The Deception of, “He Let Them Pet Him!”

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Petting is a big deal for a lot of people. People want to connect with dogs and touch seems to be the default choice. When the nervous dog barks, growls, or snaps at strangers, owners can feel embarrassed and frustrated by the hostility—they just want Fido to be friendly! The, “he let them pet him!” moments are clung to as signs of progress.

Unfortunately, as a professional dog trainer, this report almost always makes me squirm.

Having a stranger pet your dog without incident does not mean your dog is okay with, or enjoying the experience.

From a trainer’s perspective, “he let them pet him” is a red flag. There’s an implication that the dog is tolerating something that could be unpleasant, and he’s been pushed beyond his comfort level. Dogs who only tolerate petting will eventually run out of tolerance and when they do, they’ll switch to aggression or escape. Neither are okay.

If your dog is nervous around strangers, the first step is getting him to enjoy the stranger’s presence without the person interacting with him. Standing at distance from the stranger with your dog on a leash, and feeding him a treat every time he notices the person is a great start. Petting from the stranger when your dog is uncomfortable will only make the situation worse.

I don’t want the dog “letting” people pet him. I want him begging people to pet him. And if he’s not begging for it, it shouldn’t happen.

Pro Tip: it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can tell how your dog is actually feeling about the situation.

If you need help fixing your dog’s guest manners, I can help!

Hand Feeding Doesn’t Actually Help your Shy Dog

One common technique to help the scared dog make friends is to have the stranger or guest hand feed some treats.

This isn’t the worst thing you could do, but I prefer to gently toss the treats onto the floor right at the dog’s feet or just behind him instead.

What’s Wrong With It?

If you hand feed, the food becomes a form of force that pressures the dog into approaching before he’s actually comfortable. Once he eaten the treat, he’s very close to the scary thing without the food to buffer. The dog can become easily overwhelmed at this point, especially if the person tries to touch him—which most people can’t resist doing!

Why Is Tossing Better?

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Tossing the food gives you more accurate information about the dog’s feelings. Approaching a stranger who isn’t obviously offering food communicates a lot more confidence than slinking up to someone’s outstretched hand. The dog in the photo looks pretty uncomfortable!

Here are some more tips for helping your scared dog feel safe!

  1. Keep it short and sweet. The most efficient way to train your dog is to bring him out for 5 minutes of concentrated training with your guest and then put him in a crate or bedroom for the remainder of the guest’s visit. This structure drastically reduces the chances of an Oops! moment where he accidentally gets scared.

  2. Low-Stress entrance. Put your dog in a crate or bedroom prior to the guest’s arrival and then ask your guest to text when they arrive instead of knocking or ringing the bell. Help your guest get settled with instructions and then go retrieve your dog.

  3. Non-threatening. Ask your guest to sit in a chair, and look at you instead of the dog. It’s even better if they can situate themselves so the first thing the dogs sees is their profile.

  4. $100 bills instead of pennies. Provide high value treats like small pieces of chicken, cheese, tuna fish, or meatballs for your guest to gently throw towards your dog. This will make a bigger impression on your dog than kibble/dry dog food.

  5. Hands off. Guests must not touch the dog until it’s glaringly obvious the dog is 150% comfortable with them and actually wants to interact.
    PRO TIP: People can usually keep it together until the dog sniffs or touches them and then they have a really hard time not sneaking in a scratch. Make sure to be very specific with your instructions!

If you need personalized help for your Stranger Danger dog, let’s talk!