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How To Socialize Dogs Around Strangers As Covid Comes To An End

By Kayla Fratt

For many dogs, social distancing has been a blessing; they don’t feel comfortable with the direct social pressure of having a person approach them head-on for a greeting and don’t have to deal with it. The six-foot rule has helped these dogs cope in cities because their personal space hasn’t been invaded constantly throughout the pandemic.

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However, as vaccinations rise and societies around the world start to open back up, many owners might be dismayed to realize that their dogs do not take kindly to the return of social proximity. Whether your pandemic puppy simply never learned how to deal with spatial invasions or your older dog lost their tolerance for strangers approaching them, it’s important to anticipate this potential problem!

The first thing you can do is simply recognize that this is this response is to be expected. If your dog is shying away from people or even barking and growling at them, respond in the moment with compassion for your scared pup. It’s easy to lash out at your dog in an attempt to get them to be quiet because their behavior is embarrassing, but that will backfire in the long run!

My puppy Niffler is a pandemic puppy, born in October 2020. He has never really experienced people coming up to greet him thanks to a combination of our rural Montana home and the pandemic. He tends to hide behind me to bark at people if they surprise him on a remote trail, or if they make direct eye contact and talk to him. 

My response is to try and warn people before they get too close. I’ll say, “He’s a pandemic puppy and might bark at you — I’m just going to step over here and let you pass.”

Niffler and I then move to the side of the path or trail. I pull out some treats and start to reward Niffler for noticing the people as they pass. This is a variation on Leslie McDevitt’s “Look at That” game. The basic idea is to let your dog look at the thing that scares them — in this case, a person — and then reward them. If your dog can’t look at the person without barking, growling, or shying away you’re too close! 

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The basic idea is to let your dog look at the thing that scares them — in this case, a person — and then reward them. I let the dog look for a few seconds, then say “Yes!” and give them a treat. They then are allowed to look back at the person before I say “Yes!” and give another treat. In most cases, the dog quickly learns to start associating the person with treats and will start intentionally looking from the person back to you.

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I let the dog look for a few seconds, then say “Yes!” and give them a treat. They then are allowed to look back at the person before I say “Yes!” and give another treat. In most cases, the dog quickly learns to start associating the person with treats and will start intentionally looking from the person back to you.

The tricky thing here is to avoid using this game to push your dog past their boundaries. It can be tempting to build on success too quickly, constantly bringing your dog closer and closer to the people they’re scared of. Instead, try to quit while you’re ahead. That’s why I move Niffler off to the side of the trail or sidewalk while people pass, so they never get close enough to make him nervous.

Once the people have passed by, I give Niffler a bunch of treats and praise and we carry on — even if he barked at them. The goal is to teach him that running into people is no big deal and that people make treats happen, so trying to correct him for barking undermines my training. 

Over time, I’ve seen Niffler become more and more comfortable with people in close proximity. After a few weeks of practice, he is now mostly successful passing people as long as they don’t try to directly interact with him. 

We’re now working on me asking people to hand him treats, but only if Niffler seems quite calm around them and the people seem savvy. This is a tricky judgment call because I don’t want to accidentally scare Niffler if the person is likely to move too fast and alarm him. I try to carefully read Niffler’s body language and gauge the person’s responsiveness to my requests. If someone ignores my instructions and tries to befriend Niffler without my permission, they absolutely aren’t the right fit for training! But if someone seems understanding and willing to help move around us for Niffler’s comfort, that’s the exact sort of person I want to ask for help. 

If your dog can’t eat from your hand when you’re a few feet away from a stranger, they’re not ready for that stranger to feed them. Your best bet for helping your dog feel comfortable with strangers post-pandemic is to stay positive and relaxed, give your dog the space they need and gradually teach your dog that strangers make bacon rain from the sky!


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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