I have a medical alert dog who has always been very pleasant and quite submissive around other dogs. 2 months ago, I was attacked by a street dog in Mexico. Now I am finding that when we encounter dogs who stand and stare at us, rather than approach and sniff, my service dog’s reaction is to softly growl and become rigid. This is unacceptable as a service dog. How can I calm her fear that I will be attacked again, or that she must be defensive? I want her to feel safe and secure again, knowing that we will be fine. She was not harmed during the attack on me.~Greta
Hello Greta! I believe I can help shed some light on your situation.
This is a very natural, protective reaction. Regardless whether the dog attacked you or your pet, the attack in itself could have had a traumatic impact on your dog. She is only acting in a protective manner. Unfortunately, she has learned that other dogs might pose a potential threat to her owner, and is now regarding these ‘encounters’ with suspicion.
Normally, I would tell you to begin focusing heavily on positive socialization and promoting friendly encounters by rewarding your pet for positive interactions, but your case is special. Service dogs are highly trained animals, subject to a unique set of social guidelines.
I would suggest reaching out to the organization who has initially trained and supplied your service dog; they will likely be able to offer a more complete answer, as well as better help, than anyone else. Don’t settle for just any dog trainer, as very few dog trainers have any actual experience with service animals or animal behavior.
You can also reach out to an accredited animal behaviorist in your area. In any case, it is important you contact a credible trainer with experience handling service dogs.
Take a look at this article. Specifically, the paragraph below, focusing on early socialization:
‘The most important rule of socializing Service Dogs in Training is to never, ever, ever, for any reason, force an SDiT to approach, interact with, touch or be on/near/with something that appears to frighten them. Forcing a puppy in training to engage when afraid ensures he’ll never form positive associations with the object, person, place, surface, equipment or situation. Instead of forcing your SDiT, always keep high-value treats with you and use them to encourage a suspicious puppy to explore a situation of his own accord. If you lay a solid foundation of socialization that rewards a puppy in new situations, you’ll create a confident learner who thoroughly enjoys circumstances he’s never encountered ’(anything Pawsable).
I understand your dog is no longer in training, and almost certainly no longer a puppy, but this still holds true. Your dog will need to learn not to expect possible threats everywhere, because that isn’t her purpose. Like the snippet suggests, I also wouldn’t force any interactions.
Before you do anything that may impact the original training, consult with either an accredited service dog trainer, a behaviorist, or the original supplier that connected you with your dog.
From my experience, the only way to calm your pet and give her confidence other animals pose no threat is to focus on socialization with strange dogs you may pass (only after consulting with the owner) and counter-conditioning, to answer your original question. Unfortunately, you can’t always be sure how other strange dogs will react, despite anything their owners may claim, so use caution.
You Must Appear Confident
Dogs read our body language very closely, and often react to it, so it is important you always try to promote an air of calm security and confidence. Try not to appear afraid or insecure, or lose your temper in any way, around other animals.