4 Tips for Making “Friends” with a Scared Dog

Training Tidbit for May:

You can try this at home!


How come he likes you? He never likes anyone! How did you do that?!

I get this all the time.  People are always amazed when normally fearful or aggressive animals like me.  It’s a handy skill, considering that I work with animals with behavior problems for a living.  And because I like you, I’m going to share my secret.  Ready?

It’s magic.


It’s really just a combination of respect and knowledge, and you can learn it too.  It goes like this:

When we humans want to be friendly – to express our lack of threat – we make direct eye contact, smile, extend our hand, and move toward the recipient of our affections.  In the animal kingdom, this never happens!  Almost no social animal of any species uses eye contact, display of teeth, and invasion of space as a friendly greeting!  If we take domestic dogs as an example, if a dog stares directly at another dog and walks toward him, it means one of two things: 1) an invitation to play, which will be designated by other social signals such as a play bow or wiggling, or 2) a threat, or a challenge.  Next time you see dogs who like each other hanging out together, watch them.  How often to they actually look into each other’s eyes?  The longer you watch, the more you’ll realize that it almost never happens.

What this means is that the very things we humans do to indicate our good intentions are the very things that dogs find threatening.  What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Now, when a dog wants to put another dog at ease, there is a pretty stereotypical set of behaviors that they will offer.  Among the most common are:

looking away
turning their head
walking away
sitting or lying down
sniffing the ground
urinating on something
blinking slowly
*these signals are commonly called “calming signals” and are better explored in this book.

In other words, when a dog wants to put another dog at ease, they basically do the exact opposite of us: they make a big show of ignoring the other dog!

The best way to “make friends” with a scared or aggressive dog is to “speak” the language they understand:

  1. Remember that dogs have personal space needs, just like people.  Keep your distance.
  2. Move slowly, smoothly and predictably; no surprises.  Remember to relax your muscles and breathe.
  3. Don’t talk to, touch, or look at the dog.  In fact, make a big show of doing whatever it is that you’re doing, as long as it relatively stationary, like reading, writing, or watching TV. (You can sniff the ground if you want, but that might make any humans present uncomfortable, which leaves you with a whole new problem.)
  4. And lastly, remember that dogs are experts at asking for what they want.  If a dog wants to be petted, you’ll know it, because they’ll ask! If they haven’t asked, assume the don’t want to be petted at the moment.  Above all (and this is for the gentlemen out there especially), don’t allow your ego to be tied up in whether the dog “likes” you or not.  Don’t be pushy.

It’s a strange phenomenon that when someone pets a human against their will, it’s called molestation.  When someone pets an animal against his or her will, the animal is expected to put up with it quietly, and if he doesn’t it’s considered a problem.  Just food for thought.

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