They Just Want to Say Hi
You are going for a walk with your mini bernedoodle. Your dog loves walks but doesn't necessarily like strangers. Maybe she lunges and snarls when approached by someone she doesn't know. Perhaps your dog tucks her tail, pins her ears back, licks her lips, and slinks her body away when a stranger reaches for her. It's very clear that she does not enjoy meeting new people on her walks.
So while you are enjoying the last days of decent weather, you and your dog decompressing together, exploring the environment, getting some exercise, breathing the fresh air, and otherwise reveling in each other's company, there she comes. Your lovely neighbor from two doors down in 302 who just loves dogs. All dogs. Your dog. "Oh, can I say hi to Daisy?!" she says as she reaches for your dog. It sounded like a question, but she's not really asking. Her hands are on Daisy before you can even think of a response.
"My dog's not really comfortable with strangers," you manage to squeak out, but your sweet neighbor from 302 doesn't notice.
"I just love her so much!"
"My dog's really afraid of people."
"Oh, it's okay, Daisy. You love me, don't you?"
And then, it happens. Daisy, who had up to this point been trying to disappear into the pavement, launches at your neighbor with a horrifying snarl. You yank her away with the leash, trying to get as much distance from your neighbor as possible, apologizing and horrified.
"You really should get that dog some training!" Thanks, 302.
You are at the park with your dog. You've chosen this park because there is ample room to spread out away from strangers and other dogs. You want to work on some training exercises. Your class has you practicing polite leash walking and down-stays, and you are ready for a more distracting environment than your backyard... as long as no one actually tries to interact with your dog directly. You are practicing your down-stays when you see the man. You don't know him. You've never seen him before in your life. But he makes a beeline for you from across the park. You try to avoid eye contact, hoping you are mistaken and that he'll pass on by. No such luck. He's coming for you and your dog.
"What breed of dog is that? I have two King Corsos. They are great dogs!" The man approaches your dog, looming over him, and staring into his eyes as he tells you all about himself and his "King" Corsos.
"He's a Bullmastiff, and he doesn't like direct eye contact from strangers."
"Oh, he's fine. You just gotta show dogs like these that you are in charge!" He continues staring as you see your dog place his paws under his body in a sphinx position, ready to launch.
"Please give my dog space!" you say somewhat desperately. "He's really uncomfortable."
The man bends lower over your dog, and just as he begins his monologue on how he showed his "King" Corsos leadership so they wouldn't eat people, your dog springs toward the man, grabbing a bit of pant leg before you manage to gather yourself and run away, seething at the man's arrogance, humiliated at your perceived failure, and terrified that your dog might actually hurt someone in the future. That was a scary, dangerous situation.
As a professional dog trainer specializing and fear and aggression, I can tell you that these scenarios are as common as days of the week ending in "Y."
How should we deal with these situations? What is the safest way to handle them, and how can we prevent these experiences from further traumatizing our dogs and thus increasing their fear response?
The 3-Step Approach
I recommend a simple, 3-step approach to these scenarios, prioritizing safety, your dog's training, and social comfort, in that order.
Step 1: The Stop Sign
Hold your arm straight with palm out toward the approaching person in the universal "stop" hand signal. Simultaneously say, "Do not approach!"
Do not mince words here. Do not hide them behind apologies or explanations. People have a difficult time comprehending complex instruction or insinuation when they aren't expecting it in the short seconds between their beginning approach and their arrival. To say, "My dog's afraid of people," may be polite and true, but it takes too long for someone who thinks they are going to approach and pet your dog to realize that you are insinuating they should not. Many will never even realize that what you mean is, "My dog might bite you." And occasionally, you have some nincompoop who believes they know better than you and will disregard your wishes if you sound even a little ambivalent, so it is essential to be extremely clear and direct. Your immediate and most important goal is to stop them in their tracks. Stick out your hand, and say, "Do not approach!"
