It’s hard to watch your dog tremble in fear when new people approach. Not only is your dog’s fear heartbreaking; it can be dangerous if she becomes aggressive when fearful. A gradual approach to fear reduction can help your dog learn to love, or at least tolerate, the company of people.
Slow and Steady
Socializing a fearful dog is a lengthy process that will probably have a few setbacks. Start by removing as many stressors as possible. If walks in the neighborhood or local park are difficult for your dog, exercise her in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, try walking in the early morning or evening hours when fewer people are around. She won’t learn to interact calmly with people if she’s in a constant state of stress. Ask visitors to your home to ignore your dog. This might be hard for some of them, as it will be a natural reaction for some people to try to draw your dog out of her shell. Explain that you might ask for their help as training progresses.
Treat the Problem
Use of treats can help you show your dog that people might not be so scary after all. If your dog is uncomfortable when people extend their hands toward her, start "hand targeting." During this process, rub a treat on your hand, hide the treat and hold your hand out in front of her. When she taps your palm with her nose, say “yes” in an enthusiastic voice, and give her the treat. Gradually move your hand farther away so she has to come to you to touch your hand. When your dog becomes comfortable with hand targeting, ask your friends to try it.
Distract and Retreat
Distractions provide a way to stop the fear before it becomes overwhelming. If you notice your dog reacts fearfully to someone at the park, move her away from the person and engage her in a flying disc or fetch game. Enroll your dog in an agility training class or set up your own obstacle course in your backyard. When she’s focused on crawling through tunnels and jumping over hurdles, she’ll have less time to think about her fears. In some cases, the only way to avoid a setback is to get away from the situation. When you’re out for a walk and your dog starts trembling and growling at an approaching stranger, don’t force her to face her fears. Grab her leash firmly and turn around or cross the street.
If your dog is extremely fearful and your attempts to help fail, call an animal behaviorist. Behaviorists are trained to handle a variety of behavior problems, including fear and fear aggression. The behaviorist will spend time with your dog during each session but will also give you and your dog homework that will help her become less fearful. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation to a behaviorist in your area who specializes in treating fearful dogs. You'll want your vet involved from the start.