1. Slow your roll
“I’ve had my dog for three whole days, but I don’t love him and he doesn’t love me. What am I doing wrong?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentiment from discouraged new puppy parents.
You’re not doing anything wrong. This is just how it goes.
Much hullabaloo is made over the notions that dogs love unconditionally, rescued dogs are immensely grateful to their adopters, they just LIVE to please their masters, etc. So you can be forgiven for assuming that bringing your new dog home should be an immediate unconditional-love-fest.
It doesn’t actually work that way, at least not every time. You adopted a sentient being. You did not walk into the Unconditional Love store and pick up a box of instant Grateful Rescued Dog (New-and-Improved with Added Respect and Adoration!).
Relationships, with dogs or people, are something you develop over time. Establishing and growing an unbreakable bond is a matter of months and years, not days.
2. Give him his own space
Being adopted, even by a wonderful person such as your lovely self, is one of the most stressful things a dog will ever go through. Before you can do any of the cool stuff you plan on doing with him, he must feel safe.
An easy way to do that is to give him a place of his own. Somewhere he can just relax by himself and process his new reality. Pick an area that’s out of the way, but where he can still see the activity of the house, like in a corner of the living room. Make the area comfortable and dog-proofed. A crate is the best option for most dogs, but you can also use a dog bed or an exercise-pen. Add blankets and chew toys. When he’s in his “room,” respect his space – don’t let your kids or other pets climb all over him.
3. Be your dog’s protector
We usually think of how dogs protect us. We watch Lassie save Timmy from yet another mishap, we adopt that intimidating-looking shepherd mix to make potential burglers think twice, we go to military K9 demonstrations in the park and watch the badass Belgian Malinois take down the “criminal” in the puffy suit.
With all this, we sometimes forget that our dogs need our protection more than we need theirs – unless we want them using their teeth on friends and family members, which, as that Belgian Malinois demonstrated, they are fully capable of.
You are your dog’s only advocate and defender. Stand up for her. As the owner of a shiny new dog, you’ll encounter many people who want to interact with your pooch. If Lola loves people, that’s fine. But if Lola is wary, it’s okay to tell people not to touch.
One of the best things I ever did for my fearful dog Jonas was learning to literally step in between him and whatever was frightening him, especially those oh-so-scary toddlers who wanted to grab his ears. Jonas always visibly relaxed when I did this. That simple gesture sends your dog a message loud and clear: “Don’t worry. I got this.”
4. Yes, you can comfort your dog when he’s afraid
There are a lot of persistent, harmful, messed-up myths about dog behavior. One of the most persistent and messed-up myths is the “rule” that you should never comfort a fearful dog. Like if you pet your dog when she gets startled by a loud noise and cowers beside you, you’re only encouraging her to be afraid of loud noises.
This isn’t true. It’s based on a misunderstanding of how animals learn. You can’t reinforce emotions the same way you reinforce behavior.
If your dog is scared, you don’t have to tell him to suck it up and get over it. You’re allowed to reassure him.
5. Learn what your dog loves, and do more of it
As you get to know your dog, you’ll start to discover the things that make her happy. Use those things as a way for you guys to have fun together.
When I adopted my teenage border collie, Merlin, he was pretty neutral about me. He didn’t dislike me, but we weren’t buddies yet. However, he was passionate about chasing Frisbees. That’s all he wanted to do. So I played Frisbee with him all the time. And I used Frisbees as rewards for training. Soon, Merlin decided that I, the thrower of Frisbees, was pretty cool. We became inseparable pals and lived happily ever after.
Sometimes, the things that make your dog happy won’t make you happy: digging up the yard, harassing the cat, etc. You can still use those things, you just have to be creative.
Make a sandbox for your digger. Play tug, build a flirt pole, or play Frisbee with your cat-chaser. With a little creativity, many annoying behavior problems turn out to be the opposite of a problem.
6. Listen to what your dog is saying
People tend to get all righteous and offended when their dogs tell them no.
But why? I mean, if you ask a human friend to do something, and she says no, do you take it as a personal insult and worry that she’s trying to dominate you? No. You figure out the reason. Maybe she’s not feeling well. Maybe she’s busy. Maybe she doesn’t understand what you’re asking. Maybe it’s something that makes her uncomfortable.
Often times, a dog who is anxious and high strung got that way because no one ever listens to him. If he refuses to do something, his trainer either jerks on the leash or waves cookies in his face until he complies. He has no control over what happens to him.
