Dear Bark: Five months ago, I adopted an 18-month-old dog from a friend. I’ve housetrained her, give her the best food and walk her daily, and she’s much better behaved and less neurotic than when she was with her original owner. Yet, she is not very affectionate with me, and when her former owner 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.
I want you to have the loving relationship with your dog that you wish to have. It’s not clear what barriers are preventing that, but there are things you can try to create the change you seek.
First, make sure that nothing you’re doing is aversive to your dog. I’m guessing that, given how deeply devoted you are to her, you’re not using any kind of physical punishment or harsh words, or yelling at her, but I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t mention that such things are counterproductive to a loving relationship.
Then, 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 a 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.
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Her sensory experience also includes the type of physical contact you share with her. 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 or 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 her, including the visiting friends who bring out her more affectionate side, and replicate their actions. Let her choose to come to you rather than pursuing her.
Training can also be very bonding. The dog receives all kind 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.)
Another avenue to pursue is to 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.