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At Their Pace: Introducing Your Shy Dog to Their New Walker 

Published on
11 Jan 2022
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At Their Pace: Introducing Your Shy Dog to Their New Walker 

By Samantha Donndelinger 

Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash

Fantastic news! After searching and connecting, you found the perfect dog walker for you! But now comes the hard part: the introduction. Does your dog get a little shy around new people? Do you find it hard to introduce them to someone they haven't met before? Well, you're not alone, and neither are they. 

Did you know that most dogs suffer from nervousness? A recent study said that up to 70% of pups have anxiety, with 15% having anxiety over strangers. That's a lot of stress on your little one! While your dog may be comfortable with you and their regular day-to-day humans, meeting a new person could be scary. Especially if you're not around to show them the ropes (or the leash!). 

We know it can be hard to introduce your dog to your new walker, so we asked Ryan Kowalewski, a seasoned dog trainer at the Baltimore Humane Society, to walk us through the best ways to make the first meeting count. In this article, he shares his decades of valuable insights on why dogs experience anxiety, how to read their signals, and practical strategies for introducing them to strangers. Let's dive in! 

Why Anxiety Matters

Before we get into the routine for the meeting, let's go back to basics and look at some dog psychology. Kowalewski emphasizes that a dog's brain operates through associations, lacking a concrete sense of past and future experiences. This means that if a dog has had a negative encounter with specific triggers, such as men with hats or women with strollers, they may associate these triggers with fear in the future. Did someone with an oversized coat yell when they were a puppy? The next time they see a fluffy jacket, they return to that scary moment. 

"Dogs' brains work via associations," Kowalewski says. "They don't have the past and the future so much as they have the associations they learn over time. They see triggers that they associate with their previous experience," he says. "Now that's important for us because we can actively change dog associations, but we have to recognize what those triggers are in the first place."

The same applies to locations. For example, dogs may become anxious when people come through the front door, a space where they have experienced fear before because it is so unknown. This makes meeting a stranger at the door very arousing for most dogs. Barking, lunging, jumping up, the whole works. The more they do it at the door, the more they associate those behaviors with the door. 

So, how do we break these associations? It turns out dogs are a lot like people and value having choices. When dogs feel they have no option for flight and are being infringed upon, anxiety may manifest as barking or lunging. Voluntary interactions, on the other hand, boost a dog's confidence and create positive associations. "The most important thing to recognize is that their confidence increases when dogs do things voluntarily. When it happens to them, it's scary. If your dog is meeting somebody that they consider potentially scary in the foyer of their home, that front door space, which is often small, they don't have any choice. They feel trapped."

The key is giving your dog as much choice in the situation as possible when introducing them to someone new. It makes it much less scary for them and smoother for the humans involved. 

Another essential thing to remember is to read your dog's body language. All dogs will give some basic cues to tell you when they have had enough. It can vary based on the situation and your dog, but some standard signals are pinned-back ears, wide eyes, a tucked tail, lowered head, and stiffening. Conflicted behavior, like backing up and moving forward, is also a sign that a dog is not at ease. Sometimes, they can even give off stress and displacement behaviors, such as shaking off, excessive yawning, and pacing too. When your dog starts to do any of these, it means their choice is being compromised, and they are trying to let you know, hey, I'm feeling overwhelmed!

Strategies for Introduction

Do you feel brushed up on Dog 101? Great. Get your dog walker on speed dial and grab your treats because now it's time for the moment you’ve been waiting for: the meet. 

Depending on your living environment, there are a few different options. However, no matter where you live, it’s best not to introduce them at the door. If you have a fenced-in back yard, have your walker go out there ahead of you. Remind them when you come out, ignore the dog and follow the rule of no touch, no talk, and no eye contact. When you bring your dog out, use a long leash so they don't rush right up to the person. The moment you come out the back door and your dog notices the stranger, that's when you start to give treats. Every time the dog looks at them treat. Takes a step closer, treat. Sniffs their feet, treat treat treat!  

(If you don't have a fenced-in backyard, don't worry. Skip straight to the parallel walk.)

