TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
Our problem is a little different. My wife is very afraid of dogs and has a hard time walking or running anywhere around Truckee because so many dogs are off leash. She had a bad experience when she was a child and was never exposed to friendly dogs. Can you give her advice on what to do if a strange dog approaches and is there any way to help her get over this fear?
Scared of Dogs
Truckee is not a good place to be if you either don’t like dogs or are afraid of them! It is one of the few places I’ve ever been where off leash dogs are such a commonly accepted part of the community. Let’s take the issues one at a time.
The vast majority of dogs that walk off leash with their owners are friendly. When a person gets nervous, the dog can immediately smell the hormone changes caused by the fear and may switch from a friendly greeting to a defensive one. In addition, many people who are afraid of dogs wave their arms, kick their feet, yell or swing objects in an effort to get the dog away from them. All of these actions will scare even a friendly dog and cause them to bark, jump or growl. The best thing to do when a dog makes an unwelcome approach is to stop moving and wrap your arms around your body. If I saw a person do this, I would immediately know my dog’s greeting wasn’t welcome and could call her off. If a person is making gestures my dog perceives as threatening, it is much harder for me to get control of my now fearful dog. It’s also a good idea to take deep breaths and try to relax.
The real problem is your wife’s fear of dogs. One of my clients had a puppy but was afraid of strange dogs. I was concerned her fear was going to pass to the puppy. We spent several sessions walking together and I helped her learn how to read dog body language so she could make better decisions about the threat level of an approaching dog. I also helped her develop strategies to effectively manage her own dog if a situation arose where she felt uncomfortable and needed to retreat.
Your wife needs to be exposed to friendly dogs, but must also be taught how to act around them so she can build confidence. This will not happen by simply immersing her in scary situations. It must be done incrementally so she can build on each success.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.