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My dog is nervous when people come over, what do I do?

I get this question a lot, and it's a great place to start!

I see a lot of nervous dogs that people don't actually label as "nervous".

They'll say


Oh my dog is just...

"shy"

"timid"

"hesitant"

"protective of me" - (it's often more the case that your dog is trying to protect himself and needs your help!)


...just ignore him and he will be fine."


The problem with this is that the nervousness doesn't get addressed and when a dog is nervous they are letting us know they are uncomfortable and stressed by a situation.

Most dogs are more likely to go into a flight response when they are stressed. However, in a closed space (on leash or in a home) flight is often not an option which means that fight could be their only option to creating space for themselves so they can feel safe.


At the end of the day we have to remember that your dog's behavior is serving a function for them.


Step#1 is knowing how to read your dog

A good way to look at your dog when company comes over is to ask yourself,

"Are they using space increasing or space decreasing signals?"

Meaning- are they giving body language that says go away or come closer?


Space increasing signals (mean give me more space!) look like:

Quieter version of these signals:

Hard staring eyes

Your dog is staring at someone, or wont let someone out of their gaze. Anytime that person moves your dog stares at or startles.

Your dog becomes stiff or tense in areas of their body or their whole body- their tail might go up in a stiff way

Jumping (sometimes)

When someone comes near your dog they become tense, shy away from a pet, or leave.

Wide eyes (they look scared)

Louder version of these signals ( quieter signals happen before loud signals)

You dog barks at someone, stomps their feet, or lunges toward them

Your dog showing their teeth


Space decreasing signals (mean please come closer, maybe pet me!) look like:

Rolling on their back for a belly rub

Putting their head under your hand for a pet

Jumping (sometimes)

Licking

Soft eyes, calm relaxed body


For more information on canine body language I highly recomend this book "Canine Body Language"- Brenda Aloff


Now that you know how to read your dog the next step is...


Step#2 Management or Training?

Management is often a piece of training in the early stages, but training would actually teach your dog different ways to cope in stressful situations involving company.

Management can look like:

  • Crating your dog or putting them in another room when company comes over

  • Teaching your dog a place command when company comes over and telling everyone to ignore them

The reason I don't like to stay in management is:

#1 I want to actually help dogs feel safe when people come over so they can enjoy people.

#2 Management often fails- I want to prepare dogs for actual real life!

#3 Using obedience as management requires a ton of consistency from you at a time when your attention is elsewhere so it's bound to fall apart.


Although like I said, management will most likely be a piece of training early in training, and depending on your commitment it might be where you end, which is sometimes what makes the most sense.


Training

Training looks like:

Teaching your dog new skills and concepts in an easy environment and bringing those skills eventually to company coming over.

This means that working on company coming over will often be the last thing you work on with a dog who struggles in this situation!

This is because we of course don't want to train for failure we want to train for success!

So we have to set ourselves and our dog up to be successful, so we can gain confidence in those skills and then apply those skills in progressively more challenging environments.

If your dog struggles with company coming over, there are other areas of life they are struggling in that require new skills to help them. Once they learn those new skills you can start to bring those skills to a challenging situation in small doses.


My analogy is always-

You want to teach your dog skills in the classroom before going out to recess, because we can all relate to how impossible it would be to teach kids new skills in the middle of recess!


Key takeaways are:

  • Notice when your dog is stressed

  • Do something to help your dog feel less stressed! It will not just go away, but often only get worse

  • Management and or training can be great ways to reduce stress for you and your dog

  • Get help when you need it EARLY ON





Valerie works with dogs of all breeds and temperaments and focuses on teaching dogs to want to make the choices that we want them to without causing conflict. For their sake as well as yours!

She believes in building deep trust and connection with the animals she works with and has found that this is always the final ingredient in a successful partnership. She offers private in home training, virtual lessons, online courses, and group classes over at VRCCE in Cape Elizabeth.


To find out more about Valerie you can visit her About page at


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