Downtime

All He Wants Is Love

How can my boyfriend convince his dog he’s a good guy?

A man holds out a bone to a reluctant dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by WilleeCole/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Beast Mode,

Earlier this year, my boyfriend adopted a Jack Russell mix from a rescue. The dog started out shy, but as time went on, he bonded with me (even though I only see him about once a week) and started to become aggressive toward my boyfriend. We worked with trainers, and the aggression subsided, but doggo still doesn’t love my boyfriend. He has learned to play with him, accept treats, and will sometimes seek out his attention, but is mostly indifferent. Is there a way to increase the affection and build a relationship? How can my boyfriend convince the dog that he’s a good guy?

—Favored Step-Parent

Dear Favored Step-Parent,

Imagine going to a party full of strangers, and unbeknownst to you, someone had spread a rumor that you are the world’s best listener. As soon as you walk through the door, a guy pulls you aside and gives you the play-by-play of an argument he had with his mother. You politely excuse yourself, but another guest corners you to vent about her husband’s “work wife.” More people approach as you slowly make your way through the apartment. Some of these folks are rather interesting, but you aren’t yet prepared to hear their life stories. You grab a drink and lock yourself in the bathroom for some peace and quiet. Meanwhile, the crowd amasses on the other side of the door. “I thought she was supposed to be a great listener,” a muffled voice groans.

This is what life can be like for dogs. Sometimes they aren’t quite ready to be man’s best friend, even if the world assumes it’s their job.

Shelters are full of pets people disregarded because they didn’t immediately become loyal snuggle buddies and confidantes. That’s a human problem, not a dog one, and it’s good to hear that your boyfriend has been patient as his dog warms up to him.

Adopting a pet is a big deal. As with all life-changing decisions, we probably wouldn’t go through with it if we weren’t optimistic when diving in. Your boyfriend expected a more immediate bond, but he shouldn’t despair at the pace this is going. It can sometimes take years for a dog to come out of its shell, and the best thing he can do is keep an open mind and give Fido space while his psychic exoskeleton molts away. By the sound of it, things are actually going pretty well. Sure, they may not be enjoying fireside cuddles yet, but his hard work and patience are clearly paying off.

It may feel lopsided and unfair that the pup effortlessly loves you, a regular houseguest, and not his adopted parent, but this is actually a net positive for the dog. A dog doesn’t have to ration its love. It’s a bonus every time he gets to see you, and he isn’t going to like your boyfriend any less just because he’s not you. And as we’ve covered here before, dogs can be particular weirdos. There’s simply no way of knowing why they like some humans and are wary of others. A lot of it is instinctual and based on things like a person’s odor, voice, gait, or general demeanor. The dog doesn’t hate your boyfriend; he just can’t see past some of those abstract red flags yet.

Judging by all the work he has put in, your boyfriend is clearly a good guy and you shouldn’t worry about him convincing the dog of his estimable character. I assure you the pup appreciates him, even if he has been slow in showing it. There’s a lot of pressure when everyone expects you to be their best friend, especially when you didn’t know that you had that reputation in the first place.