Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Is My Dog Normal?: Afraid of People

This post has been on my "To-Write" list for many, many months, but I honestly haven't sat down to write it in hopes that the behavior would somehow disappear and no longer be one of Athena's quirks.

Alas, I am here, seven months after adopting Athena and admitting that she has a MAJOR quirk.  She's afraid of people.


This is no quirk that I would ever wish for my dog to possess, because really, what's worse than admitting that your pit bull is afraid of people, a quality that is in no way inherent to the breed.  Pit bulls are suppose to be people lovers.  However, my pit bull is in no way a people lover.  As much as I would love for her to be the type of dog who flocks to humans to dole out slobbery kisses, she is not and I don't think that she will ever be that kind of outgoing dog.

Honeymoon Period:

Like many newly adopted dogs, Athena went through a honeymoon period.  Many of her quirks were in hiding and didn't come out for at least a month of living with us.  In the beginning, Athena met many new people at our home and while out and about.  She never barked at people who came to the house and welcomed everyone to pet her and give her attention.

Don't Touch Me, I'm Nervous:

After the honeymoon period, we started to see signs of Athena's fear of people.  When we would take her to places like the pet store or out on a walk, many people would ask to pet her and we always said yes because she seemed to enjoy the attention she got from them.  However, there were some people that she would back away from.  To this day, Athena is only accepting of attention from some people that she meets.  If she feels nervous, she will sometimes woof, back away, or cower behind us.  She definitely doesn't like it when people come at her head on with their hand moving towards her face.  This makes her turn her head and body as if she is afraid that they are going to hit her.  Although it is true that many dogs who come from the shelter system were never physically abused, Athena's body language actually suggests that she may very well have been abused at some point in her life.


If I Bark, Will You Go Away?:

If I haven't mentioned it before, Athena is not a barker.  It is a rare occasion that we hear her pitiful woof.  However, she will often bark at new people who enter the home.  If they try to approach her, she will dance around and bark at them.  At this point, she has never growled or snapped at anyone, just barked (not in a "Hi, I'm so excited to meet you!" kind of way, but in the "You are really scary and I don't want you in my house" kind).


Men, Smokers, and Eggplant Shaped Figures:

Since noticing Athena's fear of people, we have tried and tried to determine the type of person that she is fearful of.  At first we thought it was just men because she was extremely shy around them in the beginning.  Then we decided it must also be people who smoke, because she will not approach someone who is smoking a cigarette and is often fearful of people who smell of smoke.  Then we noticed that Athena was extra nervous around people with different body shapes, like a woman who very much resembled an eggplant.  As we continued to try to narrow down the type of person that makes Athena fearful, we realized that as far as we can tell, there's not a single quality that she is fearful of.  To us, her fear of people seems totally random (though to her there may very well be some sort of connection between them all).  The one type of person that she has never been afraid of though is children, thank the heavens.

Don't worry dad, I'm not afraid of you!

You Must Treat the Fearful:

After some deliberation with our trainer, we came up with a plan to tackle Athena's fear of people.  Each and every time a new person comes to our house, we prep them with "The Talk."  They learn that Athena is often fearful of new people and that she needs space.  We then load them up with treats and instruct them to throw them at her toss them in her direction.  It can be very scary for a fearful dog to have to approach an unknown person to take a treat from their hand.  By tossing treats towards Athena, she isn't obligated to have contact with the new person and is able to keep her distance, which is what she wants.  After about a dozen treats have been thrown, Athena is usually ready to approach the new person and start eating treats out of their hands.  She will then get comfortable and settle in for some pets and attention.  We've noticed that the higher the value of treats we load the newcomer with, the quicker Athena falls in love with them.  Anyone with cheese becomes a fast friend and in turn they are named "Cheese Lady" or "Cheese Man."


Quick Recovery:

Although Athena is often fearful of new people, she has a very quick recovery period, just as she does with all new experiences.  New people who enter the house only need a few minutes of "ignore Athena and throw treats at her time" before Athena's ready to snuggle up.  Just ask Emily from Our Waldo Bungie.  She got the nervous bark from Athena when she visited, but after a handful of treats, Athena was ready to snuggle up.  Like most other new experiences that Athena has been exposed to, she is usually fearful only the first or second time, then she has the confidence each time after.  Luckily, Athena is quick to warm up to people.


