Introducing Your Nervous Dog to New People and Dogs

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Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

Before meeting Sora for the first time, Dave warned me that she was a bit unsure of new people.

I wasn’t overly worried. I had grown up with cats and was always the neighborhood dog walker as a kid. Besides, I was an animal person. And animals knew that, so all animals loved me.

I pet Sora on the head upon our first introduction and took her face in my hands and rubbed away while Dave held his breath, hoping his dog wouldn’t lunge at his new girlfriend.

Fortunately, Sora behaved on this particular occasion and taking on the role of dog mama has taught me a thing or two about dog behavior.

Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

What I didn’t know when I met Sora was how wrong my belief was that dogs would just automatically associate me with love, just because I loved them. Like many, I assumed dogs were friendly and never thought to ask the owner whether I could approach their pup. I began to notice dog walkers crossing the street when spotting us and others asked whether my dog was friendly for their dog to meet.

Sora spent her first three years transitioning from shelter to shelter, and given her behaviors then and her temperament today, her history suggests abuse and neglect in her younger years.  

She ducks when strangers try to pet her head and barks when they stare at her. She growls when oogled at and dominates over other dogs. People with hunched postures threaten her and don’t dare walk into the house wearing a hoodie without announcing your arrival because that is scary to a dog who is very sight dependent. And she really doesn’t like children, no matter how gently they approach. Who could blame her? She’s never been around them.

When given time and respect, however, Sora becomes the sweetest, most snuggly dog you’ll ever know.

Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

Sora will never be the dog we can take to play at the dog park or to our friends’ house with young kids. We can’t tie her to a post and make a quick run into the market or leave her for long periods with people who don’t know how to handle dogs like Sora. It’s up to us to keep her out of situations that will make her nervous.

Dave and I (mostly Dave) have spent many hours working with Sora to foster trust in humans and other dogs, though her behaviors still remain and emerge unexpectedly.

When people learn there’s a dog, not a baby inside our trailer, we attract a lot of attention and have come to rely on several practices that help us avoid situations where Sora feels uncomfortable. The following methods should alleviate some of the issues you may face when introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs.


Whenever we know Sora will meet a new person or dog, we communicate that she is nervous straight away.

When new people know this about her, they are in a better position respect Sora’s boundaries and we avoid any awkward situations.

As we’ve traveled, we always make sure to learn the word “no” in the language of the country. Perhaps not the most polite way to say “please don’t pet my dog,” it delivers the right message when people inquire about meeting her.

Positive Reinforcement

Sora is highly food motivated, so we try to always keep a bag of treats on hand. When meeting new people, we hand them a few treats and ask them to have her perform a trick. Through this exchange, she associates strangers with reward and they show their assertiveness by making her work for her treat.

Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

We also use verbal praise like “good girl” so when strangers pet Sora so that she relates the  experience to an audible cue.

Hi, Nice to Meet You

Sora is a dominant dog and not always too keen on other dogs’ noses all up in her business. We can tell if she’s welcome to a new dog by observing her behavior. Indications she’s not open to a new friend include:

  • Lip licking
  • Stiff body stance
  • Ears flattened against her head
  • She “goons,” staring intently at the other dog
  • Shifty eyes
  • Her tail is covering her bum

When we recognize these behaviors in Sora, we do our best to avoid interaction.

Play bows signal a green light for play in dog language | Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

Of course, roaming street dogs approach regularly and it is not uncommon to encounter the absent-minded dog owner oblivious to dog language. When the inevitable occurs, we employ the following to help communicate to Sora that things are OK.

  • Praise her as the dog approaches.
  • Try to stop the dog by putting up a hand in “stop” or making an “tss!” sound (like the noise a cymbal would make)
  • Block her face from meeting the new dog
  • Continue to offer praise while the dog is getting to know her.
  • Use TTouch therapy on her chest
  • Reward her with treats so she associates food with meeting new dogs
  • If the other dog is set on smelling Sora’s behind and she naturally lifts her tail, we let this canine communication commence as we figure they know best how to talk to one another.

Oh, But My Dog is Friendly!

How wonderful that your dog is friendly! But mine’s not.

Just because your dog gets along with everyone and all others dogs doesn’t mean that mine will get along with yours.

Oh, but my dog just wants to say hello!

What a nice guy! But my does does not want to return the greeting.

It is not uncommon that we experience this situation, and when we do, we employ the tactics mentioned above. When the owner refuses to recall their dog, and Sora is still clearly wanting to dominate despite our positive reinforcement, we just have to let the dogs sort things out for themselves, hopefully teaching the other pup’s human a thing or two about doggie etiquette in the process.

Introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs | Long Haul Trekkers

From One Animal Lover to Another

As a fellow animal lover, I can tell you from my experience with Sora that no, not all animals love you just because you love them. It doesn’t work that way.

I’ve since learned how to interact with new dogs how to approach them so as to minimize fear.

