Don’t teach them to run before they can walk

cartoon box of matchesWhen 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.

27 comments so far

  1. Julie on

    I’ve heard of more than one dog that has bitten because it was over in a stranger’s lap eating treats, and when the treats were gone suddenly realising where it was. They were pushed into a situation they couldn’t handle with the yummy treats. Though the intentions were good, as you say, the dogs weren’t ready to be so close to strangers.

    I prefer sitting on a bench and throwing treats behind the dog. This way it gets reward for approaching me, but doesn’t have to come all the way in. And each time it moves closer it gets to move further away.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Treat/retreat games are great for helping many dogs. My latest Nibbles responded well to this, but I to this day I wish I never encouraged Sunny, in any way, to approach people on his own.

  2. rangerskat on

    This is true of so many things. I recently realized that Finna does not need to go for walks at this point and possibly ever. I’ve always thought that confining a dog behind a fence and never letting them walk around their neighborhood was a cruel thing but for Finna it is a blessing. I’d been carefully timing my walks to avoid people and other dogs and working hard with her on U-turns, sits, watches, etc. in an effort to make walks a safer and more enjoyable experience. One morning I was tired and not looking forward to taking her out on her morning walk and instead of running to the gate to get harnessed and leashed as was the custom Finna instead ran and fetched a ball (she’s become a fetch fanatic). We played ball for a good half hour keeping her in almost constant motion. She was tired and relaxed when we went in and I realized that the daily walks had been as stressful for her as for me. She’s happier not going for walks. I’m learning a lot about listening to her and how to keep her safe and happy. I haven’t done much with teaching her to tolerate people yet. At this point visitors are kept outside the fence and she’s getting pretty good about accepting that.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sounds like a good plan to me and I’d guess Finna thinks so too. I’ve never thought leash walks were really much good for exercising most dogs. It’s nice to get out and sniff, but not if you’re afraid of a lot of things out in the world. I know that if we lived in a place with more people around I’d probably only take Sunny out at 2am.

    • KellyK on

      I’m really glad you found a fun, non-stressful exercise for Finna. I think it’s easy to base our impressions of “cruel” or “kind” on what we would wont or what most dogs we know seem to want, without thinking about what a situation is like from that individual dog’s point of view. A lot of dogs like walks, or they like any chance to be outside and active, so we assume that all dogs must. But a dog who hates walks isn’t any more deprived by not taking walks than someone who hates fish is deprived if they don’t go to a sushi bar, or an introverted bookworm is neglected and lonely if they spend an afternoon curled up with a book.

      My dog, Diamond, usually likes walks, but occasionally she will freeze up and just want nothing to do with it. I’m still trying to figure out what, specifically is scaring her, but if she’s upset, then we go home.

  3. Holly on

    I just had a second lesson this morning with a fearful dog. At the first lesson, simply my being in the house created repeat explosions. Today, I got none. I will not handle this dog, there is no need, but she does need to tolerate non-family members in her home and that is what we are working on. Doing a hand target to get to her people, crossing the room to get to her handler without taking a detour to bark/lunge at the one (s) who are just visiting. I think encouraging a fearful dog to go near those s/he is fearful of is creating a tremendous conflict. So I stay in one place, the dog knows where I am and that I will not move, in order for her to be able to focus on her handler. With any luck, in a few more lessons, she can tolerate me moving from point A to point B, (not near her) and just watch me move around. I think also, when you create such conflict in a fearful dog, they can’t just watch the stim with any kind of confidence in their handler and it probably erodes the trust that they can indeed trust them.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Hope you continue to see improvement. My own fearful dog is not allowed to join other dogs at the door when people come in and has his ‘safe’ spot where he spends most of his time when people are around. This has meant that I can have people in the house, coming and going, and walking by him and not have to ‘worry’ about him. He doesn’t have to worry either since everyone is instructed to ignore him.

      Getting those foundation handler skills is great. I hope her owners enjoy the process. It gets easier!

  4. Camille on

    Are there any posts that deal with dogs who are afraid of other dogs? My dog is doing well in a controlled environment (training class) but out on walks, even spotting another dogs sends him into a frenzy of growling and writhing. I have read many of your posts and those that especially struck home were where you had a fantasy of how your dog would be the ideal companion and you would spend many happy hours doing fun things together. I too entertained those ideas, but now I have reached an acceptance that my dog just isn’t going to be the happy-go-lucky-glad-to-meet-other-dogs-on-a-walk dog.

