With an influx of ‘strangers’ coming into the home, it may be particularly overwhelming for the many pandemic puppies that missed out on the critical early socialisation and training that they need to become confident and well-adapted adult dogs.
There are also many new rescue dogs, or even just any dog that hasn’t been exposed to big, noisy groups of people for a while, that are likely to feel a bit stressed and anxious about it all, which not only makes any anxiety they may already have much worse, but also puts people and other pets at risk.
Some anxious dogs respond with fear-based aggression – a big issue that I and many other trainers are seeing at the moment – which can put people, especially children (who often can’t read the subtle warning signs that dogs give before they react), at risk of being seriously hurt.
As the owner of a rescue dog who has his own fear-based aggression issues that we are working on daily, (due to the fact he spent most of the first 6 months of his life locked up in a backyard and mistreated), I know how important it is that any interactions with new people and other animals are handled very slowly and positively or even, at times, totally avoided!
What to look for?
Even the most placid of dogs can react when they are under stress, so preparing our dogs now for visitors and giving them a safe and calm place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed is key.
Some of the subtle (and not so subtle) signs that anyone that owns or interacts with a dog should look out for includes them licking their lips or flicking their tongue rapidly when they encounter a ‘trigger’ (ie: another dog, person, child etc.) or even yawning.
You may notice ‘whale eye’, which is wide, bulging eyes that show the whites of the eyes, or they avert their gaze or actively turn their head to avoid direct eye contact. Their ears may go back or even fold back, with their body lowered and tail tucked.
A dog that rolls onto its back exposing its stomach and throat, often turning its head away as well, is often also indicating they are feeling threatened, but are giving a submissive response. Whereas those that choose the fear-based aggression response may warn the threat to back off by drawing back their lips, curl their lip to show teeth, before or with a growl until, eventually if their warnings continue to be ignored, it escalates further.
Sometimes a dog might have a slight wag of the tail, which we think means they are being friendly, but it will only be a very small swing and can indicate that they are feeling tentative.
Other signs of anxiety that you may tend to notice more include your dog panting, pacing and trembling, or if your dog is constantly monitoring or following you or another animal around. They may also lick themselves excessively.
If you do have a dog that is already very anxious, I would strongly recommend you seek out the services of a qualified trainer or speak to your Vet or ideally, a Vet Behaviourist, about the medication options to support a behaviour modification plan before inviting groups of people, and possibly other dogs coming with them, into your home.
I know first-hand the vital role that medication can play with helping some anxious dogs cope with the world around them. A stressed dog simply cannot learn, so it really can enable us to have real success with our behaviour modification efforts and is something that owners of severely anxious dogs should be open to talking to their Vet about.
However, for those of you who just want to make sure your dogs are well prepared for large groups in the home that may not have yet been exposed to large groups, or that may just feel mildly anxious about an influx of people in their space, below are some steps to help prepare them for the big day.
- Slowly introduce new people into your home one or two visitors a week as soon as possible, using treats and positive reinforcement training to create a calm, positive experience.
- Put your dog on a lead and ask people to take off hats, hoodies and sunglasses, move slowly, avoid staring at the dog or interacting with them if the dog is barking, jumping or acting in appropriately.
- If your dog is food motivated, have the other person slowly come into the house or room with a treat easily visible. If they are toy or ball motivated you can use those too. If your dog moves towards them to investigate, they should offer your dog the treat and speak in a low, calm and encouraging voice to help create the positive association we are after.
- People should NEVER put their hand out when meeting a dog. This is a sure way to get bitten, despite what you have been led to believe. Visitors should invite the dog to them with a pat to the leg and if the dog doesn’t respond or moves away, leave them alone! Never force interactions.
- If ignored, dogs will often get curious and slowly make their way over to investigate. So, people should talk quietly, no sudden movements, encouraging and praising good behaviour and let the dog take the lead.
On the day of group gatherings:
- Always have your dog on a lead or in another area when guests arrive and ask them to greet or ignore your dog as outlined in the tips above.
- Make sure your pet has a safe room or area outside to take themselves too if they are feeling overwhelmed and that they have their bed, blankets, toys, water, food or a long-lasting chew – and that no one is allowed to interrupt them there.
- Cats should have a high up place to escape to, or they may like to escape and hide under the bed. Let them be!
- Use pheromone appeasing sprays or diffusers in the area such as Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats.
- You could even pull down the blinds and put on some low music to block out the noise if things get a bit rowdy.
For more dog training, health and other pet care advice visit Poochesatplay.com
As a one of Australia’s most well-known animal welfare advocates, Lara Shannon is passionate about educating and empowering people to help improve the lives of companion animals. A certified dog trainer & behaviourist and pet food nutritionist, Lara is the Producer and Host of Channel 10’s Pooches at Play, featured in The Pet Rescuers on Channel 9 and is the Author of ‘World of Dogs’ (October 2021) and ‘Eat Play Love (Your Dog)’ (June 2020), published by Hardie Grant Books.