Everybody has their comfort zone. How close can another human get to us before we feel uncomfortable, and everybody’s zone is different. Once someone violates our comfort zone, our facial expression and body language changes, we back away, put our hands up, warn the other person to back up and if all of those warning are ignored, we will either retreat or make the other person retreat with violence.
Now imagine, every time someone entered your comfort zone and when you started giving off your warnings, your friend poked you in the arm and said “KNOCK IT OFF — everything is fine” and forced you to stand there and be nice when all you want to do is get away. You certainly don’t feel that things are fine, you feel threatened! If this is repeated often, one or more of the following will happen, you will drop your warning system altogether and just go to violence, your zone will get bigger and bigger and you will start to feel threatened unless the person is farther and farther away, you will start to avoid your friend, you won’t trust your friend any longer, or you will lash out at your friend.
Your Pet’s Comfort Zone
This scenario is very similar to dogs that have a fear of strangers, or any stimuli that is scary to the dog (for this article I will use stranger as the stimuli, but insert any object of fear for stranger). I constantly see and hear about people forcing their fearful dogs to interact with strangers and/or punishing them for growling at the stranger. As in the above scenario, the well meaning owner is playing the role of the friend — causing the dog more psychological anguish, increasing aggression, and teaching the dog that their owner is not to be trusted.
Understanding the Growling
First, you need to realize that your dog’s growl is a warning to you and everyone around that he is uncomfortable with the situation he finds himself in. When you punish him, he now has two reasons to be upset — the scary stranger and the fear of being punished which weakens his already shaky confidence. Punishing that growl will make matters worse in one or more of the following ways:
• You can punish him to the point that you remove his warning system creating a dog that no longer warns, but goes straight for the bite.
• You will increase how often he warns (then bites if his warning is not heeded).
• You will increase his comfort zone — how close the person has to be before he becomes uneasy.
• Your dog will not trust you (his best friend and guardian) to keep him safe.
• Your dog will lash out at you or anything else around him from frustration.
Your Job as Guardian and Friend
Your job as his guardian and friend is to help him feel safe! Listen to him when he is clearly telling you he is uncomfortable and remove him from the situation in his time of need. Do not let strangers approach him, even if they insist — this is not rude. It is your duty to protect your dog and even the stranger that can’t seem to take a hint. Dogs that are pushed past their comfort zone and bite are a legal, financial and social liability.
Usually your dog’s growl is not his first sign of being uneasy. Learning and paying attention to your dog’s body language should be something you do so often it becomes second nature. If you don’t know what the early warning signs are go to this website http://www.diamondsintheruff.com/diagrams.html.
When a Stranger Approaches
When a stranger approaches, your fearful dog has 2 options —retreat or make the stranger retreat. If he is on leash, you are forcing him to approach or he is cornered, he only has one option — make the stranger retreat, and the way he makes the stranger go away is to lunge and/or bite.
Fear of strangers is a situation that is very serious and should be treated with behavior modification. While you are treating his behavior, it is imperative that you manage him around strangers — he should not be on any public property or around children or strangers in your house. Every time he is exposed to the fearful situation, the behavior becomes deeper ingrained and will be harder to modify; along with being risky and downright unfair to your dog.
What Do I Do?
There is a lot of information on the Internet about how to modify a dog’s fear; some of it is solid advice, some of it is bad advice that would create disastrous outcomes and some of it is off just enough to have little to no effect at all. In order to modify a fearful dog’s behavior, you have to change your dog’s emotional response to the scary stimuli. You are changing your dog’s fear response to a joyous response when the stranger approaches. This is done through a slow process of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, but if it is done in the wrong order, you can create a negative response to the counter conditioning tool (usually food or toys).
So, if you have a fearful dog, the bottom line is — hire a professional trainer and address the situation sooner rather than later. Get a couple of referrals from friends or other pet professionals and interview several trainers. Be sure they use positive reinforcement methods (combating aggression or fear with violence will enhance the fear/aggression not extinguish it) and choose one that you have a connection with or whose methods you feel most comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to ask the trainer how much they have worked successfully with fear based behavior issues.
With a little bit of hard work and commitment you can change your dog’s fear response to a happy response and everybody (including your dog) is safer, more comfortable and happier.