Conquering stranger danger in the home
Ready for Guests? Not sure how your new pup will respond? Or worse yet, you’ve been through this before and it’s all a mess? Fido is ready to bite Uncle Harry and Cousin Joe wants to Alpha Roll precious Minnie?
Guess what—we have a solution. If you’ve been following this page for a while, you already know the “Relaxation Protocol”, the “3- second greeting”, “engage/disengage” and the “5, 4, 3 rule” which will all be useful skills. If you don’t know those, don’t panic. You can still do it, but it will take a bit more patience and time. Here’s the important thing to remember, guests in general are stressful for our pups. It’s normal. We need to show them that guests are relatively boring, and always pleasant. This is crucial for preventing aggression.
It may be frustrating, but the way to get through it is to reduce everyone’s stress and anxiety—including Uncle Harry and Cousin Joe. Remember, these are your dogs, and it is your job to make sure this goes well.
That means calling it quits before everyone is over-stressed. Ever seen a toddler at a birthday party start crying and throwing a tantrum? Yep—we want to avoid that. So even before the festivities are over for you, it’s probably time to call it quits for Fido. Calling it quits early will mean next year (and next birthday party or bar mitzvah) will be that much easier.
Variations and overview
Reactivity to new visitors can be caused by fear, eagerness or frustration. We have a simple protocol that I use for all of these. There are some subtle differences in how to treat these underlying issues, but they are very similar.
Fearful dogs need to have their need for safety respected. We gently expose them to the guests and show them that nothing bad is going to happen. Here there is a double reward when you put your dog away—the scary things go away and they get treats.
Eagerness to meet is common in lots of adolescents. Here we need to show them that guests are in general boring and that they get to greet only when they behave calmly and politely.
We use the eventual greeting (and approach to guests) as part of our reward. Depending on the pup, retreat to a back room is done to avoid frustration, but may be viewed as a punishment so be sure to praise and reward lots when retreating! This pup may also benefit from blowing off a bit of steam in the backyard—make sure it isn’t too exciting so you don’t add hyper-arousal to the mix.
Frustrated dogs are in my experience the most difficult. Generally, these are dogs who have been eager in the past, but are now partly fearful, or are both fearful and eager. This is common in under-socialized adolescents. For these guys, we have to read body language very carefully and not misinterpret “appeasement behavior” as eagerness. It is important forguests to ignore this pup! If you can let him greet, you should still be in control and giving lots of reinforcers for checking in with you.
Aggressive dogs are almost always fearful. Some breeds are more prone to an aggressive response (distance increasing), growling and lunging type behavior. Treat these dogs as you would the fearful dog, with an extra dollop of safety measures, and extra attention to get them back to safety before they turn in to Cujo.
Let’s use overexcitement (eagerness) as our example. Essentially, your poor pup is really excited to see new visitors. Totally understandable–and we don’t want to make this an unpleasant experience for pup or your visitors. We DO want to let him know that polite greetings are appreciated and get him what he wants. Right?
When you are expecting company, take your pup to a back room and close the door. Give him some kibble or other fun treats on the ground (about 15 or 20–not too many, but don’t be cheap–you want him to want to go in there–this is a good experience) or a kong with just a wee bit of yummy stuff inside.
If your guests are unexpected, just grab your pup and head back to the back room anyhow– it’s best to do it BEFORE the guests get there (and all the door excitement ensues), but it’s not a huge crisis if things happen the other way round–just tell your guests to wait a sec and you’ll let them in once you have the dog corralled. Don’t take “oh but I love dogs” as an excuse–your dog needs to learn good greetings skills for everyone, or he WILL knock over Grandma.
1 – Let your friends in–have your human greeting ceremonies. Once everything calms down–go back, grab your dog snugly by the collar, open the door, let your pup look for 3 brief seconds and close the door! Give your dog 3-4 tasty treats and do it again. Do this 5 times in a row. Your friends are hopefully going to be 20 ft away or so. Far enough so your dog is interested, but not nuts. If he is nuts, don’t worry–it just means you’ll have to do this about 100 times more than you would otherwise (better yet, you can just open the door a teensy bit so he can see out, and then close again). If your dog did really well just looking at the guests, and was able to look at you for treats as soon as the door was closed, he is ready for step 2.
