Stranger Aggression / Trust issues (Please read!)

This is a place to gain some understanding of dog behavior and to assist people in training their dogs and dealing with common behavior problems, regardless of the method(s) used. This can cover the spectrum from non-aversive to traditional methods of dog training. There are many ways to train a dog. Please avoid aggressive responses, and counter ideas and opinions with which you don't agree with friendly and helpful advice. Please refrain from submitting posts that promote off-topic discussions. Keep in mind that you may be receiving advice from other dog owners and lovers... not professionals. If you have a major problem, always seek the advice of a trainer or behaviorist!

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Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 2:12pm PST 
She wants to like people, I know she does. She just has severe trust issues with people she doesn't already know/love- and instead of taking option a and running away from the strangers she's scared/untrusting of- she opts for option b and tries to make them go away via aggressive behaviors such as growling, jumping, air snapping or muzzle punching their sneakers.

-Sometimes she will wag her tail and want to go up to new people to say hello, but once they pet her she gets stiff, insecure and growls/snaps at their hands.
-She is very easy to offend by people she does not fully trust and does not like any dominating gestures from new people, such as petting the top of her head, stepping over her, hovering over her, staring at her in the eyes, putting your feet on her back, etc.
-She is perfectly fine in public around large groups of people when I take the bus to work so long as people ignore her and don't try and touch her. If they do she'll either think she wants to say hi and then end up getting insecure and snapping, or growl at them (no teeth are ever bared) to let them know that she doesn't want them to approach her
-She seems much more comfortable meeting new people in our home rather than out in public. Meeting people in public has proved pointless since that is out of her comfort zone, but when introduced in our apartment in the very specific way she needs to be introduced to new people (people should be sitting down, have treats, and only give her breif pets while showering her with treats until she starts to gets used to them. Also I always tell them not to hover over her or do any other of the dominating gestures I mentioned above) -then she seems to be perfectly fine.
-She seems to warm up to women much more quickly than men

I know I need to get her to a trainer/behaviorist and I fully plan on doing so once I have the extra money- the problem is that I just don't have that at the moment and want to know anyones advice on what I could do in the meantime to help these trust issues she has.

I've read the whole "Oh have a stranger walk by her and toss her treats" speech but she's already fairly comfortable with being around strangers so long as they show her no attention. What I really need is advice on how to get her to trust people I introduce her to more easily rather than being so defensive.

Really any advice you would have for me would be appreciated, in case I haven't already thought of it.

Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 3:39pm PST 
Who said strangers should pet your dog? For now I wouldn't let strangers touch her. The only stranger that needs to is the vet, and for that I would muzzle her until she can handle it. Don't give her the opportunity to make that many mistakes, if she's trying to nip she is beyond her threshold.
It's okay to stop her from saying hi even if she wants to. Wait till you have a trainer to progress any farther.
For now just keep training her and practise keeping her so focused on you when out and about that she doesn't notice things she would normally consider scary.

I\\\'ll do- anything for a- treat!
Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 3:56pm PST 
You're describing Lupi (minus the snapping).
You are definitely on the right track with having strangers give her treats. Especially when outside (not in her comfort zone) you should try to give her positive associations with people, but without pressure. By that I mean, have them toss her treats or hand them to her, if she's comfortable, but don't expect her to allow petting right away. And if it's too awkward to ask strangers to give your dog a treat, just give her one yourself, whenever you see someone approaching/walking past.

Honestly, depending on the level of fear/aversion to a stranger's touch, it can take a while. But it DOES get better! Lupi is SO much better with strangers now, but it took many repetitions and a lot of patience. I've worked so much with her on her fear of men, that she now prefers strange men over strange women!

A confidence-building class would be really nice for Bailey. But in
the meantime, keep doing what you're doing, just at a slower pace.

I would start practicing over-the-head reaches with people she knows. Have them reach for her (but not pet her) and then reward. Once she consistently accepts this without flinching, you can work on having new people try. From there, you can move to under-the-head petting. But the important thing is to go slowly. And if she does get scared and bark or growl, don't pull her away. You don't want her getting reinforced for that, and removal of the scary thing is strong reinforcement. Instead, calmly ask her to sit (or some other easy task) and then have the scary person toss her a treat.

I find with Lupi that sometimes even though she seems accepting of strangers in our home, she still gets stressed after a while of making the effort to control herself. So after a few positive interactions with the stranger, I'll send her to her bed with a bone, just to take the pressure off. If she chooses to, she can come back out and visit.

