Man Giving Dog Treat

Q. We adopted a shelter dog a few months ago. She and I have become very close, but she either ignores or avoids my husband. We thought she just might need some time to get used to him, but there is no sign of her warming up. What can we do to help ease the tension? 

A. First of all, congratulations on your new family member! I know from experience the joys and challenges that come with an adopted pet — and it sounds like you’re seeing them firsthand. 

I understand your concern, but the tension between your dog and husband isn’t necessarily permanent. I want to start by exploring some possible reasons for your dog’s behavior and follow up with a few strategies for promoting a better relationship between them.  

Why Your Dog Loves You Best

Your dog’s choice to bond primarily with you is not surprising. Though some dogs can be affectionate and loving with a variety of people, others will form an attachment to only one or two individuals. I have this type of relationship with my Pug, Willy. He enjoys other people, but when he’s given a choice, I’m the one he wants to be with.

Sometimes, however, this type of extreme devotion can stem from anxiety rather than affection. Fear can cause a dog to avoid certain people and cling to others. This may be the case in your situation: Your dog may be more timid with your husband than she is with you because of fears she developed before you adopted her.

How Dogs Develop Fears

Dogs may react fearfully to certain people because of the way they were socialized as puppies. Your dog may be uncomfortable with your husband because she was not exposed to many men as a puppy, or maybe she wasn’t exposed to men who look like your husband. Men can be frightening because of their appearance: They are typically bigger and taller and have deeper voices than women. Details like beards and glasses can also unsettle a dog who is not used to them.

Your dog may be picking up on other, more subtle factors in her interactions with your husband, such as the way he approaches her. My husband, Ben, and I were recently at a friend’s house; to my surprise, my friend’s dog reacted fearfully to Ben, who was leaning forward in his chair with his arms resting on his legs, looking at the dog. Ben was trying to be friendly, but his posture and direct eye contact were apparently perceived as a threat by the dog. When Ben adopted a more neutral position — turned slightly to the side and looking away — the dog’s reaction changed. Your dog may be reacting to similar unintentional cues from your husband.

It is also possible that a difference in the way you and your husband discipline your dog is affecting her interactions with him. If you rely on positive reinforcement to get your dog to behave and your husband uses punishment, this may cause your dog to be nervous around him or avoid him all together. It is important to take a consistent approach to training and discipline, and I always recommend positive reinforcement training over punishment or confrontation-based training.

Teach Your Dog to Love Your Husband

The first step in changing your dog’s relationship with your husband is to carefully structure their interactions, in order to make them more predictable for your dog. At the same time, teach your dog to associate your husband with good things, like treats and rewards. Both of these things will help her feel more secure around him. 

One of the easier ways for your husband to interact comfortably and predictably with your dog is for him to ask her to do a trick she has already mastered, like sit or down, and then reward her with a treat. Other tricks, like hand targeting and shake, allow your husband to approach and make physical contact with your dog in a comfortable situation. Have your husband reward every successful trick with a treat.

If your dog is fearful when your husband pets her, make this interaction more predictable by pairing the action with a word, like “pet.” Give her the cue “pet" as you reach out to touch her. At first, work with your dog yourself to learn the cue, since she is more comfortable with you. Stroke in neutral areas, like her chest or side, and follow with a reward. Once she is familiar with the cue and willing to be petted in response to it, have your husband use it when he pets her. Have him start with only one or two strokes at a time, followed by a reward. As she relaxes, he can increase the time he spends petting her.

To reduce any anxiety your dog may have around your husband, try to identify triggers that cause her to act anxious or upset. If she avoids your husband when he’s wearing a hat, for example, have him take the hat off when he’s around her. Alternatively, he can teach her to associate the presence of the hat with a reward. Start by having your husband lay the hat on the floor; reward your dog for staying calm around the hat or for sniffing or otherwise investigating it. As she gets used to the hat, have him hold it in his hand and, eventually, put it on his head. Continue to reward her as long as she stays calm. Be patient, though; it may take awhile for her to get over her fear, even with consistent positive reinforcement. 

Finally, further your dog’s positive perception of your husband by including him in activities your dog enjoys. In other words, teach your dog to associate your husband with all of her favorite things: walks, meals, play, etc.  

If your dog’s relationship with your husband doesn’t improve, or if she displays any signs of aggression, seek professional help from a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian working with a positive reinforcement trainer.

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