling prophecy.
#4. Reaching out to the dog and then snatching your hand back when the dog approaches. This startles the dog, and if you were holding a treat, then she is naturally inclined to follow it and try to grab it. Oops, “She snapped at me!”
Yet again, the way to deal with this is to stay within your comfort zone. If you would like to practice giving dogs treats, then drop the treat on the ground in front of the dog. By the way, if you live someplace where you often encounter off-leash dogs, try carrying a bunch of small treats with you. If a dog approaches, throw several small treats on the ground behind the dog. Then, while she’s busy eating them, you can make your getaway. At a normal pace, please, not running and thereby inviting the dog to play a game of chase.
So that’s how to deal with anxiety about dogs from day to day. How can you ease your fears in general?
Learn About Dog Behavior
Since most people who’ve talked to me about their fear of dogs express the feeling that they never know what dogs will do, I come back to my earlier point about knowing how to read dogs’ body language. Many of the dogs I work with have histories of biting people, yet I very rarely get bitten and have almost never been bitten hard enough to draw blood. I’m not afraid of my client dogs, nor am I particularly an adrenaline junkie. I do take some precautions, I avoid provoking my client dogs, and, mainly, I let dogs’ body language speak for them. If I can keep myself safe with aggressive dogs, for sure you can keep yourself safe with the general run of dogs. I’ve done many episodes on body language, covering not only dogs’ tails but also their faces, their stress signals, and the signals that mean “Don’t touch me.”
It might also help simply to watch dogs for yourself. Visit a fenced dog park, stand well away from the entrance to lower the odds of unexpected meet-and-greets, and watch how the dogs interact with the people inside. Never mind how they interact with each other – that’s not your agenda for now! Do you know someone with a super-friendly dog? Walk along with them at a comfortable distance and watch the dog as he passes people and greets them. Seeing how a friendly dog does it can help you recognize a friendly approach from other dogs, too. And if you find you want to practice meeting a dog yourself, this known friendly fido could be your gateway … um, dog.
As always, you can write to me at email@example.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes – I might already have answered yours. And visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer. Thanks for reading, and if you’re not scared of dogs, please share this episode with someone who is!>