Hope any of this helps!

Edited by author Thu Dec 20, '12 4:01pm PST


Shiver Me- Timbers- "Charlie"

My Little Dog, a- heartbeat at my- feet.<3
Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 4:05pm PST 
It sounds to me like you are misreading her signals and like she doesn't WANT to say hello at all. Just because her tail is wagging doesn't mean she wants to say hi or that she's happy or comfortable. In fact, she may also wag her tail during fear, aggression, insecurity, agitation, etc.

I have to agree with Scarlet. By allowing strangers to try to pet her at all, you're setting her up for failure and a potential bite. She's clearly very uncomfortable with strange people, and by pushing her boundaries by allowing people to interact with her, it very well could lead to a bite which could lead to euthanasia for her - which is something you absolutely want to avoid at all costs. I wouldn't take her on the bus at all. I take my Beagle on the bus regularly, but he also adores people and people try to interact with him so much that I NEVER would have forced that on my Rottweiler, Maya who was very much like Bailey with strangers. That's asking for trouble and setting your dog up to be even more uncomfortable than she is.

I honestly wouldn't allow people to pet her at all - even in your own home. Let them toss her treats or hold treats out in the palm of their hands, but let her go to them and not make her more uncomfortable by petting her. Earning her trust with baby steps is the BEST way possible to go, and this includes no petting to start off. If she doesn't like contact or people being too direct with her or touching her, then stop people from doing it and only allow them to hand her treats or toss treats in her direction. It's up to you to advocate for your dog and make sure she feels safe and right now, it doesn't sound like she feels safe at all. It's awesome that you want to work through it, but I do think you are going about it the wrong way.

I'll be honest, she simply sounds fearful of people.

If strangers want to pet her, I'd be upfront and say, "She's afraid of people, but you can hold out this treat and see if she'll take it from you." or better yet, "She's very scared of people and it would make her very uncomfortable for you to pet her." and continue on your way.

I would also muzzle train her as a precaution. This is NOT a discrimination against her whatsoever - I love bullies and mastiff breeds. I fully believe every dog should be muzzle trained as a just-in-case, whether aggressive or not.

Instead of taking her into crowded places, why not get the help of a friend who she doesn't know, or someone you trust that she doesn't trust yet, and go outside to work on outdoor interaction with her, simply tossing pieces of hot dog or various other types of high value rewards while going by and ignoring her. You want her to feel like these strangers make good things happen, and that they aren't so scary and letting them touch her isn't going to make it go any faster - in fact, it will only send you two steps back in trying to help her with this.

As soon as you can get a behaviorist, get one. This would be the absolute best way to help her so if you can start saving up for one and get one, the sooner the better.

There's also a few books I'll suggest too:
Click to Calm by Emma Parsons
The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell
Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown

I'm sure others will have some great advice to add!

Let's play tug!!
Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 4:25pm PST 
Try having strangers do the things she doesn't like in very small doses. So, a quick flicker of eye contact, then they look away and yawn and drop a handful of her highest value treats. They reach a hand out a couple inches and then withdraw it, lick lips and drop treats. Basically teaching her that these gestures predict nice things instead of scary things. You can slowly ramp up as she shows calm body language and anticipates treats. Look for wiggling, wide sweeping tail wag, nosing for treats, etc. If she seems more rewarded by getting to leave, reward her by walking away, and ramp up when she consistently walks away quickly of her own accord. For people who you don't feel comfortable asking to do that, ask them to ignore her and let her approach if she wants to (and if her body language is relaxed. If she's stiff or staring with short, rapid tail motions, get her out of there.

It ain't over- till the fat- kitty sings
Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 4:54pm PST 
Interesting that with Callie he doesn't growl if people come up and pet him in fact he gets quite waggywaggy about it. The people he gets funny with are the ones who outright try to avoid him...maybe he picks up the angry or fearful looks he gets and is just saying "Hey cut it out!" I don't know...

My love is worth- your time
Barked: Thu Dec 20, '12 6:01pm PST 
You do not want to force her to interact with people, that defeats all trust training. Dogs will wag their tails, lower their heads, and sniff people but that does not mean that they want to be pet or receive any attention..they are simply being a dog and learning their environment by smell.