Next time your dog tells you “no, I can’t do that,” figure out why. Maybe something about the situation is scary. Maybe he isn’t feeling well. Maybe he didn’t even hear you. If a dog gets very distracted, your insistent calls or tugs on the leash may literally go unnoticed.
Or maybe he isn’t saying “no,” he’s just saying “hold on a minute.” He might be sniffing a really fascinating tree or playing with his doggy friends, and he doesn’t want to leave yet. If this is the case, train your dog. But in the meantime, don’t get offended. Instead, note that it is something you need to work on better, and figure out a way to work through the problem with your dog.
7. Let her sleep in your bedroom
At least until she gets settled in. This experience is scary for a dog, especially a puppy. Sleeping with her new family will reassure her and drive home the fact that you are, indeed, a family.
8. Use positive training methods
Modern training methods are based on setting the dog up for success and showing him exactly how to behave, rather than endlessly correcting bad behavior. As a result, training becomes fun, rather than a chore. Your dog learns that you are a trustworthy person who’s worth listening to.
9. Have fun, and be fun
I understand the tendency to take dog training very seriously, especially if your new dog has some obnoxious behavior problems. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Loosen up a bit. Spend some time with Fido when you aren’t worrying about teaching him something. Play with your dog! Play with toys – keep a tug toy on hand for a quick game as a break between training sessions. And play without toys – challenge Fido to a game of tag or roughhousing. “Play training” builds focus and enthusiasm and is the best way to build a strong relationship between you and your dog. He’ll respect you, and like you, better for it.
10. Be present
Connection is not a one-way street. If you want your dog’s respect and attention, you have to give her yours. When you’re working with your dog, commit 100% of your attention to her. Training sessions are not the time to be worrying about work or figuring out what to eat for dinner. Work on being really, truly present in the moment. Lola will sense if you aren’t really “there” with her, and as a result she won’t be there with you either.
11. Walk together
Instead of just taking him out real quick to do his business or get his 30 minutes of exercise in, take your time. And stay off the phone. Explore WITH your dog. Let him stop and sniff the flowers. Sometimes you lead the way, sometimes he leads the way. Walking is an easy way to spend quality time together and develop warm fuzzy feelings about each other.
12. Work together
Participate in the ancient tradition of the canine-human working partnership. Once you and Lola have gotten to know each other a bit, take up a dog sport or hobby. Take an agility class, learn a freestyle routine, learn some Frisbee dog tricks, train as a therapy dog team.
13. Feed your dog
“Oh wow,” you say. “I had no idea you were supposed to FEED your dog! Thank God I read this article. What would I do without you, 3 Lost Dogs?”
Okay, first of all, I don’t appreciate the sarcasm.
Second of all, I don’t mean making sure your dog has adequate nutrition. I’m suggesting that feeding your dog should be a more interactive activity than just dumping food in a bowl. The way to a dog’s heart is through his stomach, after all. Don’t squander this opportunity.
Don’t free-feed – that is, leave a bowl of food out for your dog to pick at whenever he wants. You want him to learn that food comes from you, not the magically-refilling bowl in the corner.
Use some of his food as training rewards. Let him earn his dinner. What you don’t use for training should be fed in meals, two or three times a day, preferably in a puzzle toy. Pick up any leftovers after fifteen minutes.
Hand-feed your dog sometimes. Not entire meals, but maybe a couple handfuls before setting the bowl/puzzle toy down on the floor. Lola will learn that you are the provider of food, and she’ll be less likely to develop food aggression.
14. Have grand adventures
Lassie and Timmy. Jake and Finn. Old Yeller and… whatever that kid’s name was. Admit it: these are kinds of dog/human relationships you’ve always dreamed of having.
So take your dog hiking. Take him to the dog beach or the lake. Go on a picnic, camping trip or road trip. It doesn’t have to be all nature-y: Hang out at a dog show in the park and make fun of the weird doggy hairstyles. Wander around a pet expo and collect all the free samples you can carry. Go to a fast-food drive-thru and share a box of chicken nuggets. Go be spectators at an agility competition, and tell each other how “pshh, we could TOTALLY do that if we wanted to.”
Do stuff with your dog that’s not about training or fixing behavior problems, but about being together and creating crazy memories.
Bottom line, getting your dog to love, trust, and “respect” you is about being someone who is trustworthy and reliable. Someone Fido can count on to be there when he needs guidance or reassurance. It’s about being fun, having fun, and being someone your dog wants to be with.