You just acquired a new dog – maybe a youngster, perhaps a bit older – and you’re in love. Let’s call your dog Dolly. You were drawn to her in the shelter or rescue, and now you have her home. She is wonderful, with just a few tiny exceptions.
For instance, when you pet her, she leans into you, putting her head on your knees. This feels great to you, but other people aren’t getting the same response. Sometimes she shies away or won’t come close to them, and occasionally you’ve heard a barely audible growl, almost under her breath. If she is lying on her bed or in her crate, she freezes when people come over to pet her. Sometimes she stares at them suspiciously. This worries you. When she meets dogs, she seems friendly, though less so when she is on leash than when she is off leash. In fact, over the three weeks you’ve had her, that behavior – like the others – has deteriorated rather than improved.
This is actually not that unusual – the dog you meet when you adopt is often not the dog you see weeks or months later. Like humans, dogs don’t display all their behaviors upon first meeting. In addition, they change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, depending on the environment they find themselves in.
The first thing you loved about Dolly is that she seemed to bond to you instantaneously. The desire to bond is strong within dogs – they need a family (pack) to survive, and they know it. Most are above all things, social. Even dogs that are not particularly sociable will bond strongly to one or two people, and the speed with which they do it can be amazing. In shelters, dogs often bond closely with the first person who takes them out of the run, or sits with them in it. Once that bond has been formed, the dog feels a certain amount of security – enough that she thinks her new human (that would be you) will protect her, should danger threaten. She will also form a strong attachment to her new home environment – her territory. If it is “invaded,” she may become very suspicious. Thus, the friendly dog you met becomes the suspicious dog you now have, who is wary of strangers and defensive of her territory.
All is not lost – there are many things you can do to help Dolly. However, most of them will take more time than you wish, because what you will be trying to do will be to build trust. Unlike bonding, trust is earned, and cannot be rushed. Training of course will help immeasurably, but it is secondary to trust.
What is trust? For your dog, it is the belief that you will keep her safe. But how do you convince an animal who must learn through experience, particularly when her previous life was either unknown or not happy? You cannot tell her, since she won’t understand. Petting shows affection, but nothing more than that. And training obedience will tell her what you expect but not what she can.
I think it is shown by consistency and predictability. If a dog can reliably predict the outcome of a certain set of circumstances, she will learn to trust that the next time that circumstance occurs, the same outcome will too. For a dog adopted in adolescence or adulthood, this means that you must be very careful. It’s easy to make meals, attention or bedtime predictable, but encounters with other people or dogs might not be so easy to manipulate. If a friend of yours comes to visit with you and – with the best of intentions – frightens your new dog, she may decide that that friend is more of an enemy. More, she might decide that all friends of yours are potential enemies, or that all male friends or female friends are. If she meets one dog that responds inappropriately, she might generalize that behavior to all new dogs.
This is why many dog form strong attachments to the people and animals they meet in the first days or weeks of their new home life, and then try to make any new acquaintances go away by barking, snarling or snapping. You can help to avoid this, although the dog’s temperament and learning may make it difficult to completely do so.
First, make sure that you are reliable and predictable, to the best of your ability. There may well come a time when you will need to be unpredictable, but that time is not now. Make sure you set rules of the house, so that she knows what is expected of her. Feeding times, rest times and play times are all important, as are the locations where she eats, rests and plays!
Secondly, try to insure that all of her first experiences are calm, slow and friendly. If she has shown a tendency to be shy with new people, have all new people behave slightly aloof at first. It’s generally best to have guests come in, ignore the dog, sit down, and then wait for the dog to approach. When she does, the guest should not pet her for more than three or four seconds at first, since prolonged petting can produce anxiety. The dog will let the person know when she would like more interaction. If the person is to be a regular visitor, tossing treats is a great idea. If the person is a one–time visitor, then allowing a few sniffs and then bringing her back to sit with you is likely to be preferable.
Introductions to dogs should also be done carefully, if your dog appears to be nervous. Parallel walks generally work well, with the more fearful dog initiating any interaction. Anxious or fearful dogs generally do not like to be followed by other dogs, and usually want to sniff the rear end of the new dog first to get a quick introduction without the intimidation of eye contact.
I’d suggest continuing with this pattern for weeks and possibly months, depending on how quickly your dog shows relaxation in new situations. Allow time for latent learning – don’t have new experiences follow one another too quickly. She will become overwhelmed, and the learning will stop. Patience is key.
As your dog learns that you are trustworthy, experiences that would have frightened her previously will stop. She will look to you for guidance…and of course, that’s what true leadership is.