Living with a Fearful Dog:

Fear aggression is nothing to take lightly and can be different for every single dog.  Our plan of action for helping Athena accept new people works for her, but may not work for another dog who is fearful of people.  Some dogs who are fearful of humans need to be completely ignored for a period of time, not be looked in the eye, or kept behind a baby gate in the house.  We have found that for now, Athena's plan seems to be working for her.  Just last week I was shocked when Athena met two new people at our house with no barking or nervousness, instead she snuggled up with them for an hour and doled out kisses like nobody's business!  Even though Athena may be becoming less fearful of strangers doesn't mean that we aren't always managing the situation and assessing her for signs of discomfort or nervousness.

Athena LOVES everyone (especially her grandma) after meeting them a few times

Have you ever dealt with a fearful dog?  What about a dog who is fearful of people?  What strategies do you use to help your dog overcome these fears?

39 comments:

  1. Tess is a scaredy dog for sure, but people have never been her issues -- it's everything else! -- so no advice on this end. When we come across something that she's afraid of, we assess whether it's really worth it. I'd love to help her conquer everything, but in reality, it's better (and easier) to choose things that will be a success. Like the bath: she's not really smelly so only gets them every once in a while, so we don't really get the chance to "work on it." We've recently decided that it's really just not worth the stress to all of us.

    Not that you can avoid people...

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    1. Very true, people are difficult to avoid.

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  2. She sounds perfectly normal to me. My previous dog was an abused drop off who didn't overcome her fear of people until she was too senile to care. I realize now that we didn't know the best ways to manage her fears. She was afraid of men, tall men, loud men, and men wearing hats - our neighbor, the nicest person ever, is all of those things and she took 7 years to befriend him. Usually, if someone crouched down, looked away, and extended their arm as far as possible holding a treat, she'd take it and warm up to them be fore they left. Rusty is also a very fearful dog, although after a combined year of being in our home and his forever home, he started warming up to new visitors more quickly. We used the ignore method for him, and he thought people sitting on the ground were much less scary.

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  3. I haven't dealt with this issue myself, but I know a lot of people who have. It sounds like you are taking all the right steps! It must be hard to not have people come up to her, she is adorable and I would definitely want to pet her if I saw you on the street! (But of course, I would ask first!)

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    1. For the most part people are really good about asking our permission to pet her. Sometimes I say "ok" if Athena's body language suggests that she would be comfortable with it, and usually she is fine getting pets from unknown people when we are out and about. Her leash is actually her security blanket, so her main fear of people comes when she's off-leash at home.

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  4. It sounds to me that you are doing everything right. Koira is fearful, but not of people. Her fears are based around trucks (especially garbage trucks), but extend a bit to traffic in general and loud noises. I have yet to find something that really helps much in helping her with this fear, so it is mostly a management issue for us.

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  5. So did Sadie bark at you when you came to visit Emily at our house? Where Athena is right now is close to Sadie, except Sadie used to snap at anyone who touched her before she was ready. or anyone who moved too quickly or spoke too loudly. She was a hair away from biting people out of fear when we got her. Everything you are doing is spot on and mirrors almost exactly what we do to help Sadie accept new People.

    Because Sadie was closer to fear biting when we got her, I did one major thing differently: for 3 years, no one was allowed to pet her when we were out & about. This enabled Sadie to both become more comfortable about being in the world without the fear that some one would force their attention on her. I know 3 years is a long time and it shouldn't have been that long (I know a lot more about counter conditioning fear responses now) but giving her that security of knowing that Mom & Dad weren't going to allow scary people to touch her was absolutely critical to our success. It allowed her to develop a curiosity towards people that I praised & rewarded. Once her snapping at people at home had stopped & she happily looked forward to passing people on our walks, then I started to allow strangers to approach her. They are always asked to not pet her on the head and I closely watch her body language and immediately remove her from their affection if I see even a shimmer of fear.

    Nowadays, other than sometimes barking at a new person who comes over,she is usually relaxed & happy to say hello to just about everyone. We have found that removing the pressure of someone coming to the front door helps to control her barking. If she's in the backyard & they say hello either out back or inside after guests have come in & settled down, she is much less likely to bark. If you don't have a yard, maybe meeting guests out front (with no petting) & walking in together may help your situation?

