How to help someone who’s scared of dogs



I’ve been bitten by dogs before, just as anyone who works with dogs may be bitten sooner or later.

This is usually no big deal, and it’s usually my own fault.

But last year I was attacked by a 100-pound leashed dog in a doorway and bitten three times in the leg and hip before I could get back out the door.

This was scary for me and also the first time I received medical attention for a bite.

I came home and cried due to the stress of the situation.

Since then, I’ve been slightly fearful of large, unfamiliar dogs.

I know my fear is unfair. I recognize it. I acknowledge it, and I do all I can to prevent it from influencing my decisions.

Yet, fear is fear. It’s a real emotion, and I’m now able to imagine why some people are afraid of certain types of dogs. (The dog that attacked me was a purebred dog typically not affected by breed bans, by the way.)

If an average person has a bad experience with a certain type of dog, I can understand why she might have a fear of all dogs that look the same way.

Since I am a professional who works with dogs every day, I know it’s not fair to judge a dog by her appearance. I know to judge a dog by her actual behavior. But the average person may not know this.

Choke chain collar black lab

So what can we do to help?

The people who read this blog have a good understanding about dogs in general, and dog behavior. And most of you probably don’t have any fear of dogs whatsoever.

So how can we educate the general population? How can we help people learn they don’t have to be afraid of most dogs?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have a few ideas:

1. We can give people space while walking our dogs.

I have a 70-pound black Lab mix. Most people smile when they see him, but every now and then I notice someone eyeing him tentatively and moving away.

I am not offended by this, and I try to give all people a little space when I’m walking my dog. I do the same when I’m walking any type of dog through my dog walking business. We are all aware that certain dogs are in need of space. Well, some people are also in need of space!

Some people don’t like dogs, and some people are afraid of dogs. Because of this, I reward my dog for paying attention to me vs. sticking his head out to lick or sniff someone.

2. We can help our dogs be well behaved.

If someone is afraid of certain types of dogs, perhaps the most important factor for that person is to have more and more positive experiences with a variety of dogs.

No matter what types of dogs we have, we can set a good example for all dogs by:

  • Taking our dogs out in public and rewarding calm behavior
  • Preventing our dogs from lunging, barking and jumping (and that goes for small dogs, too!)
  • Keeping our dogs near us vs. at the end of a maxed-out Flexi leash
  • Acknowledging that some people don’t like dogs and that’s OK
  • Using appropriate training collars to give us the most control
  • Knowing our dogs’ limits and removing them from stressful situations

3. We can dress our dogs in cute collars and outfits.

Black Lab on the beach

We’re not all into dressing our dogs up in cute outfits, and that’s fine. But, I do think it can make a difference if you ever need your dog to give off a “friendlier” vibe.

For example, I think my dog looks “tough” when he’s wearing just a choke chain collar and nothing else (see the very top photo of this post). And some people also seem to think his Gentle Leader is a muzzle.

However, Ace looks pretty darn sweet if he’s wearing his wide, polka-dot collar. Or if he’s wearing a colorful bandanna.

Shelters and rescue groups know to dress their dogs up at adoption events, and it’s something the rest of us can do with our own dogs when taking them out and about.

4. Educate people about dog behavior.

Of course, the most important thing we can do is educate others a little at a time. Fear is a real emotion, and we can’t force people to get over their fear of dogs or of certain types of dogs. We can only take small steps to hopefully decrease that fear over time.

It’s hard to even know where to begin with that, but one of the most important messages is that all dogs are individuals. Even within a certain breed, you’re going to find dogs with all sorts of personalities, energy levels and temperaments.

“One of the most important messages is that all dogs are individuals.”

Beyond that, we can teach people to watch for signs that a dog might be stressed and to give those dogs space and respect. Some of those signs could include heavy panting when it’s not hot, physically moving away from people, tense posture and avoiding eye contact.

We should also teach people to approach dogs from the side vs. head on, and to avoid reaching over the dog’s head or putting their face right up to the dog. I guess we just have a natural tendency to do the wrong thing!

So, what would you add to this list?

Do you know anyone who is scared of dogs? How have you helped that person?

 

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  1. slimdoggy on April 10, 2014

    Great advice. Having Labs I don’t worry too much because I know they are harmless and good ambassadors for dogs. But Jack is less stranger friendly, so Ive had to learn a new way to interact that is safe for him and the folks he meets. As you said, everyone is an individual, canine or human.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 11, 2014

      Your dogs are so sweet! But, as Sylv said, not all Labs are sweet of course. I’m glad Ace (who is half Lab) is also very friendly. I trust him around all people and dogs.

