If you have a reactive or nervous dog, it can make life a bit more challenging. It can be especially stressful when it comes to introducing your nervous dog to other dogs and people.
I have always had reactive dogs and have a very soft spot for them. They have taught me everything I know about dogs today, introduced me to balanced training, and showed the importance of advocating for their needs.
Learning how to manage them and navigate the world for them takes a lot of time and patience but, with the right training it is entirely possible for many anxious dogs to meet new dogs and people without issue.
9 Tips for Introducing a Nervous Dog to Other Dogs and People
It can be difficult to admit that you don’t have a social dog, but once you do, you open yourself to the tools and the education you and your dog need to navigate a world that doesn’t always give nervous dogs a lot of space.
Societal pressure and norms indicate that all dogs are social and everyone can just come into their space to love them. This is not the case with reactive and nervous dogs and I share the methods that I have used to successfully introduce my nervous dog to other dogs and people.
1. Don’t Let Your Dog Meet all the Dogs and People
We dog owners have somehow learned that socializing our dogs means meeting as many dogs and people as possible. If my reactive dogs have taught me one thing, it is that this idea could not be further from the truth.
While some dogs are certainly more social than others, others are dog selective. What this means is that they don’t want to meet all the dogs and people all the time. Being forced to do so can lead to undesirable behaviors like reactivity.
True dog socialization means gradually exposing your dog to new dogs, people, and experiences, including sounds, textures, surfaces, and sights. Slow introductions help avoid overstimulation and fear.
Dogs don’t need direct interaction with other dogs and people in order to socialize. They just need to be around them.
Here are a few suggestions for socializing your nervous dog:
- Invite a friend and their trained dog for lunch in the park, keeping both dogs on “place” the whole time without allowing interaction.
- Go for a structured walk (see #2 below)
- Work on obedience skills outside of the dog park
- Go on a field trip to Home Depot
Depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety or reactivity, you may have to practice in low-distraction areas for some time before your dog is ready to be out in the real world. Just go at your dog’s pace and you’ll have success.
2. Go for Structured Walks with New Dogs
I have had near 100% success rate introducing my reactive dogs to another dog through structured walks. The few times this method has failed were due to me failing to advocate for my dog because I gave in to societal “norms.”
Whenever I want to hang out with a friend who has a dog that mine has not yet met, I discuss how I’d like the introduction to go beforehand:
- We keep the dogs on leashes and maintain a distance
- When we start walking, we walk side by side, with dogs on the outside, or in single file
- Once the dogs are calm, you can allow quick 1-2 second butt sniff for each dog, just keep moving
- Enjoy the walk!
That’s it! By doing a structured walk together, the dogs can be in each other’s presence without the pressure of having to socialize how the humans want them to (by playing).
3. Do not Allow On-Leash Greetings
On-leash greetings don’t really allow dogs to properly meet because their movements are restricted by the length of the leash and their handler’s body position.
Further, some dogs interpret face-to-face greetings as a threat, which can cause a reaction.
Allowing your nervous dog to constantly meet other dogs on leash when they don’t want to can reinforce reactivity. It also teaches them that they have to manage difficult situations because their handler is not preventing them from happening.
4. Avoid the Dog Park
Dog parks are certainly handy places that allow dogs to be off leash in a contained area, however they are not an ideal place for your dog to engage with other dogs.
Many dog parks are small, which does not allow your dog to remove themself from an uncomfortable situation easily. Further, it’s easy for dogs to gang up on one dog.
Dog owners at dog parks are often chatting with other owners or otherwise disengaged with their dog, which means they are slower to react or notice if their dog is about to cause a fight.
Instead of the dog park, you can see if there are any Sniff Spots in your area, or if you want to practice off-leash skills, school fields during off hours make excellent training locations.
5. Give Clear and Direct Communication with People
When you see off-leash dogs ahead, are passing another dog on a narrow path, or spy dog lovers approaching to give your dog some love, communicate very clearly about your dog’s needs.
Here are a few key phrases I use:
- “Please do not allow your dog to approach mine.”
- “Please recall your dog.”
- “Please just ignore my dog.”
- “No, I’m sorry, I can’t let you pet my dog.”
- “Sorry, we’re training.”
Requests will often go ignored and many dog owners do not follow trail etiquette, so it’s up to you to prevent interaction. Your options include:
- Turning around
- Crossing the street
- Stepping way off the trail
- Body blocking your dog
- Using your legs, a trekking pole, stick, etc. to keep the other dog at bay
If you do allow someone to pet your dog, give them clear instructions about how to approach your nervous dog.
For example, “You can pet him, but don’t touch his head or give him a hug. He likes to be pet from the side.” Be ready to intervene quickly if you notice your dog appears uncomfortable.
If a friend wants to pet my dog, I ask them to ignore him until he’s settled. Once he’s calm, I ask my dog if he wants to say hi to my friend and let him go into their space, not the other way around. This way, he can make the choice himself.
6. Learn to Speak Dog
Take the time to recognize the signs that your dog is about to react to a person or another dog so that you can beat the reaction.
Common signs of reactivity include:
- Lip licking
- Stiff body stance
- Ears perked
- Intense staring
- Shifty eyes
- Barking and lunging
- Teeth bared
The moment you notice your dog exhibiting one of these signs, turn around, cross the street, give a correction, ask for a behavior, etc. You need to do something to change their state of mind to avoid the reaction.
It’s important not to coddle them with pets, cooing, and telling them it’s ok if they do react. This reinforces the behavior. Just get them away from the trigger as best you can while staying calm.
7. Advocate for Your Dog
In addition to using the communication methods outlined in #5 above, advocating for your dog also means trusting your gut and not giving in to societal pressure.
Other dogs owners will assure you that “it’s fine,” and to just “let the dogs sort things out.”
Trust me, it’s not fine, and letting the dogs sort things out has resulted in too many altercations. Once, a dog bit through Sora’s jowls. That was the last time I ever allowed dogs to “sort things out.”
People will think that you’re strange for imposing strict rules for your dog, but remember, doing so protects them and other people from getting hurt. Besides, you don’t owe anyone any explanations.
8. Don’t Get Complacent with Training
I often use the phrase ‘ABC’ or Always Be Training. I take every opportunity to work with my dog.
It can be exhausting, but it also keeps reactivity at bay and builds your bond because they see that you’ve got their back.
Working with reactive or nervous dogs requires regular practice, likely something that you will likely have to do for the life of the dog.
While it is certainly possible for your dog to become a “recovering reactor” so to speak, this comes with repetition, trust, and guidance.
9. Hire a Trainer
There is absolutely no shame in hiring a trainer. In fact, it was the very best thing I have ever done for my dogs.
Trainers exist for a reason! Dogs are complicated beings and adding reactivity or anxiety to the mix makes being their handler even more challenging.
Look for a trainer that is experienced handling reactive and nervous dogs. They will understand what you are going through and know how to best teach you to manage your dog and work through their behaviors.