  • When meeting a new dog, always first ask the owner if the dog is friendly and whether you may approach.
  • Kneel several feet away from the dog and extend your hand, while avoiding eye contact.This vulnerable position lets the dog know you are not a threat. Eye contact ascertains dominance, which the dog may perceive as a threat. 
  • Watch the body language of the dog, if his tail is wagging, it generally means he is friendly and OK to approach. If his tail is between his legs, it means he is scared.
  • Growling or barking generally indicate fear in dogs. They are trying to protect themselves, their space, and/or their humans. They may eventually stop and trust you, but do not continue to approach a barking growling dog.
  • Pet the dog under his chin and not over his head.
  • Use a high-pitched and/or calming voice when talking to the dog.
  • Don’t make sudden movements; approach slowly. 

How Not to Meet a Dog

While it is certainly tempting to want to bathe every adorable dog in the love you feel for them, resist the urge until you have received confirmation either from the human or from the dog itself that it is all right to approach. Dogs do not understand that just because you are a vegan-eating, animal-loving person with four pets at home means that you will not cause harm to them.

Do you have a fearful dog like Sora? What tips would you share for introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs?

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  1. Thanks for the great article! We have a dog who seems very similar to Sora. He’s always hesitant and defensive around new dogs. Sometimes he warms up to them and can play with them off leash with no issues, but some dogs he never gets used to. The key for us is knowing our dog’s body language really well and NOT listening to other owners who tell us that the dogs can work it out. Also, heading to the dog park every morning for just 10-15 minutes ensures that our dog gets regular socialization and doesn’t get overwhelmed. We’ve had him for three years and he’s improved leaps and bounds with this regimen.

    We’re looking forward to trying some short tours with our pup this summer – thanks for the inspiration and the great writing!

    • YES! Knowing your own dog’s body language is so important. We can tell almost immediately if Sora is going to react or not. That’s interesting about going to the dog park every morning. Then it creates a routine for your pup and keeps him socialized. That was our biggest fear of keeping Sora away from the dog parks – not keeping her socialized. Fortunately, all the world is a dog park in South America with all the strays.

      Let us know if you ever want any tips or help with planning a tour with your dogs. We’d love to hear how they go!

  2. Hi, I identify easily with much of your article. I’ve got a 70kg German Shepherd from a military dog breeder and he’s a big strong dominant male and while he looks very cute & huggable, he is not anything like what people assume. I’ve mostly given up making eye contact with strangers as many interpret that as an invitation to come an crowd over the top of him. Where they actually block us, I try to keep their eye contact with my eyes, telling him “leave it” as they approach. It is a real joy meeting someone who is used to strong dominant dogs, just the way they walk up, you immediately know they have awareness. I’ve had previous Shepherds where fear aggression has been part of their responses but this boy is 3 years old and has none. We’re soon to head off together on a bicycle tour around Australia which I’m really looking forward to. Thanks for the article.

    • Yay! More dogs on bike! Let us know if you plan to have a blog, as we would love to follow your adventure.

      Isn’t it the best when someone who understands dogs approaches? Your nerves calm almost immediately because you know you don’t have to worry about how their actions will affect your dog. Hopefully touring with him will help his aggression issues towards people – it has with Sora, over time, as she is much, much more trusting of others now that she’s been the center of attention for so long. Best of luck on your tour and thanks so much for weighing in!

      • Thanks Jen. It is good to catch up with people who tour with dogs, you are immediately past all of the “don’t do that” stuff. He’s not really aggressive towards people as much as just only recognises immediate family and close friends vs the rest of the world. He only wants to play with those he knows and just ignores the rest of the world. I’m trying to build his level of patience with the rest of the world as he has almost none. When we are eating at restaurants (up to 5 mornings per week), he often finds it more comfortable to sit on someone’s foot which saves him using all his own effort to sit. If I’m not watching, strangers on nearby tables sit there for some time with this large black dog sitting on their foot with the human not wanting to move. He just loves the bike rides. I’ve used Crazyguyonabike for myself in the past but have set up a Facebook Page which I’ll use once I’m underway. Have just finished renovating the home and will leave when it is sold.

        Cheers, Peter.

        • It’s so hard to have so many people tell you “you can’t do that.” Our answer is, “watch us!” The more people who push the limits, the more we show all that is possible.

          I LOVE that your pup rests his head on peoples’ feet! Bear is SO super cute. We look forward to following your journey and having a fellow dog + bike traveler prove that our dogs can go with us anywhere!

  3. Perfect article. Even though our pups (pup 🙁 ) is super friendly and wants to greet everyone.. it’s been a learning experience for her that not all other doggies wish to be greeted! Luckily, with time on the road she’s been learning to not lunge into a greeting and instead monitor the other dogs reaction. Hope Sora’s paw is on the mend and all is good in Patagonia.

    • I’m so happy to hear a perspective from the opposite side – a too friendly dog. We’ve found that travel has changed Sora’s behaviors so much – for the better (except for her separation anxiety…). She’s better with other dogs and people and I’m glad that the same has proven true for your pup (pups 🙁 ).

      Sora’s paw is doing just swell and all looks great. Thanks so much for asking.

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