This post of mine first appeared on Victoria Stilwell's excellent positively.com and is reprinted here with permission. More than two thousand readers liked it enough to share it on Facebook. So I thought you'd like to see it too!
We’ve all seen a small child clinging to Mom’s neck while he safely views the world from under her hair.
A little puppy has the same need for a safe haven.
You may have seen your own puppy hurtle in from the garden when there’s an alarming noise, and dive into her bed. Plunging into the den at speed is an important instinctive survival mechanism for vulnerable pups.
Gradually your whole home will become a safe haven for your dog, a place she can always feel comfortable and relaxed.
But what about when you’re out and about?
A Safe Haven in the Big Bad World
For a puppy, your safe haven will be between your feet. You should always protect your puppy from incursions from other eager puppies or dogs (or children, shopkeepers, parades with oompahs, sheep, noisy trucks …). If she backs herself between your feet she needs reassurance that she can safely watch the world from there.
Don’t worry - she’ll come out in her own good time, as she gains the confidence you can give her. Forcing her to confront her fears will only make them stronger, so give her time.
Quite a few puppies start puppy classes from under their owner’s chair! That’s fine, if that’s what makes them feel less vulnerable. By week 2 or 3 those same puppies are out and about exploring. Letting the pup choose when to venture forth is key.
All Grown Up
But once your dog is grown and bigger, what do you do?
You’re walking your dog on a leash and something appears that worries her. Now for many dogs a quick glance and appraisal of the situation is enough, and on you go.
But what if your dog is fearful or reactive? A dog who is always surprised by anything new appearing in her environment, and whose first response is often to bark to get it to go away?
If that’s your dog, then you need to know that with a reactive dog, Distance is your Friend. The first thing you need to do is get further away from whatever it is that’s alarming her (big dog? paper bag? person talking on their phone?).
But sometimes that’s not so easy!
If you’re walking on the street and someone approaches you with cries of “Oh what a lovely dog!” “Hallo doggie doggie!” “Dogs like me!” etc, you need something quicker - and perhaps more socially acceptable! - than turning on your heel and walking smartly away.
Distance, Close Up
Here are some actions I’ve found helpful for Lacy - a very pretty dog who attracts attention, but doesn’t want it!
1. Talk to the hand! As someone is approaching and just ready to dive on Lacy, I step side-on in front of her, hold up my hand like a traffic cop, and say “Hang on!” This normally brings the approaching hazard to a full stop and gives me time to organise the next step.
This is where Lacy runs back round my right leg and dives between my legs from behind. She’s now sitting in her safe haven between my feet. I can squeeze my legs softly on her shoulders to make her feel more secure. She’ll often put herself there if worried, without me having to say “Carwash!”
There are three huge advantages to this position.
• One is that as Lacy goes round my leg her leash is now behind that leg. So even if the “oncoming hazard” still bends over, she can’t lunge forward to intercept them.
• But this second one’s a winner: Very few people are going to make so bold as to bend over right in your personal space and reach down between your legs to touch your dog! Success!
• And the third one is to lighten the social mood a little. Once Lacy is in Carwash, I can lift my hand in greeting saying, “Say Hi!” Lacy will lift her paw in a big high five swipe.
So she’s still “said hello” to the persistent hazard, without having had to risk her life by emerging from her safe haven.
I can hear some of you mumbling … if your dog is very large and you are not - what can you do? You don’t want to end up astride your dog!
Try a simple Get Behind. Send your dog round you so that, again, your leash is behind your legs, and your dog is peeping out by your hip. If your oncoming nuisance is unusually persistent, you can move slightly to body block them. Eventually they’ll get the message that they’re welcome to chat to you, but not to your dog, who has taken a vow of silence when it comes to strangers.
But All Dogs Love People: Really?
There’s a lot of social pressure on us to have a dog that conforms to the popular view that all dogs are friendly and welcome cuddles. But, of course, like people, some just “want to be alone”.
It’s not our dog’s job to provide cuddles and dogginess to the general population. In the same way that strangers don’t reach down and scoop your baby up from his stroller saying “I love babies!” - imagine! - they also don’t have the right to touch your dog without permission from you (and her).
If your dog likes nothing more than chatting to new people, then go for it, and enjoy her enjoyment. But if your dog is shy, allow her to retire to her safe haven without having to interact with scary strangers.
She’ll thank you for it.
Have you found a good strategy for keeping your scaredy-dog calm? Let us know in the Comments below!
And for more ideas for helping your anxious dog, get your free e-course My Dog Doesn’t Like Other Dogs: How to Stop the Barking and Lunging