Don’t teach them to run before they can walk
When I was growing up it was likely you’d find a box of wooden ‘strike anywhere’ matches in any household. For kids these matches provided hours of recreation and skill building. First we had to learn to light them using the rough siding on the box, but we didn’t stop there, we were determined to put the definition of ‘anywhere’ to the test. Rocks, sidewalks and zippers worked, even teeth and after much practice you’d truly gain ‘hot sh*t’ status when you could, with one flick of a thumbnail get the match blazing.
Most of us were not reckless with our match lighting skills though I’d guess many could recount one heart stopping moment when innocent exploration turned, or almost turned, into disaster. A friend shared his own poor decision making with me, telling how on two separate occasions he lit fires in his house. Scary stuff. As for me I will never forget- and I know now that the adrenalin surge I experienced when I felt a flash of terror, is responsible for searing the moment in my mind- the day I experimented with a house plant.
A long rectangular planter filled with rat tail cacti sat on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. These slender plants are covered by haze of fine spines. I touched a lit match to the plant and watched in horror as the flame rapidly covered one plant and leaped to the next. Luck was with me that day when as you’d do to a flaming birthday cake I blew on the plant and the fire went out. Not only did the fire go out but it left no evidence of itself behind, not one charred spine to give me away. That was a close one.
With our ‘fearful of people’ dogs we can become so focused on giving them a skill, one which we believe is going to be beneficial, specifically the ability to approach people, that we don’t consider the possible repercussions. We lure them toward people with treats. We teach them to target outstretched hands. We give them ‘move toward people’ skills. Maybe we shouldn’t. I understand all the reasons ‘why’ we’d want to get our dogs to do this. We want them to be able to approach people. We think that we can make it a positive experience for them. Maybe we can, but maybe it will never be positive enough to offset the underlying fear our dog experiences.
There are plenty of dogs who are taught not to go toward and greet strangers. People are asked not to interact with these dogs and it’s not the end of the world. For these dogs it’s not a question of maintaining their safety or the safety of strangers, it’s just what they are trained to do. They may be sniffing for drugs or explosives or steering their blind handler down a busy sidewalk.
Unless you know with 100% certainty that a dog is going to continue to be safe approaching people, regardless of the circumstances, it may be a better idea not to hand the box of matches over to them and trust they’ll do the right thing with them.