“Oh my gawd, he is so cute!” says the sweet elderly lady as she tries approaches Oliver. I look down at my side, where Oliver was and feel the familiar tug on the leash as he backs away, eyes straight on the approaching human. “Sorry,” I apologize as I try to step in front of Oliver and start handing him treats as a reward for staying calm while he looks at her. While he doesn’t bark at her the signs of distress are still there- he licks his lips, looks away, shifts his weight from paw to paw.
Having a dog with stranger danger in an urban environment such as densely populated Chicago, where we live, is harrowing. I have had to be on guard any time we were out of our apartment- where are people? Were they going to try to approach? Do I have a getaway? We lived like that for over a year before I decided to take charge. We will get Oliver comfortable with strangers.
It’s not an easy process, nor is it a fast process. We have successes where we stay below his threshold of anxiety, we have failures where he ends up having a meltdown. My goal is to keep our number of successes far above our number of failures. My mantra right now is management, management, management!
What do I mean by management? I try my hardest to control as much of the environment around Oliver as possible. That means taking him to places where I think he will have the best possibility of keeping below his fear threshold.
One of Oliver’s biggest fears is children. I don’t know what happened to him with kids in the past (I do know his former family had 2 pre-teens who “played really rough” with him), but he tenses as soon as he sees a child. His cute face draws kids in like a magnet. So I get to be the mean cute small dog owner that says “no, sorry!” to children who want to pet him. Once he’s more acclimated to adult strangers we’ll start working on dog-savvy children. Right now adults are enough for him!
My favorite place to take him is a big box pet store. Some days we visit 2 or 3 for the practice. Oliver is only comfortable in the cart right now. The height gives him a sense of security he does not have when he is on the ground and strange humans are looming over him. The cart also makes it easy to make a quick escape if people are approaching quickly and I see that Oliver is getting uncomfortable!
Right now we’re playing the “Look At That” game. Oliver looks at what is scary to him (strangers) and gets rewarded. Again, the goal is to keep him under the threshold of getting too worried. Just on the verge of getting worried, but not over that. Once he looks he gets a click (or “ok!”) to mark it, then a yummy treat for a reward. We’re using a super high-value tasty treat, Stella & Chewy’s Carnivore Crunch*, to make sure Oliver will begin to LOVE looking at strangers!
It’s going to be a long process, so I’ll keep updating with our progress!