    I have ordered your book and hope for some more insight.

    Thank you for the good work you do.

    • fearfuldogs on

      My book will help you get your head around fear based behaviors. I’d also recommend that you visit to learn more about the protocol called BAT. It incorporates an exercise called ‘look at that’ which is detailed in Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed. Most exercises for working with reactive dogs begin with creating a solid auto check in, rewarding the dog for giving you ANY attention, ANY time. If we can start with a dog who is in the habit of looking at us without being asked, it becomes much easier to get their attention when we need it.

      One post that comes to mind is this one

      • Camille on

        Thank you so much. I will check out these resources!

  5. Jen on

    Great post!

    Whether to greet strangers or not is sometimes a topic of debate on Doberman boards that I frequent. You never know what a person might do, how a dog might react, and how the situation will come together, and sometimes it just seems safer for everybody to keep oneself to oneself, fearful dog or not.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Jen. Some people are afraid of dogs, or wear white pants. Either way they’d rather not have my dogs going over to them to say hello.

  6. engineer chic on

    I’d almost like to administer an exam to humans entering our home. Questions like, Do you have a dog? Do you follow rules even if you think they are stupid?

    Until then, I’m very cautious about letting S meet new people. Mostly he’s in his soft sided crate with the lid partly unzipped (so he can stand and pop his head out to observe).

    But here is a question for you – it has plagued me for awhile. After much practice, S is comfortable meeting new people at pet stores (like Petco) and at daycare (where he is surrounded by other dogs). But still not comfortable at home or when we are out for walks in our area. I wonder if the problem is that with Petco there is consistency – there are strangers there every time we visit, but at home its 95% stranger-free and strangers are still considered outside the norm in this environment?

    With any of my previous dogs I’d say they were being protective but S reacts clearly with fear signals. I think S may just fear CHANGE since even walking on a different trail is scary for him. Is that possible?

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Most dogs will react to sudden changes in the environment, it’s why some people have them, as early warning systems or guards. How resilient & tolerant they are to these changes, i.e., how quickly they recover and the degree of response, varies. Our fearful dogs are often very sensitive to novelty and environmental changes. They have more pronounced responses and stay aroused or upset longer.

      In a location where there are always lots of people the environmental changes are actually less intense. There’s probably not much difference to a dog if there are 7 people or 9 people. But if there are NO people and then there’s one person the contrast is huge. This can be especially scary when there is no way to predict when that person is going to appear.

      At home a dog might hear a car pull up, or a door open, giving them something to prepare them for the arrival of a trigger. It doesn’t necessarily stop them from being afraid, but it can lower their stress level somewhat. When out walking on trails, if your trails are anything like the ones where I live, people suddenly appear around a bend or in the distance. I’ve seen the variation in my dog’s behavior depending on which part of a trail we’re on. If he can see a distance in both directions he is less vigilant than when curves in the trail obscure his vision. He has to keep an eye open in case someone suddenly appears too close to him.

      I’ve stopped walking him on these trails because I noticed that although he enjoyed the exercise and the possibility of meeting other dogs, he was spending too much time worrying about what was coming around the bend. As years have gone by his initial reaction to run up into the woods has changed and he’s now able to run toward people, and it’s not safe.

      • Lizzie on

        Debbie, it still amazes me just how alike Sunny and Gracie are! Reading the above it’s as if you are talking about her.
        We don’t have the forest walks that you do as I’m coastal but on our little route we walk around a lake and there are litter bins. She would walk past the bins, no problem until recently when some bright spark decided they would put black bin liners in them and tie them with a bright orange cord to keep them in place, (it’s windy here a lot of the time!). She took one look at the one bin that we have to walk past, put the brakes on, backed away belly down on the ground, and I had one heck of a job to get her to go past it.
        Turning round is not an option as we have to walk round the whole lake to get beyond this bin, and that’s not something she’s used to doing. Eventually with a lot of coaxing and soothing words she did slither past it. It has been some days now but she still does not like this bin and always pulls as far away from it as the lead will allow every time we go on this route, which is every day. There are only so many routes that she tolerates and once we get beyond the bin she’s fine, and I can let her off the lead as we then go round a field.