  2. Emma on April 10, 2014

    It is rare that anyone is scared of us because us hounds are goofy looking and Katie is so white and fluffy, but if someone is scared, we just keep our distance.

  3. Christie on April 10, 2014

    Our former neighbor had 3 small children that were terrified of dogs because she had been bitten by a dog when she was a child and her fear was passed on to her children. The children were introduced to Buddy very slowly and they formed a strong bond with him, even coming over to our house to play with him. We talked about the correct way to meet dogs, staying calm, not yelling or running, etc. Their
    mother learned from her children that not all dogs are to be feared. Their grandfather thanked us for not only giving his grandchildren a positive experience, but for calming his daughters fears as well.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 11, 2014

      Oh Buddy is such a good boy! Just think of how many lives he has changed. He is such a good dog. Josh was talking about Buddy last weekend and how much he misses him too. I showed him one of your pics where buddy was “holding hands” with the baby!

  4. Sarah at LolaThePitty.com on April 10, 2014

    I’ve met a couple people who are scared of dogs and it’s really hard sometimes because the dog obviously picks up on this fear and energy. I agree, the best thing is to have a respectful dog that is willing to let them ‘take it slow’ and stand still when offered to pet the dog. I’ve been nipped but never had a bad bite or one that needed medical attention, but I could definitely understand how that would leave an impact on you. Great post :)

  5. Sylv on April 11, 2014

    I grew up being very afraid of dogs, and understand that telling someone “he’s friendly” does nothing to allay their fear. I still have a healthy dose of respect for unfamiliar dogs. If I see someone is hesitant/afraid of my two German Shepherd Dogs, I’ll put them in a down off the pathway/sidewalk so the person can pass. However, if they are willing to, I will bring one of them over to say “hello”.

    I have a friend who was very afraid of dogs. She has now taken in four large strays.

    I do want to respond to Slimdoggy’s comment above: Although I am sure that your labs are harmless, I would hesitate to say that ALL labs are friendly and never bite.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 11, 2014

      Yep, great point about the Labs. I worked at a boarding kennel for six years and was bitten by two yellow Labs. Both were my fault (ignoring clear warnings), but a bite is a bite.

  6. Jackie Bouchard on April 11, 2014

    Great post! I especially like the point about acknowledging that some people don’t like dogs “and that’s ok”! I bugs me when folks let their dogs run off leash (for so many reasons…) and just yell, “He’s friendly!” Well, maybe the person he’s charging at is afraid of dogs! People are so self-absorbed sometimes – they give no thought to what the other person might be thinking.

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 11, 2014

      Some of my favorite people just don’t like dogs, and I have to be OK with that. It’s actually nice to hang out with some non dog-obsessed people at times. They add balance to my life!

  7. Edith on April 12, 2014

    I used to be afraid of dogs. Don’t know why, but just never liked them. When I was in my late 30′s, my husband and I got Henri, an English Cocker from some friends who couldn’t keep him. My husband had always wanted a dog and I was willing to try. Henri converted me into a dog-lover, but it took me about a year to bond with him. He was gentle and sweet and helped me and at least one child get over their fear of dogs. After we put him down at 13, I was the one looking for another dog and we got a dog from a shelter. Simon is totally different, but a great dog. I don’t subject people to my dog. If they want to meet him, I do my best to make sure he (and they) are on their best behavior. If they are afraid, I respect that and never pooh-pooh (so to speak) their fear. By the way, my brother-in-law who is a mail carrier and loves dogs told me that most mail carriers get bitten right after the owner says ‘Don’t worry they won’t bite’!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 12, 2014

      Mail carriers have a tough job! I always give them respect and distance when I’m out walking dogs! I figure they probably get barked at enough, or worse.

  8. weliveinaflat on April 27, 2014

    Black dogs seem to get the worse end of the deal… even when Donna is smiling while we are out for a walk, there are some people who still thinking is looks fierce and scary.

    And while we make effort to train Donna to stand to the side at the lift behind us so that we form a barrier between her and the other humans to give the humans space, people just assume that she must be fierce or unfriendly because we do that. There’s just no pleasing everybody, so totally agree with you that “Acknowledging that some people don’t like dogs and that’s OK”

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