When your dog is afraid of men

One of the common fears people report their dogs having is of men in general. This seems ironic given that dogs are known as “man’s best friend,” but if there’s one class of people that some dogs seem to fear, it would be men. So why is this?

There’s an old saying—a dog that’s been burned is afraid of a cold stove—and there’s some truth in it. Because dogs live by their instincts, it can take as little as one bad experience with something to make a dog forever fearful of anything similar.

While it’s a bad thing when humans do it, dogs do generalize. So, for example, if a broom falls over and almost hits a puppy, this can lead to an adult dog that’s afraid of anything that looks like a stick.

However, the vast majority of men do not go around randomly scaring dogs. So why is this such a common fear?

Why dogs might fear men

Although behaviorists have studied the issue, there’s no clear reason why dogs would naturally be more afraid of men than they are of women, but there are some possibilities, the most likely of which is that the dog was not exposed to or socialized with enough men while she was a puppy, so they are still unusual to her.

First men are generally bigger and louder than women, with deeper voices. To a dog, big and loud are both threats, so they would naturally tend to shy away from this energy.

Another possibility is that men’s and women’s scents are very different to a dog, due to both hormones and different kinds of fragrances in personal care products. In the dog world, puppies are raised by their mothers and the father is rarely even around. Therefore, the female smell of estrogen is something that puppies are exposed to from an early age, and this smell is also associated with their first food source — nursing. Their mother’s scent equals safety.

Another difference is the way men and women react to dogs and puppies. Women tend to approach a dog in a very nurturing and comforting way. Meanwhile, men tend to approach a new dog in a more assertive but playful way.

You’ve probably seen a full-grown adult male drop to the floor and try to initiate play with a new dog the way another dog would—with a bow and enthusiastic energy. The problem is that the average adult male is bigger than most adult dogs, so even though the approach is friendly, the appearance can be threatening. Meanwhile, instead of initiating play, women often offer an invitation, so the dogs don’t feel threatened.

But, the final answer is this: scientifically, we really don’t know why dogs tend to be more afraid of men than women, and everything is still conjecture.

None of which is helpful, of course, if your dog is afraid of men…

But my dog is afraid of men, so now what?

Regardless of the cause, there are definite steps you can take to cure your dog’s fear of men. Keep in mind that rehabilitating a fearful dog can be a more difficult process than rehabilitating an aggressive dog. But the good news is that it can be done. Here’s how to proceed.

1. Determine whether it’s all men or just some attributes

While it may seem that a dog is afraid of all men, this might not be the case, so you need to figure out the exact cause of the fear first. It could be that your dog is only afraid of men with beards, or men in hats, or men in uniform. It could only be men over a certain height, men with deep voices or, unfortunately, men of a certain ethnic group.

The important part is that you need to forget the general labels and find the specific. This will require assistance from friends, and trial and error. For example, a rescue dog that was picked up off the streets by animal control may not actually be afraid of men, but afraid of people in uniforms — it just so happens that there are often more men in uniform than women.

Once you’ve determined whether it’s all men or just one very specific subset, it’s time to begin the rehabilitation. One thing to keep in mind, though: if your dog is expressing her fear through aggression, start by consulting with a professional trainer

2. Enlist friends and extinguish the fear

The best way to help extinguish a dog’s fear is through exposure to the fearful thing and a lot of positive reinforcement. In order to do this, you’ll need a few strange—to your dog—men to help you, and the scary props, like uniforms or hats. If appropriate to your dog’s situation, enlist a bearded friend or two as well.

Start with one man your dog hasn’t met before, then allow your dog to approach him on her own terms. He should practice no touch, no talk, no eye contact and also have a few of your dog’s favorite treats. Your friend will start by tossing a treat past your dog, so she has to move away from him to get it. Meanwhile, he then tosses three more treats down between him and her, which should draw her closer to his space.

The idea is to allow your dog’s curiosity to get the better of her fear, then give her nothing to be afraid of during the encounter. Once she isn’t flinching or jumping away when the man moves, then he can give her the treat himself while still not engaging her with touch, talk, or eye contact.

Eventually, you should be able to progress to the point that one of your male helpers can take the leash when your dog goes for a walk and then prepare and give your dog her food afterwards. This will further associate the formerly scary person with good things.

Rehabilitating a fearful dog can take time, so you’ll have to repeat this exercise not only with different men, but in different locations—ridding your dog of his fear of men at home won’t necessarily solve the problem when he’s on the walk or in the dog park.

3. Make yourself a distraction

Train your dog to look at you on command and you’ll have a way to turn her attention away from a fearful stimulus. This command may be referred to as “Look at me” or “Watch me.” There are several methods to teach it and, as with all dog training, you can use whatever word or phrase works for you.

4. Check your reaction

Since dogs pick up on our energy and emotions, it is possible that he’s learned his fear of men or specific types of men from you. If he still seems to be showing fear despite the methods above, then pay attention to how you react to strange men. For example, do you feel nervous when you see a policeman or anxious when you see a delivery man? Do you become angry when you see a man who resembles your ex or a former boss you didn’t like?

These reactions are out of the norm to your dog and are telling him, “Hey, there’s something to watch out for here.” Dogs reflect our energy — so make sure you’re not accidentally telling your dog to be afraid of that man walking down the street!

Does your dog have a very specific fear, like men with beards, kids on skateboards, reflections, etc.? Tell us about them — and what you’ve done to help your dog — in the comments.

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