Introducing your reactive dog to a new person can be challenging, especially if they rarely meet new people.
When introducing a reactive dog to a new person, you should consider the reasons your dog is reactive and break the process down into smaller steps that maintain your dog’s comfort.
Many people think that reactive dogs must be kept away from strangers and houseguests, but taking the time to train your dog in difficult situations can reduce their reactive behaviors over time.
Read on to learn more about our recommended steps for introducing your reactive dog to a new person.
Why some dogs are so reactive?
Before introducing your dog to a new person, it is crucial to understand what causes your dog to respond reactively so you can better respond to their needs.
History of trauma
Most reactive dogs have a history of trauma. This can include abuse, neglect, abandonment, or time spent in dog shelters, which is especially common among rescue dogs.
Dogs with a history of trauma usually develop a fear of change that is rooted in instability they may have faced during the early years of their life, such as lack of food or a secure environment.
Reactive dogs tend to view changes to their environment as a threat to their safety.
Once a rescue dog becomes comfortable with its owner, it may become more reactive with new people, especially in-home visitors.
Dogs with anxiety
Sometimes dogs can be reactive even if they do not have a history of trauma. This is usually due to an anxiety disorder, which can be genetic and is more common among certain breeds.
Unlike dogs with a history of trauma, dogs with anxiety disorders usually show signs of distress even in their normal home environment, such as compulsive licking.
Anxiety disorders can cause dogs to be reactive because they have difficulty naturally regulating their fight-or-flight response.
If you think your dog may have an anxiety disorder, it may be helpful to speak to your vet about medications that can make them more comfortable.
5 steps to introduce a reactive dog to a new person
#1 Do first introductions outside of the home
It is helpful to do first introductions with a new person outside of the home because reactive dogs typically feel more threatened if there are strangers in their own territory, as opposed to in a more public space.
Doing first interactions outside the home also allows your dog to feel safer when relaxing after their first introduction has ended.
We recommend choosing a park that is not too busy, or another open space. Ideally, this should be a location your dog has visited previously and found enjoyable.
Having a calm environment to retreat to after practice will help your dog process the new information they have learned without feeling threatened.
#1 Preparing for the first interaction
When you first arrive at your designated introduction space, spend some time alone with your dog first to get them comfortable.
You will also need to prepare them for the upcoming interaction by attaching any appropriate leads or a muzzle if you choose to use one.
#2 Get the dog warmed up slowly
When beginning the introduction, have the new person pass by your dog at a distance a few times before any attempts to approach your dog or make eye contact.
Once your dog shows less reactivity towards them at a distance, it is time to slowly make an approach.
We recommend guiding your dog towards a new person rather than having the new person approach you and your dog. This minimizes any feelings of threat that your dog may experience.
If your dog is not showing any severe signs of distress, you can progress the training session by having the new person offer some treats to your dog.
We recommend using treats that your dog is already familiar with to reduce the amount of new information your dog has to process.
The new person should offer treats from a safe distance at first, and efforts can be made to slowly close this distance as your dog becomes more relaxed.
We do not recommend encouraging the new person to pet your reactive dog during this first encounter unless your dog shows significant signs of comfort.
#3 Before introducing inside the home
Once you have made progress getting your dog familiar with a new person outside of the home, you can begin to prepare for interactions inside the house.
Before inviting your guest to your home, create a safe area for your dog to retreat to if the interaction becomes overwhelming.
Suggestions for this safe area include your dog’s kennel, favorite bed, or a bedroom that the guest does not have access to.
The day your guest is scheduled to arrive, make time to do a stress-relieving activity with your dog before the interaction. This could mean a walk, a game of fetch, or another form of play your dog enjoys.
You should also avoid planning any other stressful activities for your dog on this day to minimize any worry your dog may feel.
#4 In-home interaction for the first time
When your guest enters your home, have them focus on you and avoid eye contact with your dog.
Take some time to let your dog adjust to having this new person in their space, and have your guest ignore the dog completely until they are calmer.
Once your dog is calm, let your guest approach your dog slowly to offer your dog treats. Ideally, this will put your dog at ease even more as they begin associating this new person with positive experiences.
As your dog starts to show signs of contentment, you may have your guest attempt to pet your dog.
We recommend that you are close by your reactive dog when letting a new person pet them to provide extra comfort and in case you need to intervene.
#5 Evaluating your dog’s progress
During your first in-home visit, hopefully, your dog began showing signs that they were getting more comfortable with this new person.
Signs of a positive interaction include your dog allowing pets and treats to be administered by the new person, exhibiting joy through tail-wagging, and a low desire to retreat.
Signs that your dog was still uncomfortable with this new person include unusual body language, persistent barking or growling, and making efforts to attack or retreat.
It is normal for your reactive dog to still show signs of discomfort after their first in-home introduction with this new person. Consistent sessions will eventually make your dog feel more at ease.
Other things to watch out for
Providing comfort and reliability
It’s important to provide comfort to your dog throughout the process of introducing them to a new person because they may regard the experience as frightening.
The best way to comfort your dog is usually to hold or pet them, as dogs tend to be physically affectionate.
If your dog is not a big fan of cuddling, consider letting them indulge in activities such as extra playtime or special treats.
Your dog may also prefer extended quiet time or extra naps. Ultimately, you know your dog’s personality best and should be able to determine what they need.
If possible, you should avoid planning any other stressful activities for your dog on the days that you are introducing them to new people.
It may also be a good idea to avoid stressful activities on the days directly before or after these training sessions to decrease any feelings of tension your dog may experience.
Move at your dog’s pace
When introducing your reactive dog to a new person, it is vital that you always move at a pace that is respectful of your dog’s comfort level.
Never force your dog to go further in an interaction than they feel comfortable with. Doing so can cause traumatization for your dog and will further exaggerate their reactive symptoms.
Always allow your dog to retreat if they are uncomfortable. With in-home interactions, this means providing a safe space for them that your visitors cannot access.
Outside of the home, this means removing the dog from the stressful situation or allowing them to increase the distance between them and the perceived threat.
Choosing the right equipment
Having the right equipment can be important when training a reactive dog. For introduction sessions, we usually recommend short leads around six feet in length or less to give you more control over your dog.
If your dog tends to pull at their lead excessively, you may want to invest in a harness or other specialized lead to prevent your dog from harming itself accidentally.
Harnesses are also usually the best option for smaller dogs, as many come equipped with handles that can be used to safely lift your dog if necessary.
Many owners with reactive dogs find head halters especially useful because they allow for more control over your dog’s snout than traditional collars.