Why Does My Dog Get Anxious Around Strangers?

We often think of dogs as happy-go-lucky creatures, able to brush off conflicts and focus on the good things in life. In truth, dogs are much like us: they are emotional and complex creatures who have the ability to feel fear and anxiety. When a dog becomes frightened by a stranger, it will be obvious: they may cower and try to move away, or they may have a more aggressive response and growl or even nip. Although these behaviors clearly show that the dog is having some sort of negative reaction, the reason for the dog’s fear is often harder to discern and might not be readily apparent. Understanding why dogs respond the way they do to stressful stimuli requires an investigation into their past and their personality, accounting for possible traumas and genetic predispositions. It can be heartbreaking to see your pet cower in fear, but investigating the source(s) of stranger anxiety in your dog is an essential first step in implementing long-lasting change that will ease their distress. 

 

Common Signs of Stranger Anxiety

 

All dogs manifest fear differently, so it is important to be attentive to your dog’s behavior so that you can customize care to your pet’s needs. Common signs that your dog may fear strangers include everything from cowering and hiding to growling and fear biting. Fear is normal in all creatures, but if it becomes excessive – that is, if it interferes with your dog’s ability to partake in everyday activities or negatively affects their physical or mental health – fear can be detrimental. Luckily, there are steps that can be taken to minimize your dog’s fearful responses. The most important thing to remember is always to be patient: reducing fear, particularly of strangers, takes time and training. 

What Causes a Fear of Strangers in Dogs?

 

There are a number of possible causes of fear in dogs, but the most common are genetic predispositions, insufficient socialization, and PTSD brought on by past negative experiences. Your dog’s fear of strangers could even be caused by a combination of these causes. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB comments, “It is not hard to see that puppies raised without the benefit of ongoing benign interactions with a variety of people (and dogs other than littermates) might become somewhat insular in their thinking and therefore shy of novel encounters. This shyness can be compounded into frank fearfulness by negative experiences, such as being shouted at or handled roughly.”  Dodman calls these stressful adolescent situations “seeds of fearfulness.” The biggest responsibility of the pet owner is to pay attention to the possible sources of your dog’s fear, so you can better assess the cause, and, subsequently, the treatment. 

Questions to Ask:

 

1. Is your dog afraid of all strangers, or does it depend on the person? Does gender or age matter?

Asking these questions can help you gain insight into your pet’s anxieties. For instance, if your dog is mostly afraid of men, it could point to past bad experiences with men or a lack of previous male socialization. Sometimes, dogs are afraid of men purely because they appear more intimidating to them– their deeper voices, height, and facial hair may make a dog wary. If your dog cowers or fear-bites in the presence of children, that, too, might indicate that your dog has trauma from past negative experiences. Children may not seem intimidating to us, but a child’s inconsistent and jerky movements can easily be misconstrued by a dog as aggressive or intimidating. Some dog breeds are even genetically predisposed to being incompatible with children

2. Am I Anxious or Fearful?

Dogs are extremely loyal and attentive, so if you anticipate a stressful interaction with a stranger, your dog can sense this. Make sure you aren’t tensing up on walks when you see a stranger; stay calm and it will help your dog do the same! 

3. What Happened in My Dog’s Past?

If possible, try to find out as much information as possible about how your dog was cared for before they became a part of your family. Trauma that can cause stranger anxiety doesn’t have to be extreme, such as living in an abusive household. Your dog could develop stranger anxiety from something as simple as their past owner living in a hectic household where new people often frequent. 

What Can I Do About My Dog’s Fear of Strangers?

Once you know what’s causing your dog’s fear of strangers, you will be better equipped to deal with it. The sooner the better! A certified animal behaviorist will have all the tools to help you begin this process, including helping you to determine possible triggers. By working with a certified specialist and implementing consistent training, you can safely condition your dog to accept strangers. This is work that you should not attempt to do on your own; forcing your dog into an uncomfortable situation– like a meeting with new people– could simply make matters worse. Positive reinforcement, through treats and praise, is incredibly important; these methods put the power in your dog’s paws, allowing them to make the first move with people. Further, it is as important to pay attention to your dog’s body language as to your own when in the presence of strangers. If you are stressed, anxious, or tensed-up around people, your dog will sense this. To gain control of the situation and avoid anxiety, let those you come in contact with know that your dog is fearful of strangers.

Be Proactive!

Every stranger is different and presents unique challenges, so it is important to be prepared for possible scenarios. Once you know which scenarios – and which people – make your dog fearful, you can prepare appropriately for when you know you’ll be in these compromising situations. Some tips include:

  1. Bring treats on your walks! If your dog starts to show that they are afraid, positively reinforce any calm and obedient behavior, such as sitting rather than running away from (or aggressively towards) the stranger. 
  2. Inform your neighbors – and anyone you think you’ll see regularly on your walks – that your dog is fearful of being approached by people they don’t know well.
  3. Have a safe place in your home where your dog knows it can be alone. If your dog feels like they have some control over stressful situations, they are less likely to get overwhelmed and act out.

What If I Have a New Person Visit My Home?

When new people come to your house, there are several ways you can put your fearful dog at ease. First, make sure that your dog has a space that is all his own to retreat to. A room or a crate works well for this. Next, instruct the stranger to ignore the dog; they should not attempt to make eye contact, or touch the dog. Give the guest some dog treats to toss near your dog (while keeping some distance). Please note that, even as your dog gets comfortable, the stranger should still not make eye contact with or touch the dog. Given time, your dog may begin to associate strangers with rewards and thus their fears may abate. 

Specific Treatment Methods 

The most useful methods for handling dog anxiety, whether in your own home or out in the world, are desensitization, anxiety medications, and obedience training with a certified dog trainer (CDPDT). Because every dog is different, it is important to discuss the proper method of therapy for your dog with a certified veterinary behaviorist. Your trainer may encourage desensitization practices, which involves incrementally exposing your dog to anxiety inducing situations to acclimate them to it. Or, your trainer may encourage you to remove your dog from certain stressful situations altogether. 

Pharmaceutical Options

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Fluoxetine (Reconcile) are helpful for many dogs that have a fear of strangers. Always speak with a professional before deciding on a pharmaceutical treatment, as there can be side effects, including GI issues. 

Non-Pharmaceutical Tools

Head Halters 

Head halters are often used as an alternative to neck control collars and can be a useful tool to help train your dog and strengthen non-verbal communication between the two of you. If you are considering using a head halter, speak with a professional for tips on how to properly introduce it to your dog and implement proper training methods.

Calming Pheromones 

Some pheromones, such as the dog appeasing pheromone, have been used to help calm anxious dogs. DAP mimics a pheromone that is released naturally by nursing dogs in order to calm their puppies. 

Calmer Canine®

Non-pharmaceutical solutions such as the Calmer Canine Anxiety Treatment System have also helped calm anxious dogs. This targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF) device works by reducing inflammation in the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain. As the brain becomes less inflamed, the dog will become less reactive to stressful stimuli. Countless testimonials of Calmer Canine users have shown that the device drastically reduces a variety of anxieties – from noise phobia to generalized anxiety. 

Start Now!

If you suspect your dog has a fear of strangers, start investigating now! With consistent training and help from a professional, your dog’s fear of strangers will begin to reduce. Remember: let your dog lead the way! Pay attention to how they react to the training and go from there. Your fearful dog will soon begin to feel more comfortable and safe, no matter the situation.