Step 2: Move Away
Now, it's time for YOU to take the initiative to get distance and to do so quickly. The best way to accomplish this is to literally train an emergency U-turn behavior with your dog where, on cue, you and your dog run in the opposite direction of the potential threat. This is a fun game with a big reinforcement history that helps diffuse the tension both by gaining prompt distance and by introducing some fun movement. If you don't have a previously-trained emergency U-turn yet, you can practice rapid, polite leash walking with a very high rate of reinforcement (every step!) until you are far enough away for your dog's comfort.
Step 3: Apologize Over Your Shoulder
This is where you get to repair the perceived social faux pas. As you are moving away (or possibly once you've gained sufficient distance for your dog's comfort), look over your shoulder, and tell the stranger some version of, "I'm so sorry. He's in training. Thank you for understanding!" Don't worry about whether or not they actually understand. Giving them credit for understanding often helps people feel socially obligated to "understand." If your dog can be comfortable with increased distance while you chat with the neighbor, you may choose to stick around and expound upon your explanation, but only if your dog is comfortable. If your dog can tolerate the stranger who will inevitably be staring at them with wide eyes while you discuss the situation, I encourage you to throw me under the bus. That's right. Pass the blame. Put it on me. Make me be the bad guy. "I'm so sorry. My dog is afraid of people, and we are working with a trainer who specializes in fear and aggressive behavior. She instructed us to not let strangers greet our dog right now but rather to run away so that our dog learns to feel safe. We have a training plan in place to help him feel more comfortable in closer proximity over time, but we aren't really there quite yet. Than you so much for helping him feel safe!" You see, you can blame me because I don't want you to face the social awkwardness of telling your entitled neighbor no. I also don't want you to have to be authoritative about something you may not yet feel qualified to speak on (Even though I believe you are absolutely qualified to advocate for your dog's emotional needs, your feelings matter!). But I don't care what your neighbor thinks of me. If they ever need me, they will find me, and they'll likely be open to what I have to say then. In the meantime, I do care what they think of you. So if you have any doubt about interacting with that person, tell them I said so and that you are going to try what I suggested for now.
As difficult as it is to tell people no and to risk making them uncomfortable, it is important to realize that risking their safety and/or causing our fearful dog additional trauma are both far worse than the social awkwardness of saying no. If your dog does bite your neighbor, the consequences of that could involve permanently strained relationships, severe injury to a person, expensive medical bills, a liability law suit, quarantine for your dog, a dangerous dog designation by your city or county, and possibly even the death of your dog. Even if your dog has never shown aggression but is clearly fearful, allowing people to handle your dog against your dog's wishes will compound that fear, deteriorating your dog's quality of life and potentially causing them to bite down the road. These risks just aren't worth saving ourselves a little social awkwardness.
It is a really curious thing that humans so often feel entitled to touch other people's dogs. We don't do that with children. In fact, we are often very mindful about how we interact with children that are not our own, especially when we are strangers to them, because we realize that our interaction can be perceived as threatening. In fact, touching strangers, young or old, without their permission can be considered assault! Dogs are sentient beings with their own thoughts and feelings, so it really isn't fair to them that we expect them to tolerate that which we would never expect people to endure.
So practice this script with friends, family, or your local trainer. Be prepared to respond with the three steps above. Hold out your stop sign hand while saying, "Do not approach!" Run away. And then, apologize over your shoulder as you are getting distance or once you are far enough away for your dog to feel safe. By practicing ahead of time, you are more likely to remember the protocol when you feel pressured and have to think quickly.
You might even be surprised at the respect you garner from your neighbors for your excellent management, responsible handling of your dog, and the improvement your dog make when you allow them to feel safe.
**If you need help with teaching polite leash walking, an emergency U-turn, or systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to the presence of strangers, please reach out to your local positive reinforcement trainer. Additionally, I highly recommend training your dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle as an additional safety measure to the above protocol.