How to Train Your Dog to Be Calm Around Strangers

Medium
4-6 Weeks
Behavior

Introduction

When company comes over, does your dog lose control, jumping, barking, running around in circles, and otherwise making a nuisance of himself? When you are on a walk and encounter a stranger, does your dog act aggressive, lunge, pull, bark and growl? Unless you live under a rock, you and your dog are going to encounter other people, people your dog doesn't know, and your dog needs to know how to behave when this occurs. A dog that reacts aggressively to the presence of strangers can end up lashing out and biting. Even a dog that does not show overt aggression but gets overexcited is usually reacting from anxiety, which can eventually manifest in aggression. If you have a particularly large dog, his excitement around strangers can send someone flying if he jumps up, or result in a scratch to a face, especially with children or seniors.


Defining Tasks

Your dog is going to come into contact with guests in your home, service people, delivery people, and strangers on walks and trips. Your dog will need to learn to be calm, comfortable and quiet around unfamiliar people. Although, it is normal for your dog to let out a bark to warn you someone is approaching you or your home, this should not be excessive, and should stop once you have been alerted. A confident, controlled dog will not go on barking, become hyperactive, jump, or be aggressive around strangers, which is usually a reaction to fear. To train your dog to act appropriately and be calm when he encounters strangers you should never punish reactive behavior, do not yell or pull back on a lead, which creates more excitement and anxiety and makes the behavior worse. You want your dog to be mentally relaxed when he encounters a stranger. Although he may be happy, and excited, or bark to let you know someone is there, there would be a confident, balanced, relaxed posture, and his behavior should be controlled and calm. The best way to create calm behavior around strangers is to socialize your dog early by exposing him to lots of different people and situations. An older dog that becomes over excited or aggressive around strangers will need to have their behavior corrected and replaced with appropriate calm behaviors.

Getting Started

During the training period you will want to keep your dog from being exposed to strangers except during scheduled training sessions, where you can modify your dog's behavior. To do this you may need to avoid strangers when walking your dog by crossing the street, and keep your dog contained in a separate room when you have people over unless you are actively training. You don't want to give your dog the opportunity to be hyper or aggressive around strangers, as this only reinforces the behavior. Do not punish or force your dog to accept handling from a stranger during training, you will need to exercise patience and move at your dog's pace. Remember, your dog is reacting out of fear. Enlist friends who are not afraid of dogs, and who your dog is unfamiliar with, to assist you in training. Have lots of treats available to positively reinforce appropriate behavior. If your dog is aggressive, or apt to bite, you will need to ensure everyone’s safety, and a basket muzzle may be appropriate. The use of a crate as a safe place can be used to help desensitize your dog to the presence of strangers.

The Desensitize Method

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Desensitize Method
Step
1
Crate
If your dog tends to be particularly fearful and withdrawn, provide them with a crate or provide a safe distance from your assistant. Have an assistant come to your house while the dog is in his crate or on a leash on the far side of the room.
Step
2
Interact at a distance
Do not crowd your dog, but wait for him to be calm in his crate or space with the stranger in the same room and then give him a high value treat.
Step
3
Come closer
Gradually have your assistant come closer to the crate, or your dog. If the dog reacts, stop and wait for him to be calm, When you get calm behavior, provide a reward. You can provide your dog a Kong stuffed with food or a chew toy, to help distract him and give him an outlet for excited behavior that does not involve directing it at your assistant.
Step
4
Repeat
Repeat multiple times over many sessions, with different assistants if possible.
Step
5
Increase exposure
If using a crate, gradually have the stranger present with the door open, move to having the dog on a leash, and move to having the dog off leash. Eventually, your dog will earn that the stranger is nothing to fear and that reacting calmly to their presence is associated with rewards.
Recommend training method?

The Ignore Method

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Ignore Method
Step
1
Find a "stranger"
Have a friend act as your stranger and meet your “stranger” either out on a walk or have them come to your home.
Step
2
Ignore
When your dog overreacts to the stranger's presence, you should both ignore your dog's behavior, do not restrain, yell at, or even look at your dog while they are overreacting. Remember to be calm yourself.
Step
3
Small reward
When your dog stops reacting by barking, jumping or running, have the stranger toss the dog a treat. Neither you, nor the stranger should pay excess attention to the dog.
Step
4
Increase reward
As the dog becomes calmer around your stranger, your assistant can place a treat near them or even provide the treat by hand, as long as the dog continues to be calm. If the dog starts acting hyper, aggressive, or over excited again, withdraw treats and attention and ignore the dog.
Step
5
Repeat
Repeat with several different people, as often as possible over a period of weeks. If possible, have your “stranger” join you on a walk if you are out walking. Ignore excited behavior and reward calm behavior until your dog learns that there is no positive reinforcement for overreacting, and that being calm is rewarded with attention and rewards.
Recommend training method?

