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, so I felt I knew how to introduce a new dog to new people. Besides, I was an animal person, I had volunteered at the humane society. And animals knew that, so all animals loved me and knew I was a pack member.
On that first initial 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 and introducing dogs.
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.
Sora was not an aggressive dog. When given time and respect, however, Sora became the sweetest, most snuggly dog you’ll ever know.
Sora would never be the dog we could take to play at the dog park or to our friends’ house with young kids. We couldn’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 was up to us to keep her out of situations that would make her nervous.
Taking Sora on such a long trip, we knew we would attract attention and freeze every time that someone wanted to meet her. Eventually, however, we learned to face her fears together. Over many impressions and reward based training, her behavior gradually changed.
We came to rely on several practices that help us avoid situations where Sora felt uncomfortable and we are using these same methods with Riia. The following methods should alleviate some of the issues you may face when meeting new dogs and people.
1. Give Clear and Direct Communication
Whenever we knew Sora would meet a new person or dog, we would communicate, very clearly that she was nervous meeting new dogs. “She is reactive with new dogs, please do not approach.”
This gives the new person the cue to either pass on the introduction, approach with caution, or completely ignore what we’ve said (why, why, why do so many opt to ignore?). In the case that a dog owner ignores us (and clearly doesn’t know how to introduce dogs), we simply redirected Sora using the “look” command and a treat and turn the other direction.
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.
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 train your dog. Sora was highly food motivated, so we never left the house without a treat bag. Whether we are walking Laila in the city, a trail, or at the veterinarian, we are constantly working with her to build confidence and direct her toward our desired behaviors.
Dog households should build a routine where every day is a training opportunity. Don’t hesitate to reward your dog when they’re doing well! For example, if your dog has separation anxiety, give them a treat when you come home and they’re being quiet and calm.
When we meet new people, we communicate by informing them that she’s a nervous dog and excited and ask them to help us. People are generally enthusiastic about helping if it means they get to interact with your dog.
We demonstrate a few simple tricks like sit, stay, circle, or “meerkat,” hand them a few treats and ask them to have her perform for them. Avoid tricks like “shake” where the person is likely to lean down into your dog’s face, posing a threat. This exchange will help your dog associate strangers with treat dispensers.
We also accidentally offered Sora a verbal cue when we encountered new people and dogs. By asking Sora “who is that?” each time in an excited voice, Sora came to understand that we were going to meet someone new, fun, and most importantly safe.
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 Being a Nervous Dog when Meeting New Dogs
Nervous dogs have different ways of displaying their fears. Sora tended to lunge and go in for the attack on a dog if we didn’t pay attention to the subtle signs she displays. We had to learn that she was not keen on meeting new dogs’ face to face (most dogs aren’t, actually).
We could tell if she was welcome to a new dog by observing her behavior. Indications she’s not open to a new friend included:
- 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.
- Teeth bared.
- Pulling on leash toward the dog.
- Territorial behavior or guarding especially over a family member.
When we recognized these reactive behaviors in Sora, we did 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. Calming Your Nervous Dog (and yourself)
In cases where you spot an off leash dog walking (or sprinting) toward you, it’s important to remain calm. In South America roaming street dogs approached regularly and it is not uncommon to encounter the absent-minded dog owner oblivious to dog language.
When the inevitable occurs, we recommend using the following to help communicate to your dog that things are OK.
- Praise your dog verbally using a calm voice 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 their face from meeting the new dog.
- Continue to offer praise while the dog is getting to know your dog.
- Use TTouch therapy on their chest. Use positive reinforcement so your dog associates food with meeting new dogs.
- If the other dog is set on smelling your dog’s behind and they naturally lifts their tail, let this canine communication commence as we figure they know best how to talk to one another.
We have used HempMy Pet CBD oil for Sora and Laila and both dogs noticeably acted calmer around other dogs after a dosage. The company offers a variety of products for pets, including infused oils, coconut oil, and biscuits. We’ve used all of the above for Laila, Sora, and Riia.
If you know that you will be out in a potentially stressful situation and have a nervous dog, CBD oil could be a tremendous help. 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 one of the resident dogs just didn’t want anything to do with her. We called him Fuckin’ Allen, and oh boy was he a nervous dog.
He’d growl and try to attack, and therefore so would she. This wasn’t neutral territory, this was Fuckin’ Allen’s hood, his dogs home.
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. Eventually, we settled on having a separate area for Sora and Fuckin’ Allen.
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 approached Sora contributing to her leash reactivity. I tensed up, hold my breath, and the leash is taught. Dave is much better about remaining calm and he has a much higher success rate with Sora and Laila when they meet a new person or dog.
I worked on my own behavior with Sora every time we are near a new dog. I’d take a deep breath, pay close attention to her body posture, and pet her under her chin to reassure her. Then I ensure that the new dog meets her from behind first.
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 found that the highest success rate with Sora meeting other dogs without incident was when we would take a walk all together before the dogs officially meet, especially older dogs who can have territorial behavior in their space.
This allowed Sora to get a whiff of the new friend and also see that he was not a threat. My first indication that Sora was ok with a new dog was if she pulls toward them. 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, bringing the new dog for some exercise almost always resulted 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. Similarly, people wanted to meet her constantly, so she had daily encounters with strangers putting her in uncomfortable situations.
This gave her daily practice with these interactions.
Once we stopped our cycle tour and returned back to the US, however, these daily interactions with dogs discontinued with the same frequency and we noticed Sora becoming a nervous dog again when she met new dogs.
Since she was not the sort of dog we can take to the dog park, we made 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.
Best of all, the community tends to be very understanding about dog interactions and communicate well about their dog’s own behaviors while remaining respectful of your dog’s nuances.
We found a lot of success with a Gentle Leader with Sora. The face halter acts sort of like reins do for horses, it allowed us to control Sora’s head in difficult situations.
If a dog came up to her face before we had time to react, we could simply give a gentle pull in one direction and intervene before Sora could react. Plus, from our experience dogs are comfortable with the lead on their heads with proper training.
9. Don’t Give Up On Your Nervous Dog
Keep practicing. Every single day, over and over until you notice a change in your nervous dog. 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.
Patricia McConnell is a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, who has published a number of excellent books on dog training. The Education of Will 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. Another good option is The Other End of the Leash that explains the language dogs speak and how we can better communicate with them to mitigate many behavioral 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 pet parents 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. Being in a vulnerable side by side 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 or doing play bows, 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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