Surviving the Holidays with Stranger Danger Dogs

by Jean Donaldson


With COVID restrictions dwindling and the holidays approaching, families with dogs who are uncomfortable around strangers may be feeling trepidation.  Fear not: you can all survive this and even, in some cases, slightly improve your dog’s comfort level with strangers.

The first thing to think about is whether you’ve got the bandwidth and your impending guests have the willingness to work on your dog during visits and parties.  It might be some of both: some guests or some events in your home will be possible opportunities and some not.  The battle plan differs a bit for each.

In both scenarios, you’re going to need plenty of delicious snackies for your dog.  We’re talking the best stuff: cooked chicken, cold cuts, pecorino Romano, anything super-duper tasty that your vet would approve of.

In both scenarios, you’re going to need a Safe Room for your dog.  Fix it up with a comfy bed, water and toys.  It’ll need a closed door.  If you’re going to be doing any training, it’ll also need a baby gate across the door for training visits.  In both cases – training or just getting through the visit – it’ll be a room that guests will not accidentally attempt to enter on their own.  A sign on the door, such as “Fearful Dog – Please Do Not Enter” could be a good idea if your guests are vetted ahead of time for their cooperation.  Amazingly, perfectly rational people will sometimes view such a sign as a chance to prove They in Particular Have a Magic Way With Dogs.  They’ll go ahead and enter, which is not good.  So a sign maybe, or, better still, some sort of physical barrier (a chair or ottoman) will ensure nobody goes off plan.  This is especially important if your dog has any history of aggression.  A bite to a visitor goes on your dog’s rap sheet and can culminate in lawsuits, difficulty with homeowner’s insurance and, in the worst case scenario, municipalities declaring your dog dangerous and mandating seizure and even euthanasia.  So don’t take chances.


If the visit is extended – guests are staying overnight – have a plan in place for your dog to potty, have walks and, when the guests are out of the house, have some free periods in the house.  This means moving him on leash from his safe room to where he’ll exit the house for walks.  Happy talk him through areas with strangers and give him treats as soon as you’re through the stranger-laden area.  If there’s a free period, have guests text you when they’re on their way back so you can get the dog back into his safe room.  And, because systems fail all the time, have a back-up system where guests can’t re-enter the house without knocking or ringing the bell.

If your dog is only mildly fearful and has never threatened or bitten a stranger, leaving the Safe Room door open with the baby gate across the doorway is an option.  There’ll be greater intensity of sights, smells and sounds from the event, which, if in long duration as such events often are, can be good for the habituation cause.  Have a chair or small table in front of the room with the stash of snackies.  If the guests are willing, have them visit and toss treats to the dog.  If they’re not willing, you yourself can do so when you check on him.  If after an hour or so he’s worse – hiding, not taking the treats, or any sign that he’s not holding his own or feeling better – close the door.  If he’s doing okay, continue the treat tosses every twenty minutes or so.

There’ll be greater intensity of sights, smells and sounds from the event, which, if in long duration as such events often are, can be good for the habituation cause [for mildly fearful dogs].

If your dog is going to be in a closed Safe Room and you’ve opted for working on him, every now and then – say, every twenty to thirty minutes – do A Visitation.  Accompany a guest to the safe room, check that the baby gate is secure, open the door, wait for the dog to see the guest and then start tossing treats.  Don’t worry if he doesn’t take the treats right away.  Continue, with the guest in full view, to toss treats for a good ten seconds.  Then close the door again.  There is still Pavlovian conditioning value (stranger predicts treat orgy!) if the treats are consumed later.

If you’ve opted for just getting through, you and whoever else the dog lives with can still do occasional visitations for treats without any guests.  What you’re pairing in the Pavlov universe is the party he can hear and smell with the super-special treats coming every half hour or so.  So even in this scenario, you’re getting a tiny bit of conditioning bang for buck!