The Down and Stay Method

Effective
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Down and Stay Method
Step
1
Teach down/stay
Teach your dog to sit/stay or down/stay on command, on a mat in your home, with no strangers present, until your dog performs this reliably. Practice down/stay on the mat on and off leash.
Step
2
Bring a stranger in
Have a planned “stranger” come over to our house. Put your dog on a leash prior to the stranger ringing the doorbell and entering the house.
Step
3
Command down/stay
When the stranger enters your home, give your dog the down/stay command and direct them to their mat, use the leash to direct them if necessary.
Step
4
Reward response
When your dog is on his mat, obeying the sit/stay or down/stay command, and is calm with the stranger present, give your dog a treat. After your dog is calm for several minutes, call him over to meet the stranger and provide your dog with treats.
Step
5
Repeat
Repeat in multiple sessions with different people, if possible, over several weeks until your dog learns to calmly sit/stay or down/stay when a stranger enters your home.
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Chica
Chihuahua
3 Years
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Question
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Chica
Chihuahua
3 Years

Chica is training to be a service dog. She heels. However she refuses to sit on command in places she is new to. And when she meets new people she tends to pup on the leash and tries to jump up to their knees.
How do I fix these problems?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
6 Dog owners recommended

Hello Aracelie, There are many skill levels when it comes to sit and other obedience commands. Chica has likely mastered beginners level, and she can do the sit without distractions around but needs more practice in the presence of distractions for it to be reliable. Begin taking her places with a little bit more distractions, such as in a calmer part of your neighborhood. Bring some treats or favorite toys along with you. Command her to sit while on a walk in your neighborhood, if she does, great! Give her a treat and be sure to praise her right when her bottom hits the ground. If she refuses, then step in front of her, blocking her view with the leash tight enough that she cannot leave you but not so tight that it hurts her at all. Now Wait. Give her time to get bored and think about what you have asked her. If she attempts to get around you to sniff or look at something, step in front of her again to block her view. If you think she did not hear the original command or if fifteen or more second have gone by, you can repeat the command once more, but do not repeat the command over and over. Wait until it has been at least fifteen seconds between sit commands before repeating it each time. You want her to learn to do it the first time that she is told to sit. This exercise can take some especially stubborn dogs as long as fifteen minutes to complete the first time you practice this, so be patient. Most dogs will get bored and will sit in less than five minutes, but give her time to think about what she was told and to choose to do it. If she is really struggling, then you may need to choose somewhere slightly less distracting, such as your own yard to practice this in first. Once she can sit in one location quickly, move onto a slightly harder location and repeat the process again. Her sitting skills need to gradually develop, just like a person who is practicing a new skill needs time to get better in harder and harder situations. Does Chica seem excited and happy to see people when she is jumping and pulling? If she is jumping and pulling out of excitement then what you can do is to recruit various family members and friends that she is likely to jump on to help you mimic a stranger approaching her. Give these volunteers treats for them to hide in their hands behind their backs or in their pockets. When they approach Chica, have them command her to sit or down. If she does so, have them give her a treat from under her chin, if sitting, or between her front paws, if lying down. Giving the treats this way will keep her head down and make her less likely to jump up. If she pulls while they are approaching or if she tries to jump, have the person immediately turn around and walk away or leave the house. When she has calmed back down, repeat the approach and have them instruct her to sit or down again. This will likely take many attempts at first, so be patient. The more times that they approach, the less excited that she will be and the easier this will be for her to do, and the more she will understand what she is supposed to do and not supposed to do. When the person can approach her without her pulling and without her jumping. You can choose to have them give her a treat here as well, before they command the sit or down, if you would like to make this sightly easier. Then once she has that step mastered add in the sit or down step. When she will reliably sit or down when that person approaches, and she no longer jumps on them or pulls towards them, practice the whole thing again with a different friend or family member. It will take practicing this with multiple new people before she will be able to handle doing this around real strangers. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Kiwi
Border Collie
1 Year
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Question
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Kiwi
Border Collie
1 Year

Hello! I read this article, and while I found some aspects informational, I still have a few questions. Kiwi is a very protective girl, and has people that she easily likes/ wont bark at, but also has people (this is the usual, anyone she has never met basically) that she goes crazy over. We are very family orientated people, and love taking kiwi with us. However, when Kiwi is ALWAYS barking around new people, it gets hard. Most of these tips went for when you're in home. How will these hold over for when we go different places? Do you find the 'quiet' method to be useful? Such as when she barks, I just gently hold her mouth closed, and say quiet. I am just confused on how to specifically train her, as we still want her to protect us if in danger, but she has to learn how to stay calm when we say it's okay, no matter where we are.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
6 Dog owners recommended

