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9 Tips for Introducing a Nervous Dog to Other Dogs and People

9 Tips for Introducing a Nervous Dog to Other Dogs and People

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.

How Not to Meet a Dog! Especially if they're anxious.

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

It’s becoming more common to see dogs with harness, patches, or bandanas that say “Do Not Pet” or “Needs Space.” 

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
  • Growling
  • 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.

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Lulu

Sunday 24th of December 2023

Hi Jen My 1 yr old Aussie doodle loves to play with other dogs, but on leash reacts by pulling and barking if they look at him. He’ll also react if he’s in the car. My son is coming for a visit with 2 dogs mine has not met. What is the best way to introduce them??

Jen Sotolongo

Tuesday 26th of December 2023

I would introduce them by spending time together or via a structured leash walk. I would not allow them to interact on leash at all. If you need to, crate and rotate, or have both dogs on place, on leash, if necessary, and don't allow them to physically interact. Your dog will appreciate this, especially since it's going to be at your home.

Paul

Sunday 8th of January 2023

My dog is reactive to most dogs, not all. I often wonder if walking him off leash is feeding his reactiveness(?). Reason being, many dog owners don't enjoy an owner who walks their dog off leash... So it requires distracting my dog and keeping him from meeting dogs. At the same time, he's much less reactive when he's not on a leash, as your post mentions. Maybe I should consider a trainer. Thank you for the article, Paul

Jen Sotolongo

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

Hey Paul, typically dogs are much less reactive off leash than on leash because there is no restraint and they can freely move away as they please. I don't mind off-leash dogs, so long as they are managed by the owner.

Laura Flynn

Monday 2nd of January 2023

Hi Jen, Boy I got more than I bargained for when I read your article this is wonderful and I noticed that I am the problem lol I will learn from this and handel him differently moving forward. We are meeting a friend and her dog who’s appearance will make him react I needed this article today! Thank you thank you!!!

Laura & Copper 🐾

I love the fact that Peter takes his dog on his bike.❤️

Jen Sotolongo

Monday 2nd of January 2023

Glad you found the article helpful, Laura!

Chrissie Tiedeman

Thursday 27th of February 2020

Just read the blog on helping your anxious dog meet other dogs and people and thanks you it was a real help, simple and doable. I have just rehomed a 7 mth old rescue dog from a rescue sanctuary I actually volunteer at. I returned today to let her use the paddock and staff asked if she could play with another dog they believed was dog friendly. However not so quite playful but also dominant so we had a couple of incidents so instantly came home to see what I could find as I needed to make sure the incident didn't have long term impact on ho Lolly approached other dogs in the future. Your article was just the reassurance I needed so thank you for taking the time to write it.

Jen Sotolongo

Monday 2nd of March 2020

I'm so glad that my article helped and I hope you continue to have success with Lolly! Keep practicing and you'll get there!

Greta James

Monday 11th of November 2019

I love that you advise using positive verbal praise to help calm your dog when there are new dogs around. My aunt is thinking of getting professional training to help her scared puppy. I think this could be a great addition to whatever training she thinks will help.

Jen Sotolongo

Tuesday 12th of November 2019

I hope some of these tactics work for you aunt!