Milo and Maggie were/are both very fear aggressive when we got them. Maggie is a million times better but Milo is still (after a yr and a half) pretty bad although he is making steps of progress. Milo would not even smell people, they would walk by ignoring him and he would attack (my mom could not touch him for the first 2 weeks that we had him because he would bite). He is now at the point where you are with Bailey he goes up to people and smells but does not want attention, he just wants to smell them.

We take everything very slow, I have a few people who I really trust and see on a regular basis and who (more importantly) Milo sees on a regular basis. Only these select people are allowed to offer their hand to see if he wants to smell it (they sit on the ground and offer their hand and ignore him..note milo is a doxie so he is very small, with Bailey they may want to be in a chair). I start out with the treat in the hand that is being offered then move to the next step, see below.

If he smells their hand then they offer a treat with their other hand, moving slowly of course, if he takes the treat then we read him and see what he is comfortable with...sometimes he will take the treat and run back to me, if he does this then we end he interaction for at least 10 or 15 mins before repeating. If Milo stays close and looks for more treats my friend will move their hand slowly toward him and we watch him, if he stays comfortable then they will pet his side (never his face/top of head..only the side for now). He gets a "jackpot" (really 2-3 high quality treats, i use homemade meatballs as our jackpot treat) if he reacts well and does not try to bite. If he reacts badly then they stop petting him and go back to ignoring him (I also ignore him for about a min afterwords as that is the worst thing I can do to him).

After this no longer stresses them we will try it with these same people standing. Then only when these familiar people no longer phase him will I introduce him to any new people.

Please note that I only let 4-5 really good friends who know Milo and his body language. Milo sees them on a regular basis and is used to being around them. We did this same thing with Maggie and now she is a wonderful little girl who has not tried to bite in over 2 years.

The most important thing is to know your dog and its body language, you are lucky in a sense because your dog has obvious signs (the growling you talked about) Milo does not show obvious signs (i wish he did), he does not growl/snarl/run...his eyes get wide and then he bites and runs toward the person! It took awhile for me just to learn the signs that it was getting to much for him, at least you already know the signs and your pup is willing to smell people.

Milo, like Bailey warms up quicker to women then to men

Its a long process and you cannot push it, just read your dog and adjust to their comfort level. Good luck

Barked: Fri Dec 21, '12 12:25am PST 
@Shiver Me- Timbers- "Charlie"
---Maybe I didn't explain myself enough in my original post. I do not let strangers pet her after becoming fully aware of how she is. I was simply saying the things she would do if I were to let her continue to interact with them based on previous experiences. As for her being fearful of strangers in the home- when I say fearful- I don't mean the shy-away-and-hide-in-the-bedroom fearful. I mean the im-going-to-charge-you-and-lick-you-and-bring-you-my-toys-but-if-you -pet-me-on-the-head-for-too-long-ill-get-pissed-and-snap-at-you type of fearful/insecure. When new people do hold out treats to her she is completely disrespectful and jumps/leaps up on them to get the treat- something she knows is unacceptable and would never do to anyone she knows well /likes.

Member Since
Barked: Fri Dec 21, '12 1:23am PST 
I've had the same problem with my dogs in the past too. At first Coco wouldn't let strangers pet her on the head, but as soon as she built trust in them (they have to be holding a treat for her), she was fine with strangers. Most of the time she would even play with them now without them giving her any treats.
Riku (Forever Missed)

Heart of Gold
Barked: Fri Dec 21, '12 7:45am PST 
This was Riku to a T before I worked with her extensively. She was a dream in public. She followed my commands without fail, ignored strangers entirely, but when a person wanted to pet her she would stiffen up and the hair would rise on the back of her neck. For years I would tell people, "I'm sorry, she's not comfortable with strangers petting her." And considering her breed, they always readily accepted that. In the last few years of her life, however, she mellowed out and took to the training much better than she had in the past. She never once snapped at someone, but the stiffening up finally stopped. She never enjoyed being petted by strangers, but she would eventually tolerate it to a point where I trusted her fully not to bite. But even then, we still avoided it most of the time.

For now, I would keep Bailey in another room when you have company. When Riku acted similar to what you're describing I just closed her off in another room. Sometimes, you'll have a dog that just doesn't like strangers, period. And you have to work around that. Riku never liked strangers. She saw everyone as a potential threat, and while she had never bitten or even snapped at anyone, I know she would have had they imposed themselves as a threat onto me. So, I avoided most interaction with strangers with her for most of her life.
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