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Five months ago, I adopted an 18-month-old dog from a friend. I’ve potty-trained her, given her the best food, and walk her daily, and she’s much better behaved and less neurotic than when she was with her original person. But she is not very affectionate with me, and when her former person visits, she wants to leave with him. Sometimes, she’s even more affectionate with my friends than she is with me. It’s very painful, and I’m wondering whether this will ever change.
Being rejected by a dog is a whole new level of heartbreak. Every pet parent wants to have a close-knit bond and loving relationship with their dog, but it can be a struggle for some dogs — and it’s not always anyone’s fault. Like humans, dogs might not mesh with someone for a variety of reasons, like their own personality, fear, anxiety, or maybe some factor the dog just doesn’t agree with. The good news is, hope isn’t lost. Below are a few things you can try to help improve your relationship with your dog.
First, let’s state the obvious.
We know you know, but it has to be said: If you want your dog — or anyone — to like you, you have to be nice. Make sure that nothing you’re doing is aversive to your dog. Given how deeply devoted you are to your dog, you’re likely not using any kind of physical punishment, harsh words, or yelling at her. Such things are counterproductive to a loving relationship.
Next, check your clothing and home decor.
See if something innocuous to people (and most dogs) is making your dog uncomfortable and limiting the growth of your friendship. Sometimes a problem is simple, yet easy to overlook. For example, many dogs dislike floral and citrus scents, so if you use perfume, shampoo, or detergent with those fragrances, that may make her less likely to snuggle up to you.
It could have something to do with noise, such as jangly bracelets or clothing fabrics that make a whooshing sound. Thoughtfully consider any sensory stimulation that may upset her and experiment to see if changes make a difference.
Then, check your own behaviors.
Beyond the obvious, there are some things that people do that dogs tend to dislike, whether it be hugs, pats on the head, or petting them in an uncomfortable way. Pay attention to their body language as you interact with your pup to ensure there are no signs of stress. Many dogs really enjoy some kinds of touching, but not others.
Typically, dogs like being rubbed slowly on their chest, stroked down their back, and scratched just above their tail. Some like to have their ears gently rubbed. As a general rule, many dogs do not like to be touched or patted on top of the head, being picked up, physically put into position, or forced in any way. Hugging is often not well received, and few dogs like having their feet touched. Pay close attention to the way others pet your pup, including the visiting friends who bring out her more affectionate side, and replicate their actions. Let your dog choose to come to you rather than pursuing her.
Build your bond through training.
Even though it sounds like work, training can be very bonding. During training, your dog will receive all kinds of positive attention, and both of you are working together toward common goals and sharing the joy of accomplishing them. It may be more fun to work on tricks such as “crawl,” “high five,” and “sit pretty” rather than focus on typical skills like “stay,” “heel” and “lie down.”
When teaching tricks, there’s less pressure to succeed and many ways for the dog to be right. Or consider taking a positive-methods training class with her. Though you mention that she is well-behaved, there is much to be gained from sharing the experience of participating in training. (Think of the class as a fun activity to do together rather than a task to be accomplished.)
Last, play with your pup more.
Focus on having fun together. Many dogs love to play and wish we’d do more of it with them. While it’s easy to do things for our dogs, our time would also be well spent doing more things with them. Try out fetch, tug, chase, or searching games to see what she most enjoys, and offer her balls, ropes, and squeaky toys to discover what makes her happy.
It’s clear that you love this dog very much and are committed to the relationship, which is the most promising sign that it will continue to grow as you would like it to. It might take time, but if you continue to show her care and fill her life with joy, she’ll eventually associate you with safety and happiness — and hopefully snuggle up for some coveted cuddles.
Number 6 will probably surprise you.
How the “love hormone” oxytocin connects us with our pups.
In between cuddle sessions, work on these eight basic cues with your pup.
Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.