Reactivity to Strangers: Is Your Dog Protecting You?
When a dog reacts to an unfamiliar person coming towards him with raised hackles, barking, growling, and lunging, is he being aggressive? Protecting his people? These are two very common interpretations by guardians who are unaware of other, much more likely reasons for this behavior.
Don’t assume it’s about You. It’s very common for dogs to behave aggressively when they perceive a threat to their own safety. The reason(s) for reactivity to people depend on the breed, the context, and the individual’s history.
To help our dogs learn better ways to behave, we need to (1) think of reactivity as a behavior, not a character trait, (2) consider the dog’s perspective, and (3) change what We are doing.
Do you have a guarding breed? Selective breeding produced certain dogs with strong instincts to keep strangers away from livestock, family, and property. According to the AKC, guarding breeds include German Shepherds, Akitas, Dobermans, Bull Mastiffs, Staffordshire Terriers, and Giant Schnauzers. It doesn’t mean all individuals will behave that way.
Does it happen in the home or yard? Territorial instincts (in any breed) can cause aggressive behavior towards “intruders,” whether animals or people. Then this behavior grows stronger because passersby, mail carriers, and delivery people come and go quickly; the dog perceives that his behavior is what drives them away. Well done, good boy!, he’s probably thinking.
Does it happen on leash walks? It’s very likely that the dog is feeling fearful or worried about the approach of unfamiliar people, on his own behalf. A tight leash, especially one attached to the collar, increases physical and mental tension. Now his only option is fight (or appear as if he will) instead of flight, and so trying to hold him still can cause the behavior to escalate. That kind of pressure never helps.
Some small-dog guardians inadvertently reinforce the behavior by smiling or laughing at fierce displays because they imagine the little guy or girl is “trying to protect us.”
Was the consequence of his behavior unpleasant? If he was “corrected,” (and the dog gets to decide what’s too much) this negative association can easily generalize to proximity and approaches of all strangers.
Your dog may have been scared by someone. Whether it was a friendly kid with a backpack or your Aunt Sally who walks with a cane, a variety of human accessories and behaviors—moving straight into the dog’s space, staring directly, leaning over, and reaching out to pat on the head—are usually considered to be rude, if not scary.
Fear generalizes, quickly extending to other types of people. The dog quickly learns that acting on his fear with a display of barking, lunging, and maybe even snapping works quite well to make scary people go away.
What to Do?
* Stop anyone who may try to touch your dog, so he doesn’t feel the need to defend himself. Other triggers include loud voices, sudden movements, and objects in hand.
* Put more distance or some sort of barrier between him and others before he feels worried enough to bark/lunge. Early warning signs include body stiffening, piloerection (raised hackles), ears high, tail suddenly vertical, staring, lip licking, yawning, and freezing or slow movement.
* Consult a qualified positive trainer to help your dog become more relaxed around people he doesn’t know.
Your dog can learn to feel safer, more confident, and calmer in these situations. Lowering fear and stress is important for the whole family and helps prevent bites.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2018