Hello Abigail, I would recommend having a few different friends that Kiwi is not familiar with help you practice the training methods described in the article first in an non-intimidating environment, such as a calm park, your home, your yard, or your neighborhood. Somewhere without too many extra people around . I would recommend also teaching Kiwi the Quiet command and the "Say Hi" command. You can utilize your friends for teaching the "Say Hi" command. Practice having a friend ignore Kiwi, and when Kiwi chooses to approach them quietly even slightly, tell her "Say Hi" and have the friend drop several treats on the floor towards her without looking at Kiwi. Repeat this ever time Kiwi approaches them. After she is comfortable then command her to "Say Hi" BEFORE she begins to approach them, and when subsequently she approaches them when told to then reward her. If she does not approach them then go back a step and wait until she offers the approach herself before giving her the command, then once she makes the connection between the approach and the command you can continue forward again. Once she can approach that person on command then introduce new friends that she does not know and practice doing it with them while they ignore them. As she improves make things harder by having them interact with her more by smiling, talking, and making normal friendly eye contact. After she knows the Quiet command and the Say Hi command you can then practice having her Say Hi and be Quiet around real strangers and give her rewards when she does so. I would also recommend bringing treats or favorite toys with you when you go out in public and rewarding and praising her whenever she looks at someone and remains calm, especially if she looks back to you after looking at the person. You may need to keep a lot of distance between you and strangers at first, in order for her to feel calm enough to not react negatively while learning, and then very gradually decrease the distance as she improves. Doing these things will not only improve your communication with her so that she understands clearly what she is supposed to be doing when told in each situation, but it should also help her to associate people with food and rewards and decrease her tendency be suspicious and fearful. I would not worry about her becoming too friendly and not protective enough. A well socialized dog is more likely to protect you when needed because they better understand when a person is acting normal verses not normal. Protectiveness is more of a temperament trait and will not likely be lost by increasing friendliness towards average people. Friendliness will however allow you to bring her with you more places. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Rispah
Australian Shepard mix
6 Months
1 found helpful
Question
1 found helpful
Rispah
Australian Shepard mix
6 Months

We adopted a dog from a shelter who only had her for two weeks if that. They found her and her sister abandoned near a zoo. She's very scared of strangers and took her a little bit to get use to us even but she doesn't seem to want to get use to others.. She still barks growls and lunges or runs from anyone that's not us. She even growls and barks at us if startled and takes her a minute to realize it's us. How do we help her build her confidence in others while not knowing her past

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainier
6 Dog owners recommended

Hello Tielle, If she is food motivated I would work on pairing the presence of people with food rewards. If she is not food motivated you can use a favorite toy and a game of tug or fetch as a reward in place of the treats. First, experiment with different types of kibble or treats to find out which ones she loves. Something small and soft will be the easiest to use. Liver or real chicken are a favorite for many dogs. Second, take her somewhere where she is likely to see people, but where she does not have to be close to people until you are ready to introduce her. A large quieter park could work for this. Make sure that the harness or collar that use on her is secure so that she will not be able to wiggle out of it if she becomes frightened. Third, walk her past a stranger, close enough that she notices them but far enough away that she is able to remain calm and still look at you when you try to get her attention. Whenever she looks at the stranger or whenever she looks at the stranger and then back at you, praise her happily and offer her a reward. Always remain upbeat and happy sounding. You are trying to build her confidence and not pity her or worry her. Continue to reward her at that distance until she seems completely relaxed and happy at that distance. Once she has reached that point then decrease the distance by a couple of feet. Repeat this process, decreasing the distance very slowly over time, until she is able to walk right past someone and still remain calm. Once she is able to remain calm even while next to someone, teach her to "Say Hi" to them. Have a friend that she does not know help you with this part. Give your friend several treats to hide in her pockets. At a calm location, such as the park, practice walking past your friend like you did before with strangers. Walk past your friend without stopping and without saying hi several times, like you did before with the other strangers, until your dog seems relaxed. Once your dog seems relaxed, then walk by again, but this time when you pass by, stop a couple of feet away from your friend and tell Rispah to "Say Hi". When you do this have your friend toss out several tasty treats while at the same time ignoring your dog. Practice this until Rispah will walk up to your friend willingly in order to sniff her and receive treats from her. Once Rispah is comfortable with your friend, your friend can gradually begin to talk to her more and more and to touch her gently. Practice this with many different friends until Rispah begins to do better with people. Once she does well during the structured training sessions you can practice this with calm people out in public, one at a time. Be sure to only let people whom you feel will be gentle and patient meet her, and when they meet her instruct the person to take things slow with her and allow her to warm up to them. Because she may have been traumatized by people before she came to you, or she simply was not exposed to enough people while young, this process will take a lot of time and patience on your part. Keep up the good work. It sounds like she has found a great home with you. Best of luck in training, Caitlin Crittenden

Ok thanks. We are trying the treats trick and she refuses to accept from one friend today Mom said she wouldn’t eat them till after he left. I guess we have to try it with the ignore part tho like you said. She’s so scared. I hate to think what happened before the shelter found her. She’s definitely happy here tho. Just taking a while getting her acclimated to others.

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