Sarah’s rescue dog, Maysie, is a joy. But when around people she doesn’t know, she cowers behind one of her humans. She’s even growled at a family friend once or twice. Sarah wonders what could have happened in the dog’s past to make an otherwise delightful dog so afraid.

There are many reasons why a dog may fear strangers. If you want to help your dog overcome their fear, it helps to know your dog’s reasons so you can address them directly. However, you can still improve the uncomfortable situation without those details.

Let’s take a closer look at why dogs fear strangers and what you can do about it.


Reasons to Be Fearful

Dogs can have many reasons to fear strangers. Here are a common few:



Some dogs seem to be genetically predisposed to fear people in general. They may have inherited that trait if their dog parents exhibit similar behavior. While this is an individual dog personality issue, some breeds seem to be less accepting of attention from strangers. These include:

  • Chow Chows;
  • Bouviers des Flandres;
  • Chinese Shar-Peis;
  • Doberman Pinschers.


Lack of Socialization 

Puppies need to be exposed to as wide a variety of people as possible — different ages, genders, body types, ethnicities, etc.


Past Trauma

Unfortunately, some dogs, especially shelter dogs, come to us with a difficult past. If you rescue a two-year-old dog that’s terrified of people, who knows what happened during those two years? There could be some form of abuse or neglect. These dogs are working out of a defense drive, their self-preservation mechanism. The dog wants to go in the opposite direction in the worst way. Even a trip to the vet can trigger fear.

If possible, find out from the shelter or past foster parents what may have happened. It will help you understand what will trigger your dog’s fears


Overenthusiastic Strangers

We’ve seen dogs react fearfully to people reaching for them and touching them. Some people don’t understand that trying to pet a dog you don’t know can be frightening for the dog. It’s also dangerous for the new person, as you never know how an unfamiliar dog will react to you rushing at them to pet them. 


Expressing Their Fear

Dogs’ reactions to fear range from cowering and hiding to defensively growling and biting in front of people or a particular type of person. If your dog seems to be afraid of tall men, for example, perhaps they remind the dog of a tall man that hurt them. Or tall men just appear more intimidating.


Your Response to Your Dog’s Fear

When your dog is still a puppy and that fear crops up, it’s easy to scoop them up and coddle them. But you won’t be able to do that with your Rottweiler in six months, and coddling won’t address the fear. The most important thing is to learn how to treat our dogs like dogs.

Your dog can sense your mood and reaction to strangers, and they will take cues from you. So, when possible, stay calm and positive. If you are tense and uncomfortable, your dog will be, too. 


Reducing Stranger Anxiety

For your dogs to be comfortable around different people, you have to take your dog out and practice, especially with a puppy. Get out there and expose your dog to different scenarios. It may be challenging for the dog sometimes, but over time, the dog learns they don’t need to be nervous. 


Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Desensitization is gradually introducing the dog to the stimulus, first from far away, then gradually closer as the fear eases. Counterconditioning is replacing negative, fear-based associations with positive ones. Both take a great deal of time and patience.


Let Your Dog Lead the Interaction

If you have a fearful dog, don’t expect them to meet every stranger. Forcing the issue can lead to fear biting. Instead, let the dog initiate an interaction with a stranger, and don’t make them accept someone touching them, especially children.


Have New Visitors Ignore the Dog

This way, the dog will not feel threatened. No petting, no eye contact. Let the dog decide what they are comfortable with. 


Give Your Dog a Quiet Space to Go 

If a guest arrives and they are too much for your dog, have a room or a crate for them to go to and feel safe. Separating your dog from the stranger can be the safest thing to do.


Take Your Time to Properly Introduce Your Dog

Introducing a fearful dog to people should be done in small steps. If you let the dog initiate contact and have the person offer treats, you have a good start. Then, reward your dog for good behavior and be as patient as you can.


Protect Your Dog

Teach people how to treat your dog. Some people love to rush up to a dog and start petting them. Not your dog! Let people know that they cannot pet your dog, at least not yet, and that too much interaction will stress and scare them. Tell people how you want them to treat your dog. You’re in charge.

Keep an eye on your dog’s body language. They will let you know how they’re feeling about the situation and give you warnings, like growls, that a bite may be on the way. 


Consistent, Positive Reinforcement 

When your dog behaves in a way you desire when people visit, give them treats and a lot of praise. Have treats on hand when you take the dog outside for walks. Make the connection between meeting new people and getting tasty treats. 


Call on the Professionals

Getting your dog over the fear of strangers is no easy task. It can be dangerous if your dog is prone to biting. Sometimes it’s best to call for professional help. A certified dog trainer, such as the K9 Basics team, will help you understand your dog’s behavior and identify triggers. In an environment with little distraction, we at K9 Basics will teach your dog to interact and socialize with people and other dogs. And we will help you maintain the progress made. Contact us for an appointment.

Your dog can overcome the fear of strangers, and you can have a happier, healthier, safer dog! So, give us a call at (866) 592-2742 or, if you’re from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New York, visit us at 131 Kenilworth Road, Marlton, New Jersey 08053, to learn more about our dog training services. Also, browse our blog and follow our social media for various topics about dogs and their lives with us.