There Are No Bad Dogs Part 8: Fear of Men
I attribute many of our good business decisions to blind dumb luck and on one May day in 2015 a potential client called us informing us that her sitter was moving away. We asked for that sitter's name, put in a phone call, and ended up with several clients after Lara had a nice conversation with her. One interesting part about that conversation was she warned Lara about working with her husband as she believed dogs didn't like men. As I'd already been a pet sitter for three years and had very few dogs that didn't like me it came as a little bit of a surprise when this information was relayed back to me.
There is some science behind it and this 2010 article by PhD and Animal Behaviorist, Patricia McConnell, highlights a study that concluded male gaits are seen as moving towards the study participants and female gaits are seen as moving away. In dogs that have existing anxieties and fears a stranger moving towards them is going to make them more fearful.
Understanding this will of course arm us with the knowledge to diffuse it. It is important to remember that dogs don't generalize and while they may become comfortable with one man that won't make them comfortable with all men and that while anxious dogs are going to be afraid of the person they see as moving towards them this isn't the only reason a dog might be afraid of men. Think back to my earlier post and how I mentioned the critical learning period for a puppy of between three and twelve weeks. Most puppies are brought home once they have been weened around six to eight weeks old. That gives a person as little as four weeks to desensitize and socialize their puppy.
As far as good intentions go keeping a new puppy isolated and with a single person in the early stages of its development can lead to a whole host of problems down the road. So imagine a new puppy is brought home by a female owner and isolated with that owner while they take off work for a month to be with their new puppy. They are the only person that puppy interacts with and while the owner believes they are protecting their puppy from the world until it is a full grown dog and can take care of itself they are actually creating the conditions for a ton of anxieties, phobias, and aggressions. It is easy to imagine a dog that has only known females since it was a puppy being startled and afraid of the new approaching man thing.
It is also quite simple to see that fear of men might not actually be fear of men at all. When I first started dating Lara her Corgi, Ollie, was protective of her and would sometimes snap at me when we embraced. This was obviously an undesired behavior but it wasn't because I was a man or because he was jealous of the attention Lara was giving to me. While dogs have displayed signs of complex emotions like jealousy it is far more likely that Ollie was engaging in a mild form of resource guarding as Lara was his provider and it was possible that I was there to take her from him.
An interesting study on dogs and human voices found that dogs that were familiar with the male voice correctly identified a man with the speaker, but it found that dogs from a single gender female home were less likely to identify a male as the speaker when presented with a male voice. Dog's are olfactory creatures and if humans can smell gender it is very likely that dogs can as well, but there is a large gap between knowing what something is and being afraid of it.
As a professional pet sitter, dog walker, and in home pet care provider I approach all anxious dogs the same. It doesn't matter to me if they are afraid of me because I'm a man or if it is more simple and it is because I'm a stranger. Approaching an anxious dog is simply a matter of conforming to dog body language and rituals. The first step is to get on the dog's level. That means kneeling down or sitting. It is also important not to actually approach a fearful dog as that is a recipe for getting bit. It is also a good idea to make yourself as non-threatening as possible. That means keeping your side to the dog so you are not a large object even when on their level. Therefore when I am met with an anxious or fearful dog I will kneel with my side to the dog and wait for them to approach and smell me and then if they stay close to me I will reach out and pet them gently on the side or backside. Normally after this they are still a little nervous but it is at this point we continue the meet and greet and I pay more attention to the people than the dog while at the same time letting the dog get my scent and know that I am not a threat.
If, however, the dog is even more fearful and won't approach me while I am kneeling with my side to it then it is time to bring out the treats. As a survival mechanism anxious or fearful mammals don't have much appetite. Just think about how logical it would be to want to stop for a bite to eat while running from a bear. With this being the case the best way to get a fearful or anxious dog to take a treat is to be nowhere near it but to simply toss a treat away from you but at the same time making sure the dog knows where the treat came from and then to remove yourself entirely from the picture. Eventually you will toss the treat and stay where you are and the dog will become comfortable with your presence and once the dog will eat with you standing nearby it is then time to sit on the floor and toss a treat five feet from you, then three feet, then one foot, and eventually the dog will come and take a treat off of your person and then they will let you hand them a treat. As with any behavior modification in dogs it is a step by step process and can take as short or as long as the individual dog requires.
Knowing all of this and knowing how to get close to any dog to like me I am still rejected by certain potential clients as a possible pet sitter. That is fine as I am the only male on staff but I do often see it as a bit of a challenge and as marketing manager I am of the opinion that overcoming challenges will lead to more referrals by that client. I have also been known to have a bit of an ego and enjoy proving myself. Whenever a potential client tells me they'd prefer a female pet sitter or dog walker I make certain to still offer myself while letting them know I'm the only male on staff as I would like the opportunity to answer the challenge and win their dog over.