    Good luck! I know you guys will help Athena overcome her fears!

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    1. Another thought: Sadie is incredibly sensitive & reads people's emotions closely. If a person is scared of her or uncomfortable in any way (as many people are with pit bulls), she is more likely to be fearful of them and act out by barking or snapping. I pay very close attention to people's body language as well &, to this day & for the rest of her life, I will not allow people who aren't 100% comfortable with her to pet her. That means she's not usually the dog to change a person's mind about pit bulls but my priority is her well being, not changing people's opinions of pitties.

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    2. Id like to add to this by saying Hades has never been fearful of people but if someone acts fearful of him he gets agitated and may bark/act unusual.

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    3. I don't think that Sadie barked at me when I visited your house, I really would have never known that she used to have a fear issue if I hadn't read your blog prior. I am so impressed with how far Sadie has come.

      I really never thought about Athena possibly being sensitive to people's emotions. It is true that she may be sensing people's fear of her....thanks for sharing that because now I will be more aware.

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  6. We have the same issue with Lainey. She is afraid of "some" people and it's hard to know what it is about them that makes her fearful. At this point, we have not found a common thread amongst them, to know what "type" triggers her. Fortunately, she has a quick recovery time, but we are always working on overcoming her fears and making her as comfortable as possible.

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    1. It sounds like Lainey is very similar to Athena in her fear of people. Luckily both have quick recovery time.

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  7. Nigel barks at men wearing dark clothes and/or hoodies, normally only at night. We haven't worked on it yet with him but we'd like to recruit some friends to help out and do what you're doing with Athena.

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  8. It sounds like you are on the right path for helping Athena with her fear of people. Dottie can be like that sometimes, she's just a skittish girl and I always tell people that when they approach us. But with Boomer by her side she's pretty much fearless.

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  9. I've talked about Braylon's fear of men a lot but I haven't always gone to the extent. She's overcome the fear now, but for several months she used to growl at our ex-roommate (quickly dissipated when we realized she was protecting me and I had to remove myself from being so close to her if he was around or grab her mouth and even roll her over and tell her no.) this again may be frowned upon by some but she showed quick progress and thankfully it helped a lot. I blogged about the teaching of ownership of space and that helped even more.
    All I can say is Braylon is no longer fearful of strangers but I think she is insecure around them sometimes. I feel she now "overcompensates" by flinging herself into the air and obsessively kissing to the point where it's overkill. We are working on a balance. :)
    Athena is truly resilient. She's still so young, with how much you expose her to I'm confident she'll overcome her fear.

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    1. How interesting that Braylon used to be fearful/protective and now she's the totally opposite with her sloppy kisses!!!

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  10. Elli's a lovesponge. She invites it whenever she can from whomever she can. Even if they don't like dogs. It's a big training issue we've had for a long time. Just because a person appears, you can't go bounding over to them, regardless of your happiness.

    Still, she is a very typical dog in how she prefers to be greeted. Athena's ducking away from an outstretched hand is EXCEPTIONALLY NORMAL. Almost all dogs really hate being patted on the top of their head. I usually instruct people to greet Elli by cupping their hand under her chin. She can smell the hand more easily that way and it's not so threatening. Elli also hates to be leaned over, another exceptionally normal behavior. It's threatening. So I instruct people to squat (straight spine, but low to the ground) instead of lean.

    In terms of behavior mod -- you're doing everything right. Tossing treats is a great strategy. But remember it's only in context! You've described treat tossing when people come over. This won't help when Athena sees people outside the home. Keep that in mind.

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    1. We do offer people treats to give Athena if they meet her outside of the context of our house and we go through the same routine of giving the talk and asking them to toss the treats towards her (whether it be out and about, at someone else's house, etc.). Really though, Athena's fear signals mostly come out when she's in the home. She really has never barked at anyone if we are out and about and she's on leash. We call her leash her security blanket.

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  11. Moby is a super scaredy cat (he is even scared of US sometimes)! So, like you, we are working on giving him lots of positive interaction with people - on HIS terms. Slowly but surely he is getting more relaxed around people he doesn't know.... Athena is well on her way to being less fearful of people, but it's okay if she's not a fan of everyone. Not every dog is going to be. :)

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    1. How interesting that Moby is sometimes afraid of you guys! Luckily Athena thinks we are the best people on Earth and has never shown any fear towards us.

