Everyone wants a nice welcoming home that friends and family enjoy visiting, right?
So what do you do when it’s your beloved pooch that’s preventing that from happening?
If your pup can bark out of control, be unpredictable or overly distressed when people visit, then they may be suffering from territorial anxiety or fear of strangers.
Not only is it time to put some solutions in place to ensure your dog feels calm when new people walk through the door, but your guests need to feel they’re actually allowed to pass the threshold.
Causes of anxiety in dogs
Unfortunately, not every puppy is brought into the world and reared in the healthiest way. Rescue dogs can particularly be suspicious of other new people, commonly men, and it can be hard to know why as many new owners know little about their dog’s past life. If you’re aware of a history of abuse though, this is likely to be the root cause of their fear of strangers.
Often, puppies can be left for too long when they’re young, especially if they’re the last ones in the litter. This can cause the puppy to develop a wariness from a very young age, leading to barking and other anxious behaviours as the puppy grows older.
Some puppies are also not socialised properly from a young age. Puppies need to be around a variety of humans and other dogs in order to get used to strangers and new scenarios. This was a big issue during the Coronavirus lockdown, with many puppies unable to meet new people.
And it’s not only the rearing of the puppy that can affect the soundness of the dog’s mind but their breed as well. Some dog breeds are more prone to anxiety simply because of their genetics; for example, Border Collies and German Shepherds are incredibly intelligent, highly sensitive dogs, and sometimes this can translate to nervousness.
A shy dog is also more likely to produce puppies that are skittish, too. This is something that is certainly out of your control if you are rescuing a dog, but something to check if you’re buying from a breeder.
General signs of anxiety in dogs
Before we begin with the solutions, it’s important to be able to identify when your dog is anxious. The most obvious signs are:
- Barking and growling
- Shaking and shivering
- Anal gland secretion (which gives off a smell to humans)
- Chewing furniture
- Hiding in a corner
This can happen in any scenario, not just when you have guests. If you recognise these behaviours in other settings, your dog may need help in all of the situations.
Naturally, more aggressive behaviours such as barking and growling will put your guests on edge as well. This can cause further stress to your dog – they know if someone doesn’t like them.
Less common signs to look for include stiff tail and posture, tight, closed mouth or a lowered head that’s leaning forward.
How to ease anxiety and fear in dogs
Anxiety and fear should be managed very carefully, as dogs don’t react in the same way. Those who cower will need help being brought out of their shell, but those who react by growling or snapping may need you to go slower so they don’t become aggressive.
If you suspect your dog could become aggressive towards visitors, and possibly bite to protect itself, it may be important to work with a certified dog trainer first. You don’t want anything to happen to your guest or your dog.
To change behaviour, consistent training is key, but looking at the dog’s lifestyle is important as well since their daily routine can help or hinder their anxiety over strangers.
Stay calm and upbeat
It is vital for you to not get worked up, as this stress can pass on to your dog. Keep your voice ordinary, relaxed and upbeat. Try to focus on the new person, rather than the dog.
Your visitor should also remain the same. If they also get nervous around your dog, it is maybe a bad idea to bring them both together.
Have some treats to hand which your visitor can pass on to your dog when everything calms down. This way, your dog may start to associate visitors with treats.
Keep everything on your dog’s terms
Allow your dog to approach your visitor on their terms. This could be done within one visit, or may take a few.
Don’t let a visitor approach them first. Dogs may feel threatened by this behaviour and see it as the stranger trying to be dominant over them, which could lead to biting.
When they do approach, your visitor should not make eye contact. Tell them to carry on with the conversation and make slow movements.
Give your dog space
If they want to retreat to a quiet room, such as upstairs, or go into their crate, you should allow this. Removing your dog from situations that make them anxious is acceptable if it keeps everybody happy.
Don’t disturb the dog during this time. You can check on them, but don’t allow visitors to go in unattended.
Further training and help
Dog calming aids
A dog calming aid could be used if your dog commonly becomes anxious, or if you want to work on their behaviour over time. You can purchase Thundervests, plugins, drops and treats that calm down a dog in stressful situations.
These could help your dog to feel more comforted during these events. Commonly used during fireworks, they are applicable in any situation, and you should be able to find one which works for you and your dog.
A calming dog bed could also be a great place for them to retreat to.
Vets can discuss the best approach for your dog, and perhaps even prescribe medication if your dog’s anxiety is really affecting their life.
They can also point you in the direction of a certified behaviourist, or recommend that you use a basket muzzle when on walks if they can be fearful of people outside the home too.
As well as training, there are a few key elements to the dog’s lifestyle that will ease anxiety, and the first key factor is getting enough exercise for their breed.
It sounds obvious, but we often underestimate just how much outdoor time dogs need in order to feel calm and relieved of frustration. This isn’t going to tackle the issue of fear, but being aware of general restless energy and anxiety is a good idea. Depending on your breed, your dog should spend between 30 minutes to two hours being active every day.
If you don’t get them used to being around other dogs and other people, their sense of what’s safe can become much smaller. This isn’t to say throw your dog a party or take them straight to doggy daycare; instead, try easing them in with one friendly dog and person at a time.
Maybe get a dog-walking buddy. It is a good idea if this other dog is calm and approachable. Then, they can focus on the dog and not the person, who can take their time to approach your dog.
Being outside can of course be different to them coming into your home, but you can maybe try introducing them to your garden and then slowly into the house.
Conditioning with treats is a tried and tested technique that works so long as your patient. As a human being, you know how hard it is to break a bad habit, it takes time and patience with the occasional setback, but you eventually get there.
So it is the same with your dog, learning a new behaviour that’s different to their pattern of thinking and behaviour before. It will take time, but the method to remember is:
- Identify the trigger
- Show them the treat and wait for them to be quiet
- Reward them
In the meantime, good luck!