Helping an Anxious Chocolate Lab Puppy Get Over Her Fear of Strangers

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 9, 2016


Jordan is a six-month-old Chocolate Lab who lives in the Pacific Palisades. Her guardians set up a puppy behavior training session with me to address a few unwanted behaviors; getting over excited when family members come home, jumping up on grandparents on the couch, chewing, door dashing and excited / submissive urination.

I have worked with probably close to 100 Labrador puppies at this point. They are usually very happy, energetic and playful dogs. That’s what I was expecting when I knocked on the door for our session. What I found instead was a very differently acting dog.

Clearly Jordan was fearful and anxious when around new people. Despite my adopting very soft body language and offering some extremely high value treats, she made it clear that she was uncomfortable with my presence and disagreed with my arrival. The expected dog obedience session quickly transformed into one where we helped her through dog psychology.

When you see a dog who’s back is bowed like Jordan’s was, walks around hunched over and stiff, looks around the room dartingly and frequently moves away from anyone or anything it doesn’t understand; it’s a safe bet that the dog is uncomfortable.

Giving Jordan space, avoiding eye contact, limiting my movements and keeping my voice at an even level were a few of the things that I did to try to help her feel more confident. It will be a good idea for any future guests to adopt the same approach. And as I articulated in the above video, the last thing you want to do is try to pet the dog or interact with it while it is showing this type of insecurity.

I sat down with the guardians to discuss Jordan’s situation in more detail, offer some tips and use some positive reinforcement and rewarding to help her relax a bit.

Something I neglected to mention in the above video was a way that arriving guests can do to help the dog feel a little bit more comfortable.

Prior to a guest arriving, Jordan’s guardian should ask them to call or text before they knock on the front door. This will give her the opportunity to place Jordan on a leash. When a dog is excited or unbalanced, it will often move around and this can very easily intensify the dog’s reaction. Placing the dog on a leash prior to someone arriving, can help the guardian keep Jordan’s reaction from getting out of control.

While we want to use the leash to prevent the dog from getting too worked up, we do not want to use it to prevent the dog from moving away. If a dog is fearful and we remove its ability to back away, it can very easily result in other unwanted behaviors out of the dog including aggression or a bite.

If possible, someone should be holding the leash with Jordan approximately 10 or more feet away from the front door when the door is opened. But prior to opening the door, the person holding the leash should give Jordan a high-value meat treat. Only after the dog starts to chew the treat should the person at the door open it.

Dogs learn through association, so if we can introduce a very tasty treat immediately before something happens, the positive benefits of the tasty treat can be transferred onto the new stimulus, in this case an arriving guest.

Once the guest is inside the front door, the guardian can hand the guest 3 to 5 of a high-value treats. The guest should ignore the dog completely; not looking at it, no talking to it and most certainly no extending of hands trying to make friends.

Instead the guest should walk into the home and on the way to the living room, drop one of the high-value treats every other step. Person holding Jordan’s leash should make sure that the dog is off to the right side of the doorway (near the front living room) which will enable the guest to walk into the back living room without getting too close to the dog.

Once the human has taken four or five steps and is heading into the back of the home, then the person with the leash can start following along the path the guest took. This will give Jordan the ability to gobble up the tasty treats that were dropped by the guest.

If Jordan does not seem interested in the treats, it is a safe bet that she is too close to the guest or too excited. If that is the situation, the handler with the leash should wait in the entryway of the home until Jordan calms down a bit. At that point, they should follow along the same path that the guest took giving Jordan be ability to lick up the treats on the floor.

There are additional steps to this process, but based on how much of a  fearful dog Jordan was during the session, I would like the family to practice this step alone for the next several visitors. When I return for our next session, I will go over how to add onto this technique if it is still necessary.

I spent several minutes discussing how important having the rules and boundaries are for a dog like Jordan. Many humans think of rules and boundaries as a negative. But when a dog is as fearful or insecure as Jordan is, the more rules and structure that are in place, the more relaxed and confident she will feel.

I also recommended that all the members of the family start to practice my petting with a purpose philosophy. This involves only petting the dog when it sits or lays down first.

By asking the dog to sit or lie down before the human provides them with attention or affection, the humans can help Jordan feel like she needs to earn her praise. Just like humans, dogs have a sense of pride. If they feel like they are earning something, it means much more to them. Over time this will also help condition the dog into sitting in front of any humans that they meet or want attention from. We call this manding.

It will be especially important for the humans to refrain from petting Jordan anytime that she nudges or paws at them for attention. This can easily give the dog the impression that it has more authority than it actually does. When you have a dog that feels a sense of responsibility; stress and pressure can negatively impact the dog.

Providing attention and affection with structure will go a long ways towards helping Jordan feel less stressed out and anxious.

The need for control was very clearly illustrated win the other members of the family arrived home.

With a pair of elderly grandparents living in the home, as well as some young children, it is very important that Jordan learns to develop self-control.

Because the humans will need to disagree with Jordan when she starts to engage in unwanted actions and behaviors, I shared a set of escalating consequences that I developed a few years ago.

By using a communication method that is instantly recognized by the dog, Jordan and her guardians will be able to better understand one another which should eliminate a lot of confusion.

It will be important for the guardians to consistently disagree with Jordan within three seconds of her engaging in any unwanted action or behavior. As mentioned earlier, dogs learn through association and after three seconds, it becomes difficult for them to relate the correction to the actual act or behavior.

This same three-second rule should also apply to rewarding the dog for desired actions or behaviors. If the family gets into a habit of petting Jordan with a purpose, she will start to approach them and sit down as her way of asking them for attention. Whenever she does this, it is extremely helpful if the members of the family pet the dog while simultaneously saying the command word within that three second window. Not “good sit,” just “sit.”

For dogs, whoever is in front is seen as being in the leadership position. For this reason I suggested that the family member start to ask Jordan to wait to follow them through hallways, out doors as well as up or down the stairs.

We spent a few minutes going over how to train Jordan to wait at the stairs in the following video.

It will take a little bit of practice, but because Jordan is an intelligent dog, she should pick it up quickly, provided all of the members of the family ask her to stop and wait before heading up the stairs, out the door, or down the hall. This will help Jordan develop some additional self control which will help her anxiety.

By the end of the session, Jordan was much calmer and confident. I was able to pet and interact with her and she was following her family member’s commands and corrections on her own. She had even started to follow some of the new rules like not being allowed on the couch.

Because of how anxious and fearful Jordan was when I first arrived for the session, we will need an additional dog behavior session or two to completely restore the dog’s confidence and eliminate the remaining unwanted behaviors.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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