DO’s and DON’T’s of approaching shy, nervous, or fearful dogs

As a dog-walker, I often encounter new charges in their home on the first  walking day (in spite of having met me during consultation) that are a little nervous about someone ‘new’ being in their home, during the day, when their parents aren’t there!

How I approach the dog largely dictates how the dog will react - will she become more fearful and lash out or bite, or will she relax, begin to trust me, and come close for a treat?

Some key human behavioral factors that can make or break this situation are listed below. When you read this list, try to imagine the situation from the point of view of the dog!

1. Pace - Don’t approach an unfamiliar dog quickly! Begin to bridge the gap between you and the dog slowly and focus on getting the pup to come to you instead of it being your approach, especially if she’s in her bed or other place that she likely considers her ‘territory’. If fearful behaviors increase (cowering, backing away, growling) DO NOT keep approaching. Finesse this situation with gentle words and perhaps a tasty treat, be patient, don’t force the interaction on the dog. 

2. Tone of Voice - Verbally coax the pooch to come to you in a high, soothing, sweet, gentle voice - like overly sweet to the point that you would be embarrassed for someone to hear you talk this way. It works.

3. Get Low  - You want to be on the dog’s level. If a giant was looming over you, in your bed, with his arms outstretched and approaching you, you’d feel inclined to bite too! Stay low and again - try to coax the dog to meet you halfway.

4. Eye Contact - The stare-down makes anyone, human or animal, nervous. Don’t stare the dog directly and intensely in the eyes. It sends a very aggressive, dominant signal. 

5. Sniff & Pet - Once the dog comes to you allow her to sniff your hand and take the treat if you’ve got one. Don’t rush or force the interaction. Once she’s sniffed and/or eaten her treat, and seems a little more comfortable, you can start to gently pet her chest, moving up to the side of her face. DON’T immediately put your outstretched hand on top of a dog’s head - that can feel like you are dominating her, so start with gentle chest pats, moving up to the side of the face.

Long story short folks … be aware of your body language! Think about how your body language might be perceived to a dog. If a very LARGE, fast-approaching, booming-voiced, monster was looming over you, staring into your eyes, reaching for the top of your head, would this make you feel comfortable? You want to behave in a way that makes the dog feel like he isn’t about to be dominated by you. Tap into your instincts - move slowly and gently, stay low and humble, don’t stare, speak in your most angelic voice, allow a gentle interaction to unfold.