Lab getting a treat

Meeting the family of a significant other is a major step in a relationship — and introducing a significant other to your much-adored dog can be just as nerve wracking. Both dogs and cats can be territorial and unhappy about change, but dogs are more likely to be possessive when it comes to their home turf, which includes their owners. So the new person in the household is often automatically associated with something negative, like the time and affection that you are suddenly lavishing on your date instead of your dog.

Case in point: When my father, Dr. Marty Becker, was doing a segment on the Dr. Oz Show once, a staff member came up to me  lamenting about her dog, who had scared off every boyfriend she’d ever invited to her place. Her pooch would guard the door and growl whenever a man entered — and then supervise every interaction between her and the date. She was desperate to find a way to introduce her dog to a boyfriend without stressing out the pup or sending the man running.

The good news is that there are several ways to help your dog not only tolerate such an interloper, but also gladly welcome him or her into your household. Before introducing your dog to a significant other, bring home something that your boyfriend or girlfriend has worn, like a T-shirt used for sleeping. Let your pup sniff the item first, and then present your dog with a reward, such as a game of fetch, a walk or dinner. By pairing the smell of your new partner with something positive, your dog begins to associate that person with good things before they even meet. You can also say your significant other’s name out loud before you present the item and the reward, repeating this process several times.

When you’re ready for the actual introduction, opt for neutral territory, like the park or an outdoor cafe. And let your dog approach your date first, while he or she stands sideways to the dog, avoiding direct eye contact. Supply your date with extra-special treats cut into bite-size pieces — cooked chicken breast, turkey hot dogs or steak — that he or she can feed the dog. If your pup is more timid, tossing the treats on the ground will suffice.

Once your dog has taken a few treats directly from your date’s hand, do something that your dog really enjoys, such as going to the dog park or beach. Each time your dog looks up at your partner, have your partner offer a treat. Repeat this until your date is able to pet the dog, and continue to reward the pup with treats after every few strokes. You should stand nearby to supervise, but stay in the background, so the main affection that your dog receives comes from your significant other. If your dog relaxes and appears to enjoy the presence of your date, either walk back to your house together or ride in the same car. Once inside the house, have your partner hand the dog a favorite long-lasting chew or play a game of fetch.

For the first few visits, you should meet on neutral territory, such as the sidewalk or front lawn. And always say your partner’s name as he or she approaches, allowing your date to reward the dog with treats, a game or a walk. If your dog shows discomfort, extreme stress or aggression at any point during the meet-and-greet with your partner, contact your veterinarian for additional advice.