Why is my dog afraid of strangers?

Why is my dog afraid of strangers?


Why is my dog afraid of strangers

Some dogs may be nervous, skittish or shy around strangers because of poor socialisation, genetics or negative past experience. Fortunately, you can help your dog manage their fear with patience, reassurance and consistency.

Reasons why a dog might fear strangers

  • Your dog may have been poorly socialised previously
  • Some strangers might not know how to interact with dogs
  • Past traumatic experience with strangers
  • Genetic reasons: certain breeds might be shyer than others

This dog is not at ease: their eye whites are visible and ears are back

1. Poor past socialisation

Socialising is the healthy development of social behaviour towards different people, new dogs and situations. If a dog hasn't had much contact with strangers or certain types of people from a young age, they may become unfamiliar and fearful of new people.

This fear can be directed towards any type of stranger of any age or gender if the stranger represents something unknown and scary. A dog can be scared of all strangers, or of a certain type of stranger: such as men, women, children, runners, cyclists, etc.  

2. Strangers not knowing how to interact with dogs

Some people know how to approach dogs in a calm and caring manner. Others, however, might not know how to act around a dog. For example, they might look a dog straight in the eye, approach or pat them too directly or immediately challenge the dog to play. If a dog is a bit uncertain, they might perceive this all as threatening or dominating behaviour.

3. Past traumatic experience

If an unpleasant experience happens to a puppy at the hands of a stranger, the dog can carry this fear around for the rest of their life. This can be something very serious such as abuse, but can also a simple incident - such as a loud bang just when a stranger was with the puppy.

4. Genetic reasons

Some dogs might be genetically predisposed to anxiety, if, for instance, they have inherited this trait from their parent. Some breeds are known to be boisterous and outgoing, whereas other breeds are known to be shy. But, it's important to note that any dog of any breed can become nervous of strangers.

Reducing the fear

Dogs that are afraid of strangers can whine, run away, shiver, hold their tail between their legs, bark, growl or snarl. These are all signals in which the dog is saying loud and clear 'I want to get out of here!'. Always respect these stress signals and never force your dog into contact with any person or dog they want to avoid.

In order to reduce fear, your dog needs confidence. Slowly build up contact with new people, but always let your dog stay in control of the situation. We want to socialise, not traumatise the dog: so don't rush.

You can ask your friends to help with socialising. Make sure your friend/s remain quiet and sit close to the ground so they appear less threatening. Ask your friend to calmly ignore your dog, while you address your dog in an encouraging and comforting way. Reward your dog with some treats for being so brave, especially if they approach your friend to say hello. Take your time and do this exercise only a few minutes at a time. Your dog sets the pace, while your job is to encourage.

When your dog meets a stranger on the street

Does your dog bark at strangers on the street? Whenever your dog is approached by someone or something new, try to capture your dog's attention. As soon as you see a stranger coming, cheerfully call your dog's name and reward them with a treat when they look at you.

Also, pay attention to your own behaviour: sometimes we stiffen when we suspect that our dog will react anxiously. Dogs can pick up on this subtle behaviour, which makes the fear unnecessarily worse. So stay relaxed and speak to your dog in an encouraging way.

Do you suspect that your dog has had a really bad traumatic experience? Then we suggest contacting a dog behavioural therapist. Professional help might be needed, so best to contact a professional to support both you and your dog.