My wife is a pet lover who has owned dogs her whole life. She also happens to be very good with them. For example, she can read their moods and knows when they need treats or walks. But one thing that I never thought my wife could do until recently is teaching our black lab, Cooper, how to shake hands.
I don’t know why this happened, but last month, I came home from work to find Cooper on his back, wiggling around as he tried to claw at something under the couch. He had been acting like this for about 10 minutes when I walked in the door. We live in an apartment so there isn’t any other pets’ insight, and we always keep the doors closed.
So it wasn’t clear to me what might have startled him. Once I picked up the remote control and saw the TV screen, however, I knew exactly what had set off his fear reaction. There, on-screen was a man shaking another man’s hand. This made me laugh because it looked so ridiculous I couldn’t help myself.
Cooper got even more upset after seeing the scene, barking loudly and growling while attempting to bite at the TV screen. A couple of days later, I brought him in to a vet clinic where I worked, hoping that some kind of veterinarian would have an idea of what caused this strange behavior.
The first person I asked said that it seemed likely that he’d simply seen someone else behave in a way that frightened him. He suggested I take him home to see if things improved over time. If they didn’t, he recommended trying to desensitize Cooper by bringing him into places where lots of people were present. That might make him less afraid of humans.
Since Cooper’s anxiety seemed to subside after several weeks went by, I figured all was well. Then yesterday, I found out that my friend’s daughter had started working at the same vet clinic I used to work at. So I took Cooper there to get his annual checkup and vaccinations. When I arrived, I noticed that the receptionist was wearing a name tag that identified her as “Krysta.” As soon as I approached her desk, though, I felt uncomfortable.
Not only did I feel embarrassed, but I felt a little guilty. Why? Because I’m sure that Cooper sensed my discomfort and probably assumed that Krysta was going to react negatively to him. Sure enough, when I handed her my paperwork, she smiled sweetly at him and then immediately began asking questions about his health. No sooner had those words left her mouth than he began trembling uncontrollably. He kept looking at her and whimpering, clearly terrified.
For a moment, I wondered whether maybe he was still shaken from the previous visit. But then I remembered that the receptionist hadn’t reacted that way the first time we visited. And although he certainly acted nervous during his physical exam, he didn’t act nearly as fearful as he had earlier.
After a few moments, I realized that he must’ve really believed that Krysta was going to yell at him or hit him. Perhaps he detected a negative vibe coming from her, which led him to believe that she wouldn’t treat him kindly. Whatever the reason, I suddenly felt ashamed. How could I have possibly let him think that? After all, she’s just a human being who works at a veterinary office. What if she gets mad at him or doesn’t want to pick him up?
Then again, maybe there’s a deeper reason why my dog isn’t comfortable with male vets. On the next page, you’ll learn about some possible explanations.
- Your Dog Doesn’t Have the Proper Cues
Although Cooper may not understand the word “no,” it seems pretty obvious that he understands the concept of danger. Whenever he sees a big scary dog, he will become agitated. Whenever he sees a large dog bark at someone, he becomes anxious. And whenever a woman approaches him, he starts trembling. In short, he knows that these scenarios are bad.
But what does he think about when he sees a man? Does he assume that the man is dangerous? Or does he associate men with affection and companionship? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell since he doesn’t talk to us.
Luckily, science can fill in the gaps. Research shows that female dogs tend to bond better with females than males, while male dogs prefer bonding with males. These preferences can start before puppies ever encounter anyone outside of their family.
For instance, one study showed that puppies preferred to play with stuffed toys rather than plastic ones. Another experiment demonstrated that female pups played closer to each other and groomed themselves more often than male pups did.
The fact that women tend to be gentler and more tolerant than men may explain why my own dog is wary of them. With that explanation in mind, I decided to try to change Cooper’s outlook by giving him new cues. Last night when I took him to the vet, for instance, I grabbed his leash instead of handing it to him. Instead of walking toward the front door, I carried him past it and into the lobby. Even though he still seemed nervous, he no longer trembled as much.
If you’re curious about what your dog likes or dislikes about certain people, PetMD suggests sending your pet to obedience classes. Classes should include plenty of opportunities for interaction between participants. You can also train your pet to recognize different body language signals (like eye contact) that indicate when it’s safe to approach someone.
- They Are Scared of Being Mocked or Made Fun Of
Many dogs experience social anxieties similar to those associated with autism. They may avoid interactions with unfamiliar people, show excessive shyness, or exhibit separation anxiety. Some experts say that such behaviors actually attempt to protect their owners from feeling awkward or humiliated.
In other words, they’re worried that interacting with others means having to deal with feelings of embarrassment and shame. Since most dogs spend a lot of time around humans, they may have absorbed many of our cultural taboos regarding sexuality. For example, if you ask your animal what they think about sex, they may give you a weird look and run away. If you ask the wrong question, they may freeze and refuse to move.
To prevent your dog from developing such fears, it helps to pay attention to their expressions. Do they seem tense or withdrawn? Ask yourself whether you’re doing anything to inadvertently reinforce those tendencies. Is your dog constantly focused on you or do they appear to be distracted? Paying close attention to the cues your dog gives you can help you figure out when they’re uncomfortable around people.
- It Could Be an Unconscious Response to Someone’s Appearance
It’s possible that my dog was reacting to the way Krysta looked. Although I haven’t met her personally, I can tell that she’s young and attractive. Maybe Cooper subconsciously perceived that she was interested in him physically and became alarmed.
A number of animals exhibit similar reactions to strangers’ appearances. Many birds, for example, respond aggressively to the appearance of predators. One theory proposes that this response evolved hundreds of millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Back then, birds had to stay vigilant against looming dangers. Their instinctual responses helped them spot potential threats and escape them. Today, some argue that the same instincts persist in avian species because they are still useful.
For example, predatory raptors are notoriously aggressive toward smaller birds. By spotting a predator early, prey can either hide or fly away. Similarly, coyotes are said to attack dogs based on their size and strength. Researchers suggest that this aggression stems from ancient hunting practices.
Before the invention of guns, coyotes chased down their targets using their sharp claws, teeth, and speed. Smaller canines weren’t able to fight back effectively, so they ended up getting killed. Nowadays, hunters use rifles and bows to hunt, which results in fewer fatalities. Coyotes may perceive larger dogs as competitors and thus view them as enemies.
On the flip side, wolves tend to be more aggressive towards members of their pack than non-packmates. This behavior makes sense because wolves stick together closely throughout their lives. If one wolf attacks a stranger, it puts the entire group at risk. So wolves are protective of their community because of its inherent vulnerability.
Animals are inherently territorial, and they sometimes form strong emotional attachments to objects or locations. So even if your dog has no conscious awareness of gender differences, they may develop attitudes toward specific types of people due to their experiences.
- Dogs React Differently To Male and Female Pets
Studies have shown that female dogs bond more strongly with female owners, while male dogs prefer male owners. This phenomenon has been observed in both domestic and wild populations of animals. Scientists attribute this preference to hormonal factors, specifically estrogen and oxytocin. Estrogen increases sociability, whereas oxytocin promotes calmness and trust.
These hormones are particularly important for female dogs because they typically don’t go through puberty until they reach adulthood. During adolescence, boys and girls alike begin to exhibit distinct personalities. Boys tend to be more competitive and outgoing, while girls are generally more agreeable and cooperative. These personality traits carry over