I started my deep dive into helping an extremely fearful dog in 2005. Over the years I was advised to try a laundry list of methods or protocols to help him. Some were good, others not, and still others left me shaking my head in wonder as to why they were suggested.
Among the latter are protocols for getting scared dogs to approach people. I am not referring to teaching a dog to come when they’re called. Or when capturing a stray. I’m talking about practicing decreasing the distance between a fearful dog and a person, often a stranger to them. It led me to wonder if people recommending these types of exercises ever lived with a fearful dog.
Retreating may be the safer choice
We feel good when we see a shy or fearful dog move toward someone. We assume it’s because they are feeling less fearful. Strangers are encouraged to give dogs treats or target their hands. Treats are tossed to practice moving toward and away from someone. There will be dogs who will approach someone for food and still not be comfortable with anything more than that. Just as there are people who will go to work and pick up a paycheck and still hate their job.
Fearful dogs don’t always make good choices. And many people don’t make good choices around fearful dogs. Encouraging a dog who might be startled and bite, to get closer to someone is risky. We don’t know if a fearful dog will ever become comfortable and confident enough with people in general to be safe approaching them. It makes more sense to teach behaviors that will keep people and dogs safe around each other. If a dog does become comfortable with people, the training will leave them with good manners around them.
Being comfortable being approached is a skill that can be taught
Other than for recalls, off leash dogs don’t need to move toward strangers or guests in your home. They do need to learn to be ok with having strangers move toward them. Dogs need to be approached and handled by vets, caregivers and groomers. And being ok with people who are inclined to approach and touch them is a safety precaution. As difficult as it may be for us to imagine, there are people who prefer not being approached by dogs. Service dogs are not trained to say hello to everyone they see, and our shy, anxious, reactive or fearful dogs don’t need to be either.