        I have long since abondoned the idea that Gracie should be less afraid when we’re out for walks, and it’s not just people, although they are her primary fear. I doubt that she will ever get much beyond the point we are at today.

        You can teach an old dog new tricks, Gracie is testament to that, but changing the way a dog feels is a whole different thing and nigh impossible to achieve. I’ve stopped beating myself up about it though and just accept her the way she is.

        I lost one of my other dogs two weeks ago. He had something ‘nasty’ going on in his stomach. I didn’t want him to die on an operating table so the lovely lady vet who was caring for him at the hospital put him to sleep very gently. I will always be grateful to her for that.
        So, in a while, I will have room in my heart for another Lab, but without the fear issues that Gracie has. I feel the need for some ‘normality’ in my life 🙂

  7. 2 Punk Dogs on

    Whenever new people come over, we tell them that the dogs are nervous around people and to just ignore them. Last weekend one of Mr.’s friends, who has been here many times before, decided to talk to Duke to be friendly while he was obviously scared and shaking since two new people were here. I told him to stop paying attention to Duke & instead he moved closer, so Duke growled at him. The Mr. quietly told his friend to back the F up as Duke was returned to the shelter for fear agression before we got him. The friend was a little surprised, as he had never seen that type of reaction from Duke, but then he had never got in his face talking baby-talk and staring directly at him before.

    It drives me crazy when people who have a normal, well-socialized dog that they got from a reputable breeder think that makes them “good with dogs.” Um, if a dog is growling why would it be a good idea to move towards them? Especially when there is no need to interact with them? Usually people listen when we tell them not to pay attention to the dogs, so I was mad at myself for letting Duke get in a position where he felt so nervous he growled. The Mr. always tells people not to take it personally, that the dogs are afraid of everyone, but it’s funny how often they do seem to take it personally.

    • EngineerChic on

      Tough situation with people like that – if you sequester the dog away in a safe zone (like a crate or another room) the people think you are being unreasonable – since all dogs love them. If you don’t sequester the dog & try to control the interaction so it’s one your dog is comfortable with, the people turn out to need more training than the dog 😉

      I’ve decided that I prefer to be “that psycho dog lady” who won’t let people approach my dog. The attitudes I get back range from, “Thank you for letting me know” to near indignation that they can’t pet him. But my allegiance is to my dog.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      One way I look at it is that people who ‘want’ dogs to like them are probably at least, at heart, well intentioned. I know that until I lived with a seriously scared dog I would pursue dogs thinking that a handful of treats would change their minds. I learned.

    • KellyK on

      It’s weird how personally people take stuff like that. And I think you’re right that people have good experiences with happy, confident dogs and they think that means every dog will automatically like them.

      I have friends who take it really really hard that my dog is scared of them (and yet will go up to other people). Truth is, sometimes she goes up to people and is happy to be petted, sometimes she goes up to them wagging, then chickens out at the last minute, and sometimes she sees a new person and instantly hides. Different people will also be “okay” or “not okay” depending on the day. The same person who gets a big tail wag and a dog sitting next to them one day gets a dog who won’t come near them another day. I know she’s scared by loud sounds and sudden movements, but other than that, I can’t really predict whether she’ll be scared of someone or not.

  8. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    I gave up trying to teach Ty to like strangers a long time ago. There are a few people he actually warms up to pretty quickly – as long as they don’t move quickly – but the days of handing treats to people on the street so they could feed them to Ty are long gone. As much as he loves food, he was never comfortable getting close to people he didn’t know. I spent years trying to show him that he was wrong about strangers, and to what end?? There was no changing his mind – and honestly, it doesn’t matter that much to me.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And it seems like you’ve sorted out something that works for both of you. In the end that’s what matters, not that strangers can’t touch our dogs.

  9. 2 Punk Dogs on

    This weekend I took the dogs to my parents farm to play with their dog while the Mr. had people over for band practice. Duke & Maggie had fun running around, and like my parents because they let them be themselves. My mom said, “let them be scared, it’s too much work & stress to try and change them.” Mom mostly ignores them & gives them bits of food when she’s cooking, so Duke & Maggie will now come right up to her to see what she’s doing. My poor dad keeps trying to talk to them, which makes them walk away. If he’s reading or otherwise not paying attention they’ll sit right next to him & then he can pet them. (He doesn’t realize that he intimidates most people, so he’s extra scary to fearful dogs.)

