If your dog has stranger danger–fear of new people–it’s your job to shield them from unwanted attention whenever you’re out & about. The trouble is, your dog is so darn cute that everyone you pass on the street wants to pet them. Sometimes they even ask for your permission. But what if your dog says no?
Understanding fearful body language
First, what would “yes” look like? A dog who wants to meet a stranger will walk right up to them, eagerly, and without coaxing. And while they’re getting pets, their body language will look relaxed: open mouth, tongue hanging out, squinty eyes, tail wagging slowly, “asking” for more if the petting stops. They won’t duck, back away, lick their lips, tuck their tail, draw their ears back, clamp their jaw shut, yawn, or show other anxious signals. If you see any of these signs of stress, it means your dog said “NO.” But nobody heard them.
Learn more about fearful body language in this great video from Fear Free Happy Homes. For training help, hop over to my Shy, Fearful, Anxious page.
Shy dogs just don’t want to meet strangers. And they shouldn’t have to. But some people think all dogs wants to meet everyone. So before you’re even halfway through your long-winded apology (why are we sorry?) that your dog really IS friendly, but they’re scared of new people because […insert your theories on your dog’s backstory, what the rescue told you…], the stranger is already petting your dog!
Your dog doesn’t need you to apologize for their stranger danger, or justify their reticence. They just want to feel safe. What they really need is a bodyguard. That bodyguard is you.
“Guard” your shy, fearful dog from well meaning strangers
When an unfamiliar person wants to pet your dog, and you know your dog doesn’t want it, vote with your feet. Smile warmly but start moving away pronto. As you retreat, you can explain over your shoulder, if you feel the need. Keep it simple: “My dog is afraid.” Or be cryptic: “My dog is in training,” whatever that may mean. Or tell a tiny white lie: “My dog has ringworm and it’s SUPER contagious.” (At least the latter part is true.)
When it comes to meeting strangers, leave the choice to your dog. Read their body language and recognize fear signals. If your dog say no, respect that. Having you as a bodyguard will build their confidence and tame their stranger danger, until one day, maybe, their answer will be yes.