Downtime

My Cranky Old Dog Has No Friends. Is That a Problem?

He’s never liked other pups, but now I worry he’s lonely and bored.

A frowning pug
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pratiksha Mohanty/Unsplash.

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

Dear Beast Mode,

My husband and I rescued a puppy from a shelter almost 10 years ago. We trained him carefully and gave him tons of love and attention, and he has