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  12. That's so great that you have the tools to work on Athena's fear. None of our dogs are fearful of new people, but Heidi is pretty apathetic towards them. Even starting from a level of apathy, we've had a tough time getting her to warm up to people when meeting them. We don't really push it like you said, but treats are a big motivator for her!

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  13. Our Emma is fearful of new people. When I adopted her, she showed some fearful responses to people, mostly barking. This escalating to snapping if people got too close. So, we worked with a trainer on using treats to encourage her to associate people with good things (like Cheese!). Then I read some interesting studies about fearful dogs and using treats as a motivator for them with things they were fearful of - and had to recognize that this method can sometimes put dogs in conflict because they really don't want to go near someone, but you are coaxing them. Eventually, the worst happened and Emma did bite someone; she gave every warning sign to the person that she didn't want them near, and they went to pet her anyway, and she bit. After that, she taught herself that barking doesn't always work and biting does. Eventually, we took her to a third trainer who specializes in rehab for dogs. He reassured us that her fear was formed long before I adopted her, but he also confirmed that we never really set good expectations about what we wanted from her. So now we have a whole new set of rules for Emma. She is no longer allowed to rush the front door, even for us - she has to give us space first when we come home. We no longer take her anywhere that is chaotic, where she might be overwhelmed and we are very firm that when we take her out, no one can pet her unless her body language tells us that she is comfortable. In our house, if you don't respect our rules about leaving her alone, then she is crated with a very yummy treat. The biggest lesson for us was reading her body language. Emma shows clear signs of anxiousness, but she also shows signs of relaxation. It is a lot of work, and little/big improvements over time, and also set backs. We have committed to her and this process (mostly, it makes me sad to see her stressed out). I am glad to read you found a training methodology that works for Athena and your family and friends.

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    1. This is also a good reminder that all dogs are individual, regardless of breed label. :)

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    2. Wow, Zoki, thank you so much for sharing this about Emma. I had no idea. I do agree that dealing with a fear aggressive dog is quite a lot of work, but it's out job to keep them relaxed and safe. And I do very much agree with you that it's a great reminder that all dogs are individuals. Just because Athena is a pit bull doesn't mean she's a people lover because so many other pit bulls are. She's simply a dog who happens to be fearful of people.

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    3. I'm so glad you finally found what sounds like a decent trainer to help you! I hope others with fearful dogs read this and take heed; our dogs rely on US to protect them from unwanted advances from well-meaning people or they do indeed feel like they have to protect themselves.

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  14. This all sounds very familiar to me. I haven't talked about this on my blog, but I am also sometimes a bit shy or afraid of people. Actually, just some men and one woman who lives nearby. And it also took a month or two for me to show it. One thing mom has noticed is that I never seem nervous about men who have dogs with them. And also that I am most often nervous about men who seem to be nervous about me.

    And mom thinks I may have been hurt by people before too because 1) I have a big snake tattoo in my ear that probably hurt and 2) a couple of times I have flinched at a raised hand as though I've been hit before.

    I do just the same thing as Athena when I am afraid. I bark to say, "give me space" and try to avoid contact. And just like Athena, some patience, space, and tasty treats are all I need to turn into a cuddle bug.

    The trickiest thing for mom and dad has been getting people to listen about giving me some time to get to know them. Sometimes people do not have patience. Or they like to stare at me. Like a hard stare. Which is weird and I think that would make any person nervous too.

    I know mom also wishes that I was crazy about everyone I meet. At least I am crazy about maybe 90%. Not bad, right? And I also love the little ones :) That makes mom very happy too. Plus I have made a lot of progress being braver about men.

    One of the other things mom taught me is to "look" She uses this for anything that is scary, exciting, or weird that we might see on our walks. When she notices a man in some weird clothes or an excited dog or a bird or whatever else, she points at it and says "look" and I look at the thing and then I look back at mom to get my treat. This has really helped with a lot of things! I stay calmer as we approach things and I don't get intense about them. And it helps me to make good associations with being around men :)

    Well this has become a very long comment. Sorry about that. But I can tell you are doing just what Athena needs to feel more comfortable with people and I have a feeling she will start getting braver with time :)

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    1. Remy, I had no idea how similar you and Athena are with your fears. I like that your mom has taught you the "look" command. Athena is pretty good at "leave it" especially when we encounter another dog on our walks. I need to try using it more often when we are faced with scary people!

