Before meeting Sora for the first time, Dave warned me that she was a nervous dog and felt fearful meeting new people.
I wasn’t worried. I had grown up with cats and was the neighborhood dog walker as a kid. Besides, I was an animal person. And animals knew that, so all animals loved me.
On that first introduction, I 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 I have have since learned a thing or two about dog behavior.
Prior to departing on our bicycle tour, Sora would duck when strangers tried to pet her head and barked when they stared deep into her beautiful blue eyes. People with hunched postures threaten her and she would growl or lunge when unknown dogs approached.
When given time and respect, however, Sora becomes the sweetest, most snuggly dog you’ll ever know.
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.
Taking Sora on such a trip, we knew we would attract attention and froze every time that someone wanted to meet her. Eventually, however, we learned to face her fears, together. Over many impressions and positive reinforcement, her behavior gradually changed.
We 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 meeting new dogs and people.
9 Tips for Introducing Your Nervous Dog to New Dogs and People
1. Give Clear and Direct Communication
Whenever we know Sora will meet a new person or dog, we communicate that she is nervous straight away.
This gives the new person the cue to either pass on the introduction or approach more gently and it allows us to avoid any awkward or potentially dangerous situations.
As we’ve traveled, we always make sure to learn the word “no” in the language of the country in which we are traveling. 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.
I’ve noticed within the past few years a trend in attaching yellow ribbons to a dog’s leash. The yellow ribbon means that your dog needs more space and alerts passersby that they should ignore your dog or ask before approaching. The poster below illustrates specific circumstances where you may choose to put a yellow ribbon on your dog.
An alternative method to the yellow ribbon is using a harness, collar, or bandana that communicates a variety of messages like “do not pet” and “I need space.”
Here are a few options I’ve seen available:
2. Always be Training
I’ve used this term before in our hiking with dogs trail etiquette post. This simply means that you should use every opportunity you can to work with your dog. Sora is highly food motivated, so we always keep a bag of treats on hand. Whether we are walking in the city, on a trail, or at the veterinarian, we are constantly working with Sora to keep her mind active and direct her toward our desired behaviors.
When meeting new people, we hand them a few treats and ask them to have her perform a simple trick, like sit. Through this exchange, she associates strangers with reward and they show their assertiveness by making her work for her treat.
We also use verbal praise like “good girl” so when strangers pet Sora, she relates the experience to positive audible cue.
Our favorite training treats are the Zuke’s minis. They’re small and easy to stuff a lot into a treat pouch. As a woman who often wears dresses or clothing without waistbands or belt loops, I look for a treat pouch that I can attach around my waist, like this one from. It also fits keys, a phone, and poop bags, as a bonus.
3. Watch for Signs of Nervousness when Meeting New Dogs
Sora tends to lunge and go in for the attack on a dog if we don’t pay attention to the signs she’s displaying. We have learned that she is not keen on meeting new dogs’ face to face. 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
- Barking and lunging
- Pulling on leash toward the dog
When we recognize these behaviors in Sora, we do our best to avoid interaction when possible by crossing the street or putting her in between us and the approaching dog.
Related post: How to Master Dog Socialization in New Packs.
4. Calm Your Nervous Dog
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 verbally and by touch 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.
- Use positive reinforcement 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.
We also recently started to use CBD oil for Sora and Laila and both dogs noticeably acted calmer around other dogs after a dosage. You can read our honest review of HempMy Pet CBD oil for dogs here.
5. Set Your Boundaries
We once volunteered with a woman on a Greek island who had rescued several dogs. Most were great and got along swell with Sora, but there was one who just didn’t want anything to do with her. We called him Fuckin’ Allen.
He’d growl and try to attack, and therefore so would she.
The woman used the old “they just need to sort it out” line and we resisted for several days, finally giving in because we had hoped enough time had passed. Well, I was off working on my project and Dave on his, when I heard Sora screeching. I ran out and saw her face punctured by Fuckin’ Allen and that was the last time we ever agreed to let Sora “sort it out” with another dog.
If you do not feel confident with your dog in the presence of another, then make an agreement with the owner to keep both dogs on leash at all times and under supervision so there are no fights.
6. Be Mindful of Your Own Nervousness
I am guilty of transferring my own nervous energy when dogs approach Sora. I tense up, pull tight on the leash, and drag her away from the new dog. Dave is much better about remaining calm and he has a much higher success rate with Sora when she meets a new person or dog.
I work on my own behavior with Sora every time we are near a new dog. I take a deep breath, pay close attention to her body posture, and pet her under her chin to reassure her (and me!). Then I ensure that the new dog meets her from behind first. There should be no tension in the leash when I allow Sora to meet the new dog.
Easier said than done, of course! It takes a lot of practice and confidence in each other to perfect this tricky situation.
7. Walk and Meet
We have found that the highest success rate with Sora meeting other dogs without incident is when we take a walk all together before the dogs officially meet.
This allows Sora to get a whiff of the new friend and also see that he is not a threat. My first indication that Sora is ok with a new dog is if she pulls toward him when he’s found a delicious spot to sniff. For some reason, co-sniffing seems to be a bonding experience and we can relax about any altercations.
Whether you meet at the trail or just take a walk around the block before you enter a new friend’s home, this exercise almost always results in the desired behavior from Sora.
While traveling, we met new dogs constantly, since there were so many street dogs who would just run up to us whenever they caught a glimpse of Sora. This gave her daily practice with these interactions.
Once we stopped our cycle tour and returned back to the US, however, these daily interactions stopped and we noticed Sora being more reactive when she met new dogs.
Since she’s not the sort of dog we can take to the dog park, we constantly make doggy hiking dates with friends. Instagram is a fantastic place to meet new people in your area, as is the Hiking and Camping with Dogs Facebook group.
We also used a Gentle Leader with Sora, which would allow us to have better control of her head in difficult situations.
9. Don’t Give Up
Keep practicing. Every single day, over and over until you notice a change. Use a clicker or keyword like “yes!” when your dog performs well.
Prior to traveling, we just assumed that Sora would be like this the rest of her life and that it would just be something we had to deal with. Facing her fears helped her gain more confidence has strengthened our bond with her.[The Education of Will by Patricia O’Connell is not only a fantastic read, but it dives into her experience working with a highly reactive dog. The techniques and exercises she used with Will will be helpful to any dog parent facing behavior problems.]
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.
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