While the owner of a dog who is unsocialized and fearful of people often goes out of his or her way to avoid situations that have previously provoked aggressive behavior, the challenge of maintaining control of the dog becomes even more difficult when the owner is approached by a well-meaning dog lover who doesn't recognize a dog's clear warnings to keep their distance.
Most owners of fearful dogs have, at one time or another, had run-ins with this individual, the person who proudly proclaims "all dogs love me" as he or she steps without invitation into the dog's space with no thought of the consequences.
While their reputation as dog magnets might bring them a certain status within their circle of friends, others who work with fearful and aggressive dogs often find the behavior of these individuals to be self-serving and psychologically damaging to shy or fearful dogs.
If I'm coming off as a little harsh here, it's because it's frustrating to work with so many owners who struggle to modify their dog's behavior and yet find their progress set back time and again due to the advances of wanna-be dog whisperers. After getting their dog-fix for the day, they leave without considering the repercussions of their actions. They don't consider the dog's owner will now have to reboot and start over with the dog's rehabilitation.
So if you've ever unknowingly been guilty of contributing to a scared dog's problems, here's an opportunity to learn how to be a positive part of their training. First of all, we get it. You love all dogs, but forcing a fearful dog to tolerate your advances only serves to make it more fearful and distrustful of the next stranger who comes along.
Learn how to read the indicators or signals that dogs use to let you know when they are anxious or stressed. Though subtle, they are easy to spot once you stop trying to be the dog's friend and observe his behavior. These can vary from repetitious yawning to tongue flicking, the very visible whale eye with too much white showing to slowed breathing and tensing of muscles. They can all be signs that a dog is growing more and more anxious.
And try looking at things from a dog's point of view. Dogs don't walk up to other strange dogs and look them in the eye unless they are issuing a challenge; proper etiquette dictates that they approach each other laterally, nose to tail. Putting one's paw on the head or over the neck of a strange dog can be seen as a display of dominance, and baring teeth can communicate various meanings, such as submission, a warning or to menace. (Yes, some dogs will even retract their lips and "smile" when they're happy, but that is usually paired with other non-threat signals).
Understand that just because you can do something with your dog doesn't mean someone else's dog will tolerate it.
A fearful dog whose warning signals have been ignored and finds itself faced with a smiley-faced stranger entering its space, standing over and reaching for its head can become desperate to get that person to back off. And if flight is impossible because it is being restrained on a leash, it may have only one remaining choice, and that's to fight.
When an owner asks you to refrain from trying to pet or approach his or her fearful dog, listen and don't take it personally. Instead, stand sideways and admire the dog casually from a non-threatening distance, secure in the knowledge that you won't be responsible for causing it any additional anxiety and stress. If the owner has treats, he or she can have you drop a few at the dog's feet to associate your presence with a good thing and create a new behavior pattern.
That helps the dog and its owner look forward to the approach of strangers, instead of dreading it.
How's this for a shocking statistic? According to the American Humane Association, approximately 100,000 dogs die each year while riding in the beds of pickup trucks.
That's why the AHA is joining forces with Ford Motor Co. to launch a pet safety campaign called "Dogs Ride Inside" to remind pickup owners to keep their pets inside the truck cab and restrained by a pet seatbelt or crate.
Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at email@example.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.