You’re not too fond of spiders, especially the big, hairy ones! Not to the point of phobia or panic, but they make you uncomfortable, and you do not want to see them in your house. And yet there it is, on your bedroom wall. What do you do next?
A typical reaction is paradoxical from what we would logically expect. A high percentage of people will slowly creep in… studying that spider from different angles…just a little closer…whew; that’s a big one! Very black and hairy too! You go around to the other side and take a better look at it. Yep, it’s a spider. Which you knew all along.
And as you creep closer, what might happen if it suddenly scurried across the wall?
Odds are pretty good you would leap back and scream! Which begs the question, why did you put yourself in that situation in the first place, getting closer to the critter that upsets and frightens you?
Dogs do exactly the same thing.
Dogs who have fear issues often get closer as if inexplicably drawn in. So what happens when the human responds by looking directly at the dog, approaches, and says a cheerful hello?
The dog hysterically backpedals, WOOWOOWOO’ing the whole way. The spider just scurried across the wall!
And people are taken off guard every single time.
My best guess as to why people and dogs do this to ourselves is that we want to gather information about things that frighten us. We want to be absolutely certain about what we are seeing. There may be more to it, but that’s my guess.
However, for the purposes of this blog? The important thing is not so much why we approach or look at things that upset us as to understand that we do indeed do this, as do our dogs.
Never assume that a dog approaching something or someone means that they are comfortable with it. Indeed, it can be quite the reverse and if the person responds, that is exactly what could cause the dog to panic. Most dogs run away when they panic, but some, especially if they feel trapped, may lunge or bite. I mean, when the spider jumps AT you rather than scurrying across the wall? Well, you may well fight back! Same with your dog – when a hand reaches out or a person approaches enthusiastically, panic could cause a range of possible reactions, including a bite. Don’t put yourself, or your dog, in that situation!
If a dog approaches you directly, staring right up in your face? Avert your gaze, shift your posture to less frontal, and see what happens next. And if the dog approaches you but appears to be going backwards and forwards, sort of creeping in, as if ready to escape? Same thing! Don’t coax them closer. Ignore the dog. Let the natural process of acclimating to new people help the dog make the decision about whether you are, indeed, safe for interaction.
The most commonly missed question on my recent quiz about fear asked if fearful dogs approach things they are afraid of. One in three people believed that no, a fearful dog would not approach something they were afraid of. Hence, this blog! If you’d like to take the quiz you can find it here and test your own knowledge about fearful dogs:
The important point is that dogs will absolutely approach things they are afraid of. How you read and respond to that dog, whether your own or someone else’s, could make an enormous difference in that dog’s well being,
So now you know. Sometimes behavior is more than a little confusing.
Get blog post notifications via email!
Sign up to be emailed each time Denise publishes a new post!
Thanks for this post, that makes a lot of sense!
What do you recommend for the person on the handler end of the leash? If I can’t control the person that my fearful dog wants to approach, should I be redirecting him or let him move forward?
I try to advise people not to pet over his head or move too quickly, but generally don’t have success directing people.
I do not let my dog approach at all if I have any question about their comfort level. Unfortunately, every time the dog has an unpleasant reaction to the person, it makes the dog more likely to have problems the next time. It’s easier to prevent the interaction altogether.
Denise, why do you think there are so many fearful dogs? In your opinion is it a newer phenomenon or it has always been there and we now expect dogs to do so much out and about that we are now noticing it? Love to hear your thoughts
there’s no way to know since we live with dogs differently than in the past. In the past, dogs stayed home if they had any issues – fear, aggression, or just not wanting to be out and about. Now we try and “fix” dogs – and that is new.
I mean – how many dogs are fearful on a regular enough basis that we label them that way? 1%? 5%? 10%? 25%? And…how does one define this? At the point of pathological fear or when we notice that a dog is a bit “Shy” of strangers?
I think it’s impossible to know how many dogs have issues as a percentage, now or before. Social media certainly makes us more aware of extremes but are they more common or are we more aware?
Reactive dogs? Now we have classes to work on that – before we corrected very hard until the dog shut down and didn’t show display behaviors. There were no classes for reactivity where I lived when I started in dogs – we had one solution for everything; correct and if that did not work, correct harder.
Shy dogs? I was aware of shy dogs because I had Shelties and I was around people who wanted to show in obedience and conformation so it was an issue. But in a pet situation I never would have known about them.
In my opinion, these questions are truly unknowable for all of these reasons.
As far as what we should do? I think a decent percentage of dogs could live happy and fulfilling lives if we just let them alone; they could be happy living as pets in a quiet home, left alone by random strangers. But we like to “fix? things, and we seem convinced that a dog’s quality of life is better if it goes places and attends shows or whatever. That’s not my point of view but it’s common.
If a dog’s quality of life in miserable in their own home? Then yes, I’d do something to make it better.
In response to the first post by AV I am thinking about a talk by Amy Cook at the most recent Fenzi camp. She reminds us that we also need to protect our dogs from folks who might inadvertently make our dogs concerned. We need to be our dog’s advocate. If someone is approaching and your dog is not comfortable she asks them to stop, explaining that her dog is shy (I think that is what she says?). If they don’t stop she demonstrated stepping forward with her hand up in a stop motion. I have a sweet Lab who is concerned about strangers. We were out on a walk and we were approached by a woman in a large hat who was talking loudly to someone on her phone. There were a bunch of kids behind us so we could not turn around. The woman wanted to pet my girl. Katy shrunk back. I asked her politely to just wait where she was. She kept coming. I did my best Amy Cook imitation of “Stop!” with my hand out. Eureka! It worked!. I am empowered (; and now you are too! Then I could explain to the woman from a distance and Katy could relax.
I took the quiz. Very fun and informative!
Excellent. It was designed to be a learning opportunity 🙂
What’s up with the dog when they approach with what appears confidence/boldly. Sniffs and becomes more aroused and nips/bites? Why did the dog not retreat? The dog is not contained or restrained and is in a open area.
Presumably for the same reason that humans walk up to the wall where the spider is – to take a better look. And then freak when it runs across the wall 🙂