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Go slowly with shy dog
Dear Dr. Spiegel: I have a three year old female Rottweiler who has shared a home with me (alone) for the past two and one and half years. I have had few visitors during this time and no one else has lived together with us. I recently got married to a man who is in the military and has been stationed in a foreign country for the past two and one and half years. Although my dog has "met" him prior to his moving in she has never lived in this house with him. My husband is stationed in the Carolinas now and comes home only periodically for a long weekend. My dog seems to be having great difficulty adjusting to her new "roommate." If left alone together, she will not come out of her crate, sometimes all day. If she is outside and scratches on the door to come in and he greets her, she runs away. If he tries to feed her she will not eat. Surprisingly though she will let him walk her on a leash and is better behaved for him than for me when he does this. If we are all home together she follows me everywhere I go, including the bathroom. This behavior is very different than her normal relaxed manor. Usually when it is just the two of us she will rest quietly nearby or prefers to be out in the yard. If my husband sits next to me and positions himself "between" the dog and me, the dog will get up from a sound sleep and move to the other side of me no matter how inconvenient this is! She always wants to be closer to me than to him and appears to be frightened of him. (She is generally a very friendly mild mannered dog who seems to be on the shy side.) My husband needless to say finds her behavior very troubling and is hurt that she doesn't trust him. He has never hurt her, nor have I, but her behavior at times seems as if she is fearful of that. She will run past him to get to me even if she has to knock things over to do it. Please help us. What can we do to help her learn to trust him and become more relaxed when he is around? (I must add, only because many have a negative image of Rottweilers, she has never attempted to bite him!). Sincerely, S.M.H., New Castle
Dear S.M.H., What you have here is much like a child whose single parent brings home an intimate friend that is essentially a "stranger" to the child. It's also like going to a party where you know only one or two people. The tendency for most people (particularly shy ones) is to stick with what you know and are comfortable with and to avoid the unknown. You know and trust your husband and are comfortable with him as he is with you. However, your Rottie has not had enough opportunities to attain a sufficient level of trust/comfort. People are generally more sensitive about handling these sorts of situations with regard to the introduction of significant others to children. Things are taken slowly and levels of intimacy are built up gradually so that all involved parties maintain a reasonable sense of comfort and security as they get to know one another better. You clearly have a shy dog. The situation is exacerbated by this very fact. People often do not appreciate the fact that dogs can be shy, sensitive, untrusting, etc. To most people a dog is a very exciting stimulus. Many people get excited in a positive way and want to pet or play with the dog. Others get excited in a negative way becoming scared and doing everything they can to avoid the dog. Since your husband is "hurt" by her lack of trust, it's probably safe to assume that he likes dogs and probably made some early efforts to befriend her. These efforts were likely too friendly/assertive for your dog, and have caused her to become even less trusting and more distant. There are also some "unknowns" which may be having an impact as well. Since she is three and you've had her for two and one half years, that leaves six months of early history where she may have had some significant negative experiences with men. The way to handle a situation like this is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negatives. You know she will go for walks with him. So this is a good starting place for building positive associations. If she is relaxed enough on these walks to enjoy other pleasures (e.g., treats/play), then they can be incorporated into the walks as well. If she will sit for treats, he can do some of these during their walks. If there are fenced in parks or tennis courts where they can walk to, then she may enjoy playing ball, or even chasing after/catching thrown treats. If rituals can be established in the context of walks (where they are always preceded by a particular phrase or gesture), then these same rituals can eventually be implemented in the house. Until you have reached this point, your husband should make no attempts to interact with her in the house (unless there are specific things they do which are known to be non-problematic). You also need to avoid interactions with her at these times. In fact, when your husband is around (e.g., for a weekend), you should not interact with her at all. Put her in her crate in the same room where she can see the two of you together. This will increase her desire to interact with you and make her more tolerant of his presence when she's given the opportunity to participate in games that you can all play together, like monkey (dog)-in-the-middle. The biggest factor working against you is your husband's frequent absence. If you keep interactions with your Rottie low key when he's away, and save really fun/exciting activities for when he's around, she will begin to look forward to his homecomings. Have him bring a special bone home with him for her, though he should leave it for her (without attempting to give it to her). This may also be a situation that could be significantly eased with some anti-anxiety medication. For a more specific/customized treatment plan, please call to schedule an appointment.