  10. Charles on

    I found and this blog looking for some kind of hope for my dog Pete. We adopted him recently from a family in which the husband was afraid that the dog would hurt the child. Pete was found in a ditch at 9 months. He had been used as a bait dog and his front teeth were filed down to nubs. He is quite frightened of younger men (which is why the previous owner’s husband did not trust him) due to this. When we first met him, he was willing to approach me and I spent a great deal of time petting him. The owner and her mother were amazed that he was reacting so well with me. However, when we got home, the story changed. He lays at my wife’s feet with her beteen us, watches my every move and will not get closer than 8-10 feet without something between us. If I get to close to him, he will slink away. At the moment I am trying very hard to ignore him all the time and I make a special point to sit in the floor and play with our other dogs every day when I get home from work in an attempt to show him that I’m ok. After a week, it almost seems as if he is worse than when I met him. I am trying extremely hard not to put him in bad situations (going out of my way to go around him or take a different route, not making eye contact, and looking away when he looks at me) and do not talk to him in any way. What I am wondering is if there is hope. I love dogs and really want to see this guy happy. I couldn’t care any less whether he is ok with strangers, honestly. I want a dog that doesn’t have to feel fearful in my house simply because I am there. He doesn’t have to get super excited about my arrival (Dahliss and Beary have that one covered) as long as he isn’t scared of me. Based on your experience, what would you say my chances of convincing him to accept me are? Once again, I am fine with him being a dog that just relaxes in the house or fenced yard and never has to meet strangers. I just want him to accept me into his life and am willing to do what it takes. If this is never going to happen, though, I think I would better serve him by finding a loving home where he doesn’t have to be scared all the time.

    • Charles on

      I just re-read my post and realized how horribly written it is. I apologise for the poor grammar and composition.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Without actually seeing a dog, and even then there’s no guarantee, I’m not sure that anyone can give you a thumbs up or down about the dog. Have a read through the website, there’s lots of info about how to interact, or not with a dog like this. Have a complete vet check up done on the dog. Any medical problems should be addressed. A dog who doesn’t feel well or hurts may find themselves more easily stressed out by things. Talk to the vet about medications that can help lower the dog’s over all anxiety and stress. If there is a rewards based trainer with experience working with fearful dogs it would be worth having them show you some techniques. A dog who knows some basic cues can make more sense of their world.

      There is always hope. I am fairly certain that if Sunny could talk he’d say he wishes that it was only me and other dogs in the world with him. But that’s not going to happen. He does not ‘accept’ my husband in the sense that he initiates interactions with him, other than to play frisbee with him. My husband acknowledges that and ignores Sunny most of the time. Is this the best place for Sunny? Maybe not, but the reality is, is that there are not many places for dogs like this and I can say he has a good life here with us.

      You can’t show a dog that they don’t need to be afraid of you. Even if nothing bad happens, he experiences fear, and that’s what we want to avoid. You should get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. It’s a slow process.

  11. Kevin Myers on

    It’s very easy for us as humans to get caught up in trying to fix something we perceive as broken. We have an idea in our heads of how things should be and we end up making assumptions about an animal that cannot engage in complex communication with us and whose only attempts of conveying information are often missed or ignored.

    I have had enough experience with humans around my dogs that I don’t really trust any dog that I don’t consider bomb proof with them. So many people will ignore your instructions and utter the immortal words “That’s okay dogs just love me.” as they proceed to approach the dog as if they were being filmed for a video of what not to do.

    My Aussie, Gavin, is not a fearful dog but he is a wary one. He has protective instinct around his family and being a herding breed is very sensitive to movement around him. He seeks distance from people naturally and will normally warm up on his own terms and become fast friends if left to his own devices. But no amount of treats or luring relives his apprehension nor his caution until he feels good and ready. Pushing him to take treats from people he’s yet to accept only makes him grab at the treats and risks a nipped finger or worse.

    • Debbie on

      I blame dogs in general for our inability to accept the shortcomings of specific dogs. They are usually so flexible & tolerant that that is what we have learned about them. We’ve planted a kiss on the top of so many dogs’ heads that it’s become a habit.

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