The parallel walk is an excellent technique for easing your dog's tension. Take them out on their regular leash and start your walk. Have the dog walker already outside, where they can begin to walk with you. Again, don't have them touch, look, or talk to the dog. Keep it light and friendly! Chat with them about their day, ask some questions, talk to them, and show your dog they are safe. Keep dropping treats for your little one, letting them know they are doing great just by being there. If they start to get anxious, walk further away from the person. You can eventually pass the leash off to them if the the dog seems okay. 

Kowalewski loves the parallel walk because it keeps the dog moving and active, removing some of the anxiety of being couped up inside. He emphasizes again, "It's important to recognize that the more you ignore that dog, the more comfortable they're going to be."

If you didn't spend any time in the backyard and you want to take it from on-leash to more opportunity to engage with the dog, you can come inside together, but it’s a good idea to give the dog something else to focus on. Kowalewski recommends a Kong lined with peanut butter or cream cheese. 

Another trick Kowalewski uses is asking your dog to do some of their favorite tricks. "The stranger can start by asking for behaviors because when I ask a dog to sit, I take them out of their reactive mind and put them into response mode working mode," he says. "Oh wait, I know that game, put my butt on the ground, and you give me a treat. Okay, that's just like what mom does. And it helps snap him out of fear because it's something familiar. They're also starting to feel more comfortable with me because I speak a language they're familiar with. I feel familiar."

For real danger cases, it's a safe idea to practice an on-leash meeting, where the dog will sit and wait while you go over to the stranger and make contact so the dog can see that you are friendly with this person. Eventually, you can ask the dog to check it out, come and sniff at their feet, and then move on quickly, giving lots of treats. Nobody talks to the dog. Nobody tries to pet them, and everyone moves on quickly.

Great work. You did the first introduction! The next step can be a little nerve-wracking because you won't be there. But don’t worry, when your dog walker comes into the house to walk your dog solo for the first time, all the groundwork you laid will pay off. They have already held the leash, asked your dog for a few tricks, and know where you keep their favorite treats.  

Make sure when they first enter your dog can't rush the door because it's at that door that they’re most aroused. You can put up a gate, close the main room door, or put up some other sort of barricade. This is important to avoid that initial shock.  

Food can also aid in this second meeting. Kowalewski suggests having some enrichment (see our previous article!) in the freezer ready to go for the walker so they can give them a Kong either when they arrive or when they leave to calm your dog down in case they get a little overwhelmed. (Be sure to double-check beforehand that they are not a food guarder!)

"Any behavior that gets practiced gets more intense and more frequent. So even simple things like allowing the dog to bark at the sound of somebody knocking at the door or ringing the doorbell creates an intensity associated with that front door," Kowalewski says. "So if you have a dog that goes crazy every time you hear the sound of footsteps on the doorstep outside of the door, knock on the door handle, then those would be things to desensitize first because that means somebody coming through the door is already creating that type of level of arousal before the dog even meets a stranger, right, so you're kind of setting them up for failure as opposed to trying to help them be calm when somebody comes through."

Kowalewski emphasizes the importance of taking introductions at the dog's pace. "If the dog doesn't warm up at all, even after going through all those steps, then at the very least, you're going to need a second meeting before that person can, say, just come into the home."

You can't rush it. It's not worth the setback of having a negative association with your dog, or worse, a bite. "This is all at the dog's pace, not ours," Kowalewski says. "So to put a time limit on this to expect that we're going to get to a certain place by a certain time, throw that out the window. Your dog has to do it of their own accord at their own pace, which means blocking off an hour for that first meet. If that first meeting doesn't end in a place where you feel like the dog is comfortable with that person, either schedule a second meet or look working with a trainer."

He also reminds us that any progress we make with the owner present, the dog will likely take a few steps back from in that second meeting when it's blind and the owner isn’t present. He encourages owners to be more conservative with introductions and more careful than not. 

"Not every dog is a dog walking candidate," he concludes. "Over 99% of dogs are not aggressive. They're just fearful. But if we push, we take the choice away and go too quick, any dog can bite. We have to go slow, go at the dog's pace, and take as much pressure off them as possible."

If you listen to your dog and follow their lead, your next meet can go just fine, and they'll be strutting the streets in no time.