In any relationship, trust and mutual respect are important, but they don't come free. Do you immediately trust every person you meet? Of course not. So why would we expect this of our dogs?
Trust is a funny thing. When it comes to our dogs, we often mistake love and trust, and assume if we have one, we have the other. But love does not equal trust. Your dog can love you, but still not trust you, just as you can love your dog, but not always trust them.
Dogs that are nervous or fearful of humans or other dogs are often worried that their boundaries will not be respected. They usually give many cues to indicate that they do not want someone to approach. If subtle cues are ignored, they may "turn up the volume" on those cues in order to better communicate and prevent the person or dog from approaching. These "higher volume" cues often include: barking, lunging, growling, showing teeth, pyloerection (raised hair on neck and back), snapping, and biting. These "high volume" cues often are successful, and once the dog learns this, they will be quicker to default to those behaviors next time they are nervous.
Dogs that are exhibiting these behaviors feel that it is their responsibility to keep others away from themselves and/or their owners. If a nervous/fearful dog is exhibiting these behaviors, it is often because they do not trust that their handlers have control of the situation, so it's up to them to protect their boundaries. These behaviors usually begin after events that confirm this belief. If an owner is out walking their dog and an out of control off-leash dog runs up and harasses the pair, but the owner does not prevent the dog from approaching, they have begun to erode their dog's faith that they will prevent that event from happening in the future. The same goes for allowing a stranger to pet your dog when your dog is showing signs of nervousness or anxiety with them.
Advocating for your dog's space is essential in rehabilitating nervous reactive dogs. If your dog trusts you not to allow humans or other dogs into their personal space, they likely will not feel the need to take matters into their own hands to move other humans or dogs through their own behavior. If you advocate for your dog, they WILL notice, and they will begin to build back trust that may have eroded.
How can you advocate for your dog?
Saying "No, you cannot pet my dog." (Reminder, no is a complete sentence!).
Saying "No, your dog cannot meet my dog."
Asking someone with their dog off-leash to please leash their dog.
Asking someone to please give you more space.
Asking someone not to baby talk to your dog.
Blocking an off-leash dog from approaching your dog. (For most charging or curious dogs, making yourself big, putting up a hand, stepping towards the dog, and saying "NO, GET." in a firm, deep voice is enough to make them pause. If this fails, don't be afraid to use your feet to shove the dog away. It sounds harsh, but your dog will thank you, and responsible dog owners don't allow their dogs to run up to unknown dogs and people.)
What can you to do to help owners with nervous, fearful, or reactive dogs?
Ask owners before petting. Wait for an answer. If they say no, respect that.
*Or* don't ask, don't pet, and move about your day. Sometimes dog owners just want to enjoy their time together uninterrupted, and saying no can feel awkward and stressful.
Don't talk to people's dogs while they are out in public or on a walk.
If someone says their dog is nervous, just ignore the dog. Don't make heavy eye contact, don't talk to them, and keep your distance.
Don't reach your hand out to allow the dog to "sniff" your hand. Most dogs find this super weird and uncomfortable, and it's a really easy way to get bit.
If you have permission to meet a dog, allow the dog to approach you instead of approaching and reaching out for that dog. This allows the dog to have a say in whether or not they want to meet you.
Don't allow your off-leash dog to run up to strangers, even if it's friendly. Owners should have the right to say "no, we don't want to meet your dog." Ignoring that right is rude and you are placing your dog in an extremely dangerous situation.
Don't have your dog off-leash if they don't have perfect recall.
Don't allow your dog to meet other dogs on leash. Some dogs feel trapped, vulnerable, or frustrated when leashed, and introducing a new dog in that situation can create anxiety in dogs that feel they do not have an escape or a way to say no.
Does your dog trust you to advocate for them? How can you tell?