It’s very easy for dogs to suffer with nervousness and fear when it comes to meeting people, and in particular I’ve helped a lot of dogs that are worse around men. Either shying away from them and giving men a wide berth, or barking and growling in a pre-emptive self defence.
Those I help who have a rescue dog often assume that this means the dog was poorly treated by a man in the past. However I have also experienced helping dogs that the owners have had from puppies that are also nervous of people, particularly men. With a rescue we can never be 100% sure what’s happened to them and in some cases there may well have been some heavy handed behaviour (although I am not trying to say only a man would do that, I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors). Let’s look at things in more general terms though to help us understand why dogs sometimes don’t appear to like men.
Differences between men & women in a dog’s eyes
On average, men are bigger than women. You can usually expect a man to have a deeper voice than a woman too. These factors can make the average man appear physically more intimidating than the average woman. I.e. if all other things are equal, men can usually do more damage.
To go further into behaviour (I am just making a generalisation here) it’s often portrayed in society that the woman is a nurturer, softer and more compassionate, while a man is meant to be tougher, a go getter. Now I have seen behaviour played the other way round many times, so I don’t for one second believe these are our fundamental characteristics (learned behaviours more like)! In the cases where this behaviour difference is true, and the dog is nervous, that dog would probably be nervous of both men and women, but more nervous of men.
Why are they nervous?
Physical and behavioural difference aside, why would a dog be nervous of people at all, let alone men if they haven’t been mistreated? Well simply put, it’s a fear of the misunderstood/unknown.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you get separated from your family and taken off by a different species whom you can’t communicate with and don’t understand their language or behaviours… Is it possible that you could feel a little intimidated when they loomed over you, wanting to touch you? It is possible that you could be more nervous of the bigger, louder ones than the smaller, softer spoken ones?
That’s what it boils down to. Now if you continued to live with this species for a period of time and they started to do behaviours that you recognised as nuturing and protective, and that they were taking care of all the things that you were worried about – you would start to relax and trust them. Both not to hurt you themselves, and not to allow you to be hurt by external factors. But if they were allowing other individuals from their species come into your personal space and touch you all the time, maybe you wouldn’t grow to trust them and would actually become more nervous.
Nerves can lead to aggression
There are different options of what to do if you feel nervous. Personally I would always choose moving away from a situation I was unhappy with first of all. My second choice if this was not an option, would be to grit my teeth and hope that it just passes – perhaps issuing some kind of warning that I am not comfortable. My third choice is to physically defend myself. The first rule of self defence (so I’m told) is to get the first strike in. Dog who growl/bark etc. at men are doing so out of fear – and they are warning the man not to try anything. If they get put under further pressure then they may make the decision to get the first strike in. This is what is commonly referred to as fear aggression.
How can you help your dog to like men?
Okay, well you can’t make a dog like anything. I’d just start by helping them to feel relaxed on the whole. This means you doing all of the things that they consider to be taking care of them (fundamentally we don’t do this. Food in a bowl and roof over their heads doesn’t cut it – read more about that here). Then they can start to trust our decisions.
Meanwhile we also need to be sensitive of not putting them under pressure. This means when they are meeting people, those people need to be respectful of their space. This means not going over to them. Also not making eye contact or talking to them. Ask anyone who is coming round (and do this as a family) to ignore them completely when they arrive. To wait until your dog has assessed the situation and is happy there is no immediate threat – this becomes clear when your dog goes to settle down as if going to sleep. NOT if your dog goes over to the visitor – all this means is that they are risking an approach to find out more about them.
Once he or she has been chilled out for a while your visitor can invite them over. It is an invitation. We do not go into their space, we give them a choice. If they feel confident enough, they will come over. You can offer a hand for them to sniff and if they don’t shy away you can do some gentle stroking for a brief while, before allowing them to retreat again. If they choose not to come over, we respect that and leave them be. This shows the dog that there is no pressure, so nothing to worry about. Over the long run they will become more trusting.
Most people will read this post and get from it to ask visitors to ignore their dog at first. That’s certainly not a bad start, but there is a lot more to it than that. I alluded to our dogs not seeing everything they need to see to know that they are being looked after by us. If you want a happy, healthy and relaxed dog then I would strongly advise you to learn what is required to help your dog know that you are doing all of the looking after. I can teach you how to do this of course. I am based in Leigh on Sea and travel around all of Essex and slightly beyond. For more information on what I do go to my home page. A great starting point is a read of “The Dog Listener” by Jan Fennell. It’s a wonderful way to start understanding the true nature of your relationship with your best friend.