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STOP doing this to your dogs...

With Thanksgiving tomorrow and all the other end-of-year holidays right around the corner, now is a good time to review proper doggie-visitor protocols.

The holidays are an exciting time of year. Breaks from work and school, out of town visitors, sharing love, joy, and warmth with the people we love most. It conjures warm fuzzies for a lot of us. Not always for our pets, though. This is also a common time of year for our pets’ behavior challenges to rear their ugly heads.

“Stranger danger” is a real problem for a lot of them. Our pets never went to public school or got used to big crowds of people. Those are very human-oriented activities. As youngsters, puppies might show some conflicted body language with visitors: zoomies, jumping, barking, excessive chewing, etc. As they age and their distaste for visitors becomes more solidified, that conflict turns more into legitimate aggression.

Aggression is a catch all phrase that basically refers to any “distance increasing behavior” or “behaviors used to control a situation.” They don’t need to inherently be violent. In fact, most aggressive displays are meant to prevent violence. However, if lower level aggressive behaviors don’t rectify the situation, some dogs may feel the need to “speak louder.” As their caretakers, it is our role to help them feel safe and supported, while still pursuing our own interests and needs.

Intervention for “Stranger Danger” starts before anyone ever arrives. Set up safe spaces for the pets to retreat if feeling overwhelmed. This could be an upstairs bedroom, their crate, or a room off to the side with a baby gate. These locations should be out of the main traffic area. Some dogs do better if they can still see the action and others do best if tucked away. Next, get some premade puzzle toys and food toys together so that you can easy shove something in your dog’s face throughout the visits. Finally, we need to educate our visitors.

To start us off, do not knock or ring the doorbell. Only scary, unfamiliar people ask for permission to enter the home. Instead, instruct visitors to text or call you. This way you can address where your dog is and give the all-clear to come in. Another easy trick is to use the back door or garage door for visitors. Only family uses those doors, so anyone walking through them is not a threat. You can also take your dog outside and meet on neutral territory, then we all walk into the house together. Make sure the visitor has entered, put all their things down, and gotten settled before following them inside. This trick works because dogs are more likely to protect their space when already occupying it. If the dog is outside when people enter, however, there isn’t anything to protect. The human was there first and occupation in 9/10 of the law in dog-world. From there, we need to talk about appropriate doggie interactions.

For a long time this concept of “letting the dog sniff you,” has pervaded our culture. We approach the dog, lean over, and stick our hands in their face.

Stop it!

Dogs have incredible noses. If they wanted to smell you, they can do it from 10+ feet away. In polite doggie-language, if one dog sees another that is uncomfortable, they disengage. They turn their bodies away and focus on some other activity. This is why a lot of dogs will sniff the ground intently if they are near other dogs, children, or other disconcerting stimuli. It’s a way to communicate “don’t mind me, I’m just over here minding my own business.” It’s the same thing we do when a mother is dealing with a toddler tantrum at the grocery store: stay out of the way, mind your own business, don’t add to the stress of the situation. This is what we need to do when around new dogs:

  • Don’t look at the dog.

  • Don’t talk to the dog.

  • Don’t touch the dog.

If the dog approaches, especially hesitantly, disengage. Make sure your body is angled slightly away and turn your attention to something else in the room. Let the dog approach, sniff, then retreat as needed. Only when the dog seems extremely prosocial, and essentially begging for cuddles, should you consider touching them. Even at that point, we perform a “Consent to Pet Test.” This is a way to politely ask the dog, “Is this what you want?” It works like this:

  • Dog approaches and nudges at your for cuddles.

  • Slowly and smoothly reach down to scratch their chest for no more than ONE second, then stop and see how the dog responds.

  • A “Yes,” will be the dog nudging your hand, pawing at you, leaning against you, or moving their rump into you.

  • A “No,” will be a neutral response, moving away, lip licking, startling, or any type of aggressive posturing.

  • Essentially: if the answer isn’t an obvious “Yes! I love cuddles!” Then the dog is saying “No, don’t touch me.”

Other times and situations that might trigger the Stranger Danger:

  • A visitor leaves the room, then comes back a few minutes later, especially if they went outside.

  • Standing up from a seated position when the dog is within a couple feet.

  • Multiple people putting on coats and shoes at the front door.

  • Children running, playing, and rough housing.

  • Stepping directly in front of or over the dog.

  • Dropping something near the dog, then quickly reaching to retrieve it.

  • These are called “Transitions.” Fearful and reactive dogs hate transitions.

The general rule is this: past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If your dog has reacted to any of these situations in the past, I guarantee he’ll do it again. You can manage these interactions by having little treat stations around the house. Ask people to take a few and toss them away from you and the dog before the transition occurs. Once the dog is engaged with their treats, that individual can stand up and move about as they would normally.

If at any point the dog starts to show low interest in treats, is becoming hyperfixated on someone, following people on their heels, or starts barking without easily turning “off,” the dog should be taken to a quiet room, away from everyone else, and given a few minutes to decompress. In fact, some dogs may prefer to start in that room and stay there for the duration of the visit.

Finally, there are a lot of people that end up deciding they don’t want to juggle visitors and their sensitive dog at the same time. Consider boarding them or asking a friend to watch them for a couple of days. We always want our dogs to be intimately involved in our lives, but if you have a reactive dog, they don’t want company. They are introverts that just want to go about their boring, quiet life.

Stranger Danger is incredibly common – probably one of the top 5 behavior problems we see in dogs. There are lots of work arounds and techniques that we can implement to help them cope. If you find yourself with a newly realized “Reactive Dog,” please reach out for help. The sooner we can provide support for these pups, the better the outcomes.

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