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  15. I didn't know either! Leave it is another good one :) The thing that my trainer likes about "look" is that it encourages me to acknowledge the thing that makes me feel nervous or excited and then break focus and act calmly, so I start to associate these things with a different sort of behavior and I start to feel different about them too.

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  16. Hmmm, I wouldn't say that Ray is fearful of people at all because he loves to approach everyone however sometimes when he approaches people he tucks his tail and sidles up to them which is confusing to me. He used to be a piddler when he did that too but he's growing out of that.

    We've used the throw treat approach before, too in things with Ray but usually we just instruct people to ignore him for a certain period of time.

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  17. Only one of the pack is afraid and that's Forest. He was severely neglected as a young pup and that lack of early socialization has had quite the effect. Due to our lifestyle there isn't anything that I have done to have him overcome his fears. Why? Well, we don't have people over, we don't walk around town and meet people. Out in the wilderness and off leash, Forest is just as happy as he is at home! So, when, on the rare occasion I am going somewhere that a pooch or two can come along, I just don't take him. When we have to go to the vet, I take one of the super calm along as a buddy and that helps him tremendously.

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  18. One thing I've learned from working with a fearful foster dog is to stop having people offer him treats. As someone else mentioned, this can put the dog in conflict because they want the treat, but then once they take it, there they are, too close for comfort. What has worked MUCH better for us is to teach the dog to touch/sniff an outstretched fist ("go say hi"), and mark the instant the dog touches the fist; then they return to you for their treat. This allows them to not only get the food reward, but also the reward of space from the person. This helped us turn a corner in a major way, with him able to approach people in a much more relaxed manner.
    Give it a try!

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  19. My four year old girl is reactive. She does not like strangers, smokers, mopeds, pet monkey smell. She passionately loves family, family dogs, laser pen and cats. The cats usually do not like her. I use the laser pen to distract her from scary things. We play with it so much that she just has to see it to put all her attention onto the pen. I take her for a very long walk early in the morning when there is hardly anyone about. Shorter walks during the day so the stress levels are lowered.

    A flat neighbour has decided over time that he does not like my dog. The old guy gives her a hard stare through the window and smokes in the hall. So she has gone, from licking his legs when she sees him, to barking and lunging. She is never without me and all that has changed is that he has bought the monkey. But now she has figured out that barking and lunging scare people away, it is her new found superpower. So I am using a halti. The halti stops her from barking because if she is trying to lunge, it closes her mouth. It seems that I just get a handle on one of her issues and something else crops up. She is too clever for me by far, lol I will keep trying and I am looking forward to her old age when she 'please god' will settle down a bit.

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  20. I recently adopted a pit, Nyla, who is fearful of people. Same thing as most of the above, barking and crouching. I am working with a vet behaviorist who also strongly reccomends for the straanger to NOT give the dog a treat. A dog will very often go for food aside from their dicomfort and this can be misleading to the stranger who wants to reach down and pet her. When people are coming to myhouse, I have them meet her on our sidewalk with a No touch, no talk and no eye contact rule and as Nyla smells them I reward her with a treat. I continue to do this until she seems ok with them and then when we go into the house, I have her sit and the new person crosses the threshold first. This establishes a bit of a leadership order. If Nyla gets spooked inside, I have the guest sit on the couch which is more non-threatening than standing and Nyla can smell them without feeling threatened. Interesting but perhaps not surprising, all the people who followed the instructions implicitly were women and Nyla warmed up to them within 5 minutes. The men, who did not listen to my instructions had to go back and follow them before she would warm up to them and then she was fine. Also, talking in a high pitched, excited voice is totally not a good thing to do with a fearful dog.....so when they do decide to talk to her, best in a normal voice! those are my 2 cents, good luck!

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  22. The man’s son was screaming for his father to stop, according to Reeves. There was blood everywhere, she said. Dogs

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