Downtime

Why Does My Dog Hate My Elderly Aunt?

Is there anything I can do to keep the peace with my family?

Dog looking cringey near an old lady with a cane.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

My recently adopted dog and I just moved into my mother’s house for a month to help her with a temporary health condition. The transition was relatively smooth for the dog, and a great side benefit is that there were a lot of people coming and going, so she had some good socialization opportunities. The problem is that the dog took an immediate dislike to one guest: my elderly aunt.

I did my best to calm her each time my aunt visited, and I moved my dog into a room with a closed door to separate them. Did I respond correctly? Is there any hope for getting my dog to tolerate being in the same room as my aunt, and if so, how do I go about doing that?

—Negotiating Niece

Dear Negotiating Niece,

I’ve always thought that should aliens ever make the transcosmic voyage to visit us here on Earth, we would be wise to send a crack team of dogs as our welcome ambassadors. No other creature is better suited to greet someone after a long trip, and they are unwavering in their cautious optimism of new beings. If the extraterrestrials are willing to provide a few ear scratches, then intergalactic peace can be achieved within minutes of their arrival.

Your situation reveals a pitfall in my plan, however. Dogs may be infinitely pure and good, but they can also be colossal weirdos and rather particular. Sometimes random things push their buttons. My dog Ruby, for example, hates an oblong yarn sculpture that we used to keep atop our dresser. As far as I know, she has had an otherwise-pleasant history with yarn. She gets along swimmingly with our sweaters and scarves, but nothing riles her up like that damned yarn sculpture. We eventually had to move it into a closet to keep the peace.

German Shepherd sitting by the fireplace.
Despite her hatred of the yarn sculpture, Ruby appreciates fine art.
Photo courtesy of Nick Greene.

I am going to assume that you can’t simply lock your elderly aunt in a closet, which is why you put your dog in a separate room during her last visit. I asked Melissa Bain, a professor at the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at UC–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, about your situation, and she says you handled it correctly. “If the dog is displaying aggression,” Bain explains, “the best and easiest thing in the moment is to have the dog … placed in an area away from that person.”

It is still possible to try to patch things up between your aunt and your dog, though you will have to be patient. “[Don’t] force the situation,” Bain says. “Let the dog approach if she wants to. If she doesn’t want to approach, then she should be left alone.” If your dog does decide to extend the olive branch, Bain advises against having your aunt hand-feed her treats (“too chancy”). Instead, you can toss some high-value treats behind her (the dog, not the aunt) during the meet and greet.

While your dog may grow into the relationship, you should make sure your aunt is cool with it as well. “People shouldn’t be forced into situations that they are not comfortable with,” Bain says. Humans are animals too, after all, and they deserve the same patience and kindness as our pets.

Harder to solve is the question of why your dog has a beef with your elderly aunt. We may find it inexplicable, but that doesn’t mean your pup doesn’t have her own rationale. “It usually isn’t random from a dog’s point of view. For whatever reason, often beyond what that individual person is able to change, there is something that causes that dog to be fearful,” Bain says, adding such reasons could be a person’s mannerisms, odor, posture, or even their gender.

Hopefully your dog and aunt can grow to become friends, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t. We can save those kinds of stakes for the alien invasion. The dog ambassadors will be ready.