Is your dog scared of strangers?
To the point that your pooch runs away when they see one?
Maybe your dog backs away and hides behind you every time.
Or between your legs.
It may seem overly dramatic.
But there could be something serious going on with your canine.
Waste no time and…
Read on to discover:
Why is my dog suddenly afraid of strangers?
Your dog is suddenly afraid of strangers because of the canine’s age and the fear period stages dogs go through. Other reasons include fear-related anxiety, lack of or improper socialization, fearing certain types of strangers, a traumatic experience, genetic predisposition, or unethical training.
7 reasons why your dog is afraid of strangers all of a sudden
#1: Age and fear period
Here’s something to consider. What’s the age of your dog?
This is the first thing to rule out before you jump to conclusions.
CCPDT Adrienne Faricelli explains dogs go through 3 fear periods while developing:
First fear period (the 1st month & 1 week, and 2 months – 2 months & a half)
Puppies who are around 1 month and a week old would be fearful of certain stimuli.
The good news is they can overcome the fear. Provided the pups are gradually exposed to what scares them.
Dog parents have no idea their pup underwent such a life stage. The main reason is that breeders usually give away the puppies when they’re at least 2 months old.
But what if the puppy has a traumatic experience of some kind?
Since this is a sensitive stage of a pup’s life, the puppy may be traumatized for life. This will show in their reactions to people, other animals, or inanimate objects.
The reason why pups are so sensitive is connected to their survival. In the wild, they’d follow their mother’s guidance and learn about the world around them.
That’s how they’d get their understanding of what’s safe and what’s threatening.
But what about domestic pooches?
There might be a problem with their development. Mainly if they’re separated from their mother during the first fear period. After which, they end up in human homes.
This explains why some breeders wait until the puppies are 3 months old before they find them new homes.
Note: During the first year period, you shouldn’t expose the puppy to frightening experiences. This includes transferring the puppy to a new home and bringing them to the vet.
“But Petya, how is the puppy supposed to get their vaccines if they don’t go to the vet?”
The puppy must be taken to the vet for their 3 vaccinations. But what’s crucial is how the pup perceives the experience. This is where you come in.
Try to make the vet visit as fun as possible. From leaving your home to getting in a vehicle to putting them on the examination table. Bring dog treats, talk in a high-pitched voice.
Second fear period (6-14 months)
Okay. You’re past the first fear period.
And are now at the second fear stage. The latter is connected to the sexual maturity of your dog. It’s basically like having a canine teenager at home.
In nature, a dog would hang with their pack and hunt. The pooch will also learn to fear and avoid certain animals and situations. This is so they could survive.
But how will this look in a domestic environment?
Your dog could become more territorial and act protective. As a result, they may start pulling on the leash. But they’d also growl, snarl and bark at people and other animals.
Your pooch could also start to appear fearful for no reason.
Third fear period (during early adulthood)
The third period of fear happens in early adulthood. During this time, the dog may become aggressive. That’s because they’ll be protective of their territory and resources.
#2: Fear-related anxiety
Fear-related anxiety in dogs can occur when they’re between 12-36 months old. When this happens, you should deal with it right away.
It’s a learning opportunity for your pooch. With your help, they can overcome their fear.
But what will happen if you don’t address it?
It may get worse.
Causes of fear-related anxiety include:
- A change of environment.
- Loud noises (from fireworks).
- Certain surfaces (such as grass).
- Stressful situations (such as going to the vet’s).
- Visual stimuli (such as hats, sunglasses, umbrellas).
#3: Lack of or improper socialization
What happens if a puppy’s not socialized when they’re 3-16 weeks old?
Your pup may appear calm and collected now. But may develop fear and anxiety when they become an adult.
That’s why it’s advisable to expose your puppy to as many different people and places as possible. Gradually though.
Plus, it’s very important not to oversocialize your puppy. Because that way, you’ll be causing more harm than good.
There’s a term called ‘flooding’. It means overwhelming your puppy by letting people or other dogs invade their personal space.
#4: Fearful towards certain types of strangers
I’m not talking about abuse here. If your dog’s suddenly afraid of strangers, it might be due to the stranger’s approach.
According to the SPCA, most dogs are afraid of unfamiliar people. More so if the pooch hasn’t been socialized as a puppy between their 3-16th week.
On top of that…
Some people just don’t know how to communicate to a dog they mean well. Even if they do.
But it’s not the person’s fault. Person-to-dog communication has its specifics. Kind of like foreign languages.
You can’t blame someone for not speaking French or Spanish. It’s cool if they do. But you should perceive it more as a bonus.
So, as I’ve said, the person may love dogs. But if they have little to no experience, they might appear threatening to your pooch.
The simplest example is petting a dog with the palm of your hand down. Some dogs immediately cower. And try to dodge the petting attempt. Their ears go flat.
These are clear signs that the dog is uncomfortable. Your pooch may also look away and lick their lips.
If the person doesn’t understand what the dog’s trying to tell them, things may escalate. This will be due to the fact that the dog’s in fight or flight mode.
And if your canine’s on a leash, ‘flight’ is not really an option. So they may growl, bark, and even bite. This will happen if the dog’s extremely nervous.
Warning: Watch out for the abovementioned signs. If you notice your dog showing any of them, remove the canine from the confrontational situation.
#5: Past traumatic experience when interacting with strangers
Let’s talk about superstitions. When it comes to dogs I mean.
Just like people, dogs could have superstitious fears.
Let’s see how The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines superstition. Namely, an “unreasonable or irrational or groundless fear or belief about something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary”.
How is that possible in the dog world?
Well, some dog parents have shared with me their dog’s experiences.
What basically happened was that the dog would hear or see something scary. And the pooch would link it to the arrival of other people or dogs.
Say if a sprinkle turns on all of a sudden and wets your dog. Meanwhile, a stranger is approaching. Your dog then associates something unpleasant (such as being wet) with the arrival of strangers.
Another example is if there are empty tin cans in front of a store or on a bin. There’s also a stranger nearby. Then, while you pass with your dog, there’s a gush of wind.
This makes the cans fall and produce a nasty sound. Your dog then associates the presence of the stranger with the tin can sounds.
This impression gets stuck in the canine’s mind. And now, whenever they see a stranger, they’re scared.
#6: Genetic predisposition (breed-specific shyness)
One study has found out that genetics plays a big role in how a dog behaves. 60-70% of genetics is responsible for how a dog reacts towards strangers.
The researchers discovered that certain behavioral traits were hereditary. These are:
- Prey drive.
- Aggression to strangers.
- Attention-seeking behavior.
These traits are common in certain dog breeds. It all comes down to what purpose the dog was bred for.
For example, stranger-directed aggression is more common in guard dog breeds.
Another study supports the finding that a dog’s fear and anxiety are related to the canine’s genes. For this one, researchers extracted data for 120 Great Danes.
Not sure what a Great Dane looks like? Think of the Scooby-Doo cartoon.
Although this type of dog is very big, they could be as fearful as Indiana Jones around snakes.
Check what I mean by taking a look at this video of a Great Dane and a cute baby goose:
#7: Unethical training methods
You want your dog to have positive associations with strangers. But that won’t be possible if you hire a trainer who doesn’t do positive reinforcement.
Let me give you an example.
Say the trainer uses a shock collar. So whenever your dog tries to bark at a person or jump at them, the pooch gets zapped.
You might think that’s good because your dog will refrain from the behavior.
But there’s another possibility. It’s that your dog might start associating strangers with negative experiences.
The problem with this type of approach is that it’s not treating the underlying cause. Sure, it might stop the dog from barking and jumping. But it won’t teach them not to be afraid.
On the contrary, your dog would start linking strangers to:
Unethical training methods include (but are not limited to):
- Pinch collars.
- Shock collars.
- Choke chains.
Warning: Remember that growling and barking are warning signals. If the dog gets feedback that these are not accepted, they might directly resort to biting.
How do I make my dog not scared of strangers? 3 tips
#1: Keep calm and…set an example for your dog
It might come as a surprise to some, but dogs can pick up human emotions. And I don’t mean just happiness and sadness. That also applies to anger and fear.
So, you might want to be careful how you feel around your dog. Based on your actions, your dog is likely to react either calm or stressed.
Ever wanted to be a role model?
Here’s your chance!
Remain as calm as possible. This way, you show your canine there’s nothing to be scared of. And, since dogs are experts at imitating, your pooch will soon relax too.
But what will happen if you’re tense?
Well, you’ll teach your dog there’s something to be afraid of. And your dog will react fearfully again in similar situations.
This might worsen their fear over time, resulting in an accident.
So work with your Fido. Break the fear pattern. Start by making sure you’re not reinforcing their belief that strangers are scary.
#2: Make your dog accepting of visitors (it’s easy)
Do you like having visitors at your place?
If so, you can use this to your advantage. Dr. Jen (AVSAB & APDT) explains how they can help you train your dog.
If your dog shows fear by barking, growling, snarling, warn the person who’ll help you in advance. Your helper must be okay with the situation.
If they’re easily scared of vocal dogs, it’s not a good idea to involve them.
As their fear will send the wrong message to the dog. Namely: That the canine has something to be scared of.
Now, after you’ve chosen the right helper, pay attention to:
When the visitor arrives
Part 1: At the door
First impressions matter. So, instruct the person who’s going to help you what to do. And what not to do.
They mustn’t step off on the wrong foot.
Remember – a lot of dogs react strongly to sounds such as the ring of a phone or that of the doorbell. Or to knocking on the door. So it’s best if your helper skips that part.
Let them take advantage of the fact that we live in the 21st century. And ask them to text or call you.
You may also be interested in: Why does my dog bark when the doorbell rings? 5 reasons + 5 tips
Part 2: Entering
Say your helper has successfully passed part 1. Great.
But entering could be a bit tricky.
If your dog tends to bark or show any aggressive behavior, have them leashed. Don’t risk it. Also, take them away on the leash at a safe distance.
Another option would be to have them in another room. The idea is that there’s a dependable barrier between them and your visitor. It could be a baby gate.
Note: If your pooch keeps their distance, you can unleash them. Even if they bark.
During the visitor’s stay
Your visitor’s inside – safe and sound.
Try to make one thing clear to them. It’s so simple that people often underestimate its efficiency. But if done right, this technique can set your dog up for success.
I’m talking about…
Step 1: Ignoring the dog
Yup! No joke. It’s all your visitor has to do. But most people fail at this task. Unless they focus and keep resisting their natural urge to interact with dogs.
It’s easy and hard at the same time.
I get it because whenever I see a dog, I also want to go to them, look them in the eyes, and talk. Maybe pet them if they’re okay with it.
But if I have a fearful dog in front of me, I remind myself to resist.
Because if I don’t, I’d be doing no good. On the contrary, the dog would be even more scared.
Step 2: Get the treat party started
Prepare some tasty treats. The less often you give them to your dog, the better. This creates the impression that your dog gets them on special occasions.
Then, have your visitor take some treats. Their job will be to toss them to the dog. But they should still remember to not even look at the pooch.
The right way to do it: Let the guest talk to you and toss a treat or two on the floor. Not too close to you. Just in the dog’s direction.
The wrong way to do it: Trying to lure the dog with the treat in hand.
This approach will backfire because it’ll make the dog uncomfortable.
Your pooch will want to get their paws on the treat. Yet, they’ll feel unable to do so. All because there’s this stranger danger they’re faced with.
This will create a conflict in the dog’s mind. As a result, your dog will come forward, then retreat.
Warning: Another reason to avoid holding a treat and luring a scared dog, is that they might bite you. This approach makes the dog confused and tense. And once they get the food, they may show aggression.
Here’s why this happens.
The dog may be focused on the treat alone when coming close to the visitor. Once the food is no longer present, the dog will become aware of their closeness to the ‘dangerous’ person.
Then, their fight or flight survival instinct will be activated. So they’ll do either of the 2.
#3: Create a stress-free environment for your dog
Let’s say you’re already working on getting your dog used to visitors. While that’s great, you should also be careful not to overwhelm your pooch.
By giving them a dedicated safe space. This could be a dog bed or a crate on the other end of the house. Somewhere quiet where your dog can relax.
You can also give them something tasty to nibble on. This is so they focus on a positive experience. Instead of being anxious.
Walking your dog is a great tool to help them overcome their fear of strangers.
Don’t disregard this just because it sounds simple. It’s actually very effective.
Even some people use this technique to deal with their own anxiety. Let’s take dating for example. If you’re going on a date with someone for the first time, you’ll likely feel nervous.
The tension between you and the other person may rise in certain situations. Say if you’re sitting opposite of each other.
It’s a vulnerable position to be in. Since the other person can easily notice your emotions and reactions. So it may not be the best way to begin the date.
But what if you go on a walk? You can still look the person in the eye. But from time to time as you’re watching the way. It’s a more casual atmosphere. You don’t feel confronted.
It’s also helping so you 2 get to know each other better. So that when you sit to have a drink somewhere, you’ve loosened up a bit.
Now, back to your dog.
Walk them with other people.
Just tell the person/people you’re with to ignore the dog. And walk together around your house for a few minutes. It doesn’t have to be long. You can do it for 10-15 minutes.
It’ll still be effective. The goal is that the dog focuses on the surroundings. And enjoys some sniffing and looking around.
Give instructions to your helper to not give any treats. The presence of that person would be more than enough.
Here’s how the magic happens:
- Walking alleviates the tension of direct eye contact and confronting body language.
- The dog can focus on something else (scents, sounds, scenery).
- Everyone’s walking as one whole group.
- Walking is rewarding for dogs (physically and mentally).
- It’s easier to change the dog’s perception of strangers during an enjoyable activity like that.