Man playing with dog in park

One of the greatest compliments a dog can pay you is to make it clear that you are his most prized companion. When you bring a new dog into your life, the hope is that he will love you more than he loves anyone else. But if the new dog is already an adult, bonding with him may be more complicated than you expected.

When you’re trying to earn the love of an adult dog, understanding how to connect with your canine can help. There is no one-step approach to making your adult dog adore you. Sometimes a deep connection with a dog is seemingly born in an instant, but more commonly, such bonds take time to forge and are the result of intentional actions. The way to a dog’s heart isn’t the same for every canine, and adult dogs may require a little extra time and effort before you win their love.

First Steps

Forging a relationship with an adult dog can be a lot like getting to know a new adult human. Like people, adult dogs come with a broad range of past experiences, and as such, the type of interaction that may work for one dog may not be the right approach for another dog. One of my favorite books about human relationships is The 5 Love Languages. Author Gary Chapman identifies each of the different ways people have of experiencing love. He divides these into five “languages:” words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, physical affection and quality time. Learning which language speaks to your spouse or partner or friend can strengthen and deepen your relationship with that person.

Similarly, your adult dog may connect with you more easily when you speak his language — although in the case of your canine, his love language is most likely certain activities that he enjoys and wants to share with you.

The first step in forming a bond with an adult dog is to earn his trust. In forming a bond with any adult dog, it is important to be the type of
leader dogs willingly want to follow, someone they feel is safe, no
matter what the dog’s personality. It is also helpful if the dog can
associate your presence with good things happening. Reward-based training
is one way to create such leadership: It builds better behavior and
creates a powerful communication tool at the same time that it
strengthens the dog’s trust in and positive perception of the person.

Learn Which Activities He Likes and Dislikes

Once you have earned the dog’s trust, work on finding activities he enjoys. This can help to build a positive association in the dog’s mind between something he finds enjoyable — following a scent, for example — and time spent with you. At the same time, doing something your dog innately enjoys helps to strengthen your appreciation of his unique talents and personality, which can give you a basis for your relationship with him.

While learning what your dog likes to do it is also important to identify his dislikes. There can be a disconnect between an animal and a human when interactions occur in a way the dog doesn’t understand or appreciate. Watch your dog’s body language and behavior when you interact with him to assess if he likes or dislikes what is happening. For instance, if you talk baby talk to your dog, pay attention to his reaction. Does he seem to happily anticipate this time with you? Is he relaxed while you are talking to him? Or does he tense up and try to move away? If it’s the latter, then it’s time to find a different way to interact with him.

Each dog will show his connection to individual people in different
ways. As a child, I envisioned that my first dog would be Velcroed to
me; I thought she would be on my lap or in my arms constantly. When my
dreams of a dog became the reality of a Wire Haired Fox Terrier puppy, I
soon realized she would not be the snuggly lapdog type I had imagined.
Scooter was very active and independent;
she merely tolerated being held and was overjoyed to get down. Bonding
with Scooter was best done through activities, like training sessions,
riding my bike with her beside me or pulling her in a wagon. She had her
own ways of showing her affection for me, though — instead of curling
up in my lap, she would greet me before anyone else and dole out
frequent doggy kisses when we were together.

Consider Your Dog’s Personality — And Yours

Each dog has a very specific personality — and so do you — and this can affect how well you get along with different canines. While I more naturally feel close with attentive, loyal and affectionate dogs, my husband Ben prefers more independent dogs who like to engage through play. For this reason, he bonded more quickly with my tennis-ball-fetching, toy-tugging dog, Bruce, than he did with Willy, who is more of a lapdog and loyal follower. Even though both dogs are Pugs, Bruce and Ben both enjoy playing and their compatibility in this sealed their friendship.

Willy, my more reserved dog, is also growing to like Ben, but it’s taken a more specific focus to foster their relationship. Despite their lack of immediate connection, they have bonded by spending time together training. Our focus on positive-reinforcement training has taught Willy to trust Ben, and he knows that when they work on tricks, treats will follow — and he is happy to participate.

If your dog is hesitant in warming up, it’s important to seek professional help, like a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian working with a positive-reinforcement trainer, to help you address the situation. In some cases, the bond between person and dog is hindered by underlying fear, aggression or other conditions that can benefit from skilled assessment and multi-pronged treatment when necessary. Even with all the best efforts, though, your adult dog may continue to be distant — not all adult dogs may become the snuggly partner you’re hoping for. Some
may remain distant and independent, despite your efforts. But as long as your dog is not experiencing fear or anxiety, with work, you can usually
find a way to interact that’s comfortable for both of you.

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