2 – In step 2, we do everything like above, except we give the pup the treats while the door is still open. For the first 5 reps, you may have to give the pup a treat while he is still looking at the guests. Did he do well? You got it, on to step 3! (if he struggled with this, just go back to step one and then take a 5 minute break. When you return from break, start back at step 1)
3 – Step 3 is just like step 2, only now we give treats when he looks away from the guests if he can (use as subtle of a cue, or best, no cue at all, to get his attention for the treats). If he can’t, no worries, try giving them to him while he is looking at the people, finish up this set, toss a small handful of treats on the floor and take a break. Go be with your guests for a few minutes. Start up again at step 2, and then try step 3 again.
4 – Is it going well? You are up to step 4??? That is awesome! It’s now time to take a step into the room/hallway. Optimally, we can take a step into the new room while turning to go back into the room you just exited. Does this make sense? Treats happen on the turnaround. If you are all thumbs like me, don’t panic. Make sure the pup gets some treats when back in the room, laugh and have a little fun. Make sense? (this is one place where the protocol differs for fear—fear you can feed treats while they are looking. If they can’t take treats, then back up a step). Repeat this step 5 times and take a break Go join your guests for at least 15 minutes!
Review, recap and progress
So to recap, the idea is that seeing new people is a bit boring. It’s not bad, just boring. And life is still fun and Mum is still wonderful.
Do this whole protocol 5 or 6 times over the next hour or so while your guests are present. Nothing exciting happens, but the bedroom remains calm and happy place to be. If that is all you get done this time, that is a win. If your pup is calm and happy about this whole process, you can continue to increase the challenge.
As he starts to calm down a bit and doesn’t try to rush your guests, he can come out a few feet and, gosh, look at them from a closer distance. When you start doing this, the key is to turn around if he starts getting too excited. If he’s a gentleman the whole way, you can even go up for a three second sniff of their feet before turning around and going back. It might help to put some stinky treats by their feet. (Note: you should use the 5, 4 rule here. if you know it)
Your guests should be neutral–no greeting, no squealy noises, etc.. Remember to have a snug hold of his collar with your hand–don’t let him flop around, just keep everything calm and quiet.
Repeat this a lot! My rule of thumb is about 50 to 100 times. At 30 seconds per “exposure”, this isn’t a lot of time (25 minutes to an hour “work” overall), but it may take several weeks to get in that many.
Remember–this may involve many intermediate steps—many, many repetitions of approaching the guests by one step and then going back. You’ll need lots of treats pre-made (I have some made up and ready in the freezer), and you’ll need to have friends that can ignore the dog and listen to what you tell them (or so involved in something else that they don’t notice what you are doing with the dog).
When you are finally at the point where your dog can approach and greet a neutral person without going nuts, it’s time to start having your guests be seated, or start moving their arms and talking, or various things of that sort–even eye contact! (that one is super exciting for most dogs!). Again, treats at their feet, 3 second greeting before retreating, or retreat when he starts to get amped up. If he gets amped up, treats happen a few feet away after the greeting. After 3 to 5 greetings, go back into the back bedroom for some chill out time with a few treats on the floor or, better yet, a kong.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. This process should be fun and enjoyable for both you AND the dog.
OK, after he can do this….what, you are still with me? I SAID it was a long process. Keep reading, you are almost there!
Once your dog can greet people for 3 seconds with your hand on his collar and not go nuts, it’s time to start allowing him OFF of restraint. The first time you do this, you will want to do at least three 3-second greetings before allowing him off restraint–then let him go and have your guests ignore him. If he starts getting over- excited, off he goes to the back room again (or a quick exploration of the backyard–without you)–if not, you can leave him out for 4 to 5 minutes before putting him away in the back room with his kong.
The reason we go ahead and put him away after a few minutes is because guests are still exciting, and we don’t want him getting hyper- aroused and blowing it. After 5 or 10 minutes in the back room, you can repeat the 3 second greetings, allow him out for 5 min or so–and then just let him outside for 5 min or so.
At this point, you should be starting to let him out and about a bit more organically, but remember those rules–overexcitement and he goes back to the back bedroom (or yard) for some chillout time.
He will likely always be excited to see people, especially people who love him and he loves. Ask them to only pet him and give him attention when all 4 are on the floor, but otherwise–let him love and be loved. It is so much more important for a dog to like people than to have “good manners”, as this will prevent aggression.
About the Author
Caitlin Coberly is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Fear Free Certified Trainer, and holds a PhD in evolutionary Biology. She holds a certificate in Teaching from Duke University. She has multiple awards in nosework. She specializes in helping “difficult dogs” and their humans attain happiness. She has a special interest in how stress affects behavior, and mental health and wellness in our companion animals. Caitlin currently lives with her Big Pink Primate, 7 crazy dogs, 3 elderly horses and two radical cats on a small farm in western Oregon.