The man walked into the yard with a pair of sunglasses on, a baseball cap, and a puffy coat on. He briskly strode up to where I was crouched. “Brr!” he exclaimed, “It’s too cold out here to do dog training!”
Naturally, the foster dog I was working with freaked out. From the moment the man had caught her attention, she had lost the quiet fluidity and focus that she had been exhibiting, and had gone tense. Her eyes got wide, her pupils were round, her jaws clamped together and her ears flat to her head, and every single atom of her being was telling me that she was ready to run on a moment’s notice. And at the man’s voice, she exploded into barking – high, panicked, “go away right now!” barks.
“What?” the man said. “What’s wrong?”
The more I observe and work with anxious and fearful dogs, the more fascinating I find it, and the more I learn about my own body language and what kind of signals people send to dogs unintentionally.
For instance, had the man removed his coat, hat, and sunglasses, approached slowly and on a curve, showing his side to the dog and not looking directly at her, and spoken softly and calmly, the dog likely would have recognized him as a beloved foster-father, not an intruder. But the coat (a weird silhouette that she didn’t recognize), the sunglasses (that looked like big, dialated pupils – a “danger” sign in dogs), the hat (another weird silhouette), the direct, quick approach (“charging at her”, if you will), the loud voice (that may sound like a loud, authoritative “warning bark”) all added up to something to fear for this dog.
Anxious dogs are much like anxious people – they tend to over-react to small things. I myself have struggled with severe anxiety in the past, and I understand the feeling. It’s difficult, without practice, to understand the world around you in a ‘normal’ context. Was that woman on the elevator admiring your coat… or haughtily judging the amount of dog hair on it? Is that bruise just a bruise… or is it cancer? Is that smile a real smile, or is that person just smiling because it’s appropriate and they really don’t like what you have to say? It’s hard to tell when something is ‘normal’ and when something is truly off.
Dogs, I’ve found, are much the same. When I first adopted Bean, she would back up and growl if anyone approached at a fast pace. However, given experience with ‘normal’ interactions with people, she ceased being so concerned by it because it became normal. Other dogs I’ve trained have had the same sort of concern, but after good interactions with people approaching quickly, the dogs lose their fear of it because we have acclimated them to a behavior that humans display normally.
In the initial stages of training most anxious dogs, utilizing “dog language” helps dogs lose their fear of people because we are meeting them in the middle and giving them body language they can understand. Removing hats, glasses, coats and making sure your face is clear and readable is helpful. Making sure not to look directly at the dog and instead looking off to one side, presenting the side of your body, and approaching on a curve instead of a straight line can also help an anxious dog be less fearful. Keeping your face “dog-friendly” (slightly squinted eyes, smile without showing teeth, and relaxed posture) is useful as well. Be respectful of the dog’s space, if they don’t want to greet you right away – forcing the dog to confront you, however well-meaning, is a recipe for a bite (not because they are aggressive, but because a snap or bite is a dog’s very last defense, and something that most anxious dogs are loathe to do but feel they have no choice if in close quarters with no option to get away).
In the end, the foster-dad did, at my suggestion, go inside and take off the glasses, coat and hat and come back out to greet a still-slightly-nervous but much more willing foster pup. The difference a little dogology can make!