By David Codr
Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My son has an American Bully he has had since she was about 8 or 10 weeks old. She is amazing, loving and playful!
We have always taken her out with us to meet people and she has always been afraid of everyone — even a little uneasy. She has never bitten anyone, but she seems as if she may want to.
How can we continue to help her get used to people and not be so afraid? We do definitely give her lots of attention at home — basically she is spoiled — but she does know we are alphas. Thank you so much!
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All dogs go through something called the critical socialization period. This is the most important developmental period of any dog’s life. This is when they build confidence if they have positive experiences that help them learn that strangers and unknown dogs are OK to be around. If dogs are not exposed to things in a positive way during this period, it’s not unusual for them to act uncomfortable or reactive around them later in life.
If you feel there is a possibility your dog may bite someone, always listen to your gut and avoid the situation or move your dog away immediately. Also, make sure you never correct or punish your dog for growing, barking at or lunging at someone. This is your dog’s way of communicating that it disagrees or doesn’t want that thing to be so close. As a dog guardian, it’s your job to recognize the signs of your dog’s distress and move it farther away from things so your dog doesn’t have to snarl, bare teeth, lunge or bite anyone to make them go away.
While it’s great to give your dog a lot of love and affection at home, be careful about giving it at the wrong times. Anytime you interact with a dog in a positive way, you were essentially rewarding them for whatever they are doing at the time or whatever they just completed doing.
Most people only consistently respond to unwanted behaviors like barking, chewing or jumping up. But it’s more important to recognize and reward the dog when it does things you want and desire, such as voluntarily coming over to you, sitting down, looking in your eyes, laying down or other wanted interactions. Giving dogs attention when they offer those behaviors on their own is one of the easiest ways to train any dog or motivate them to do something.
As for the term “alpha,” that’s actually an old, out-of-date construct who’s author later recognized that his study was in error. There is no such thing as alpha when it comes to dog or wolves. In a wolf pack, the alpha is the father and the mother. They don’t control the pack through dominance and aggression; they are simply more experienced, larger and the mentors the pups look up to and model themselves after. So don’t worry about being your dog’s alpha. Instead, just try to be a good guardian who looks after their needs.
To help a dog learn to be more comfortable around people, I always stress my clients that they set it up for success. Make sure you get your dog a sufficient amount of exercise, followed by 10 minutes of rest before times it’s going to encounter any new people. Taking this top level of energy off can be very productive and helpful.
Avoid situations where your dog may feel cornered or trapped, such as large crowds, congested areas, etc. Confined areas can make anxious dogs feel trapped, and can trigger a barking or lunging response. So when meeting new people, find an open area, that isn’t super busy and has lots of distracting things to sniff. Human parks are great places to do this.
You also need to regulate the amount of space between your dog and people or other dogs so your dog doesn’t need to react. Watch your dog for indications it feels uncomfortable, such as panting, drooling, staring at something, refusing to look at something, yawning, licking its lips, freezing in place, baring teeth, growling or grumbling.
If you learn to recognize when your dog starts to feel uncomfortable, and consistently move him away from the thing before he has to react, your dog is essentially practicing being calm around other people or dogs. I prefer to have the dog moving around because a dog who is stationary can often focus on the bogeyman. Also, make sure to avoid asking your dog to sit or lay down in these situations. This is another common mistake that people make that causes many dogs to feel trapped and can result in some reactive behavior.
I would recommend that anytime your dog looks at someone he doesn’t know or walks past them without showing any signs of distress, you say a marker word and then give him a treat or pet him. Keep your head on a swivel so anytime someone comes over who may trigger your dog, you can lead your dog away or toss treats on the ground to distract him.
If he starts to become reactive for any reason, don’t worry about teaching him anything or asking him to sit or listen to you. Instead, simply lead him away as quickly as possible. Your goal is to manage the situation so well that he doesn’t need to be reactive to make the thing or person go away. With practice, you should notice your dog is able to start to get a little closer and closer to new people or dogs.
It will take time and patience and lots of treats and practice. But if you go at your dog’s pace you should be able to help him feel more comfortable around new people.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.
Submit your pet questions to David Codr by emailing a photo of your dog and question to email@example.com. Visit doggoneproblems.com for more from David.