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To Pet, Or Not To Pet: The Oh, So Common Misconception - Part 1

One of the most common mistakes, or misconceptions that I see in my line of work is that owners with anxious, fearful, or reactive dogs sometimes miss some very important signs that their furry friends are using to let them know that they are uncomfortable.  When these signs are missed, we sometimes push our pets into situations that cause them to lash out, or react - and more often than not, blame our dogs for doing so.

Now, don't get me wrong - I've been subject to pressure from family and friends who want to meet my extremely nervous, and reactive dog - in spite of my many warnings.  I've also felt the embarrassment creep up when I'm on a walk and someone is offended when I won't let them pet him because he is scared of strangers.  Or, I get "oh, don't worry, I'm great with dogs!" and proceed to reach right over his head, and get right in his face - cue the reaction. Then I get a look, like I have the devil incarnate on the other end of my leash.

If you are living with a reactive dog, I'm sure that you are familiar with at least one of the situations that I've explained above, or have accidentally pushed your dog into a reaction because you may have missed some of the signs.

This blog series is all about what to look for, and ways to make your precious pup more comfortable in those high stress situations!



The common misconception:

You have a dog who is scared of strangers, so you get someone to approach them with a treat in their hand.

The uncommon truth:

When you have a dog who is scared of people, or strangers, but reaallllly likes treats you are putting him in a state of conflict. Your dog is very scared of the person, but really wants the treat - so depending on your dog's food drive - they will very hesitantly approach.  At this point they are on high alert, and are acutely aware of their environment, and are hyper-focused on the stranger.  Any sort of twitch, movement, or sound from the stranger could cause your pup to react, because they don't feel safe... and we were pushing them into a situation where they only felt more, and more stressed out - until they grabbed the treat and were away from the person.

The human-like example:

You're really scared of snakes and something you really need is right by one (lets say a snake decided to slither up right next to your cell phone).  If you need to leave, you're really going to have to get that phone, but don't want to approach it because there is a scary snake right there.  If the snake doesn't bugger off, and you can't scare it away you will be faced with having to get it with the snake there.  As you approach the snake, there is no way that you're taking your eyes off it - because we focus on our fear.  If you were approaching the snake and it suddenly moved, there is a good chance you will either scream, jump, or completely over react and throw something at   it... at least I know I would!  

So why do we expect our dogs to act differently?  Regardless of how irrational we feel their fear of people is - it is a fear, and it is real.  To them, a stranger triggers them the same flood of hormones, increased heart rate, and physiological response that we get when we see something that we're scared of.  Whether it be snakes, heights, or masked axe murders.  So respect your dog's fears.  Don't force them into high stress situations just because your friend wants to meet them, or because a stranger came up to you on your daily walk... there is another way!

What to do:

If you are in a situation where you need your pup to meet this person, or they are doing really well with their counter conditioning/desensitization training and you want to test it out and get him to meet people - get the person to throw a treat over to him.

This way, you are letting him know that they are not a threat, and he gets to decide whether or not he wants to approach the stranger or not.

If he approaches you, ignore him!  Pretend like he isn't there, and let him sniff and familiarize himself with you! 

I've done this with my own dog, and many times it has been going really well... but when he went to approach them, they leaned over him and got in his face.  Some growling and lunging occurred, and we were back where we started!  For some reason we feel the need to always pet a dog if they are around...don't do it. Let the dog come to you.  If they are nervous - leave them be.  If they come up to you and solicit attention - love em' up!

Counter conditioning, and desensitization are both great training techniques to help your dog face their fears in a controlled, and positive environment, and actually work to change the way your dog feels about their fears, rather than just forcing them into facing them.  Contact a professional and make a plan!  With time, and patience your dog will be meeting strangers on the street like it's their day job.

Remember: Slow and steady always wins the race of reactivity!

This is the face of a dog who is incredibly scared of new people, experiences, and dogs. He has been working hard for 1 year on conquering his fears, and has improved exponentially because of counterconditioning, and desensitization techniques!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will be going over another common misconception in Canine behaviour!

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Thank you for writing this piece and for the work you do with furry family members. I am currently struggling with a reactive dog and feel very hopeless. It is confirming to know that there is at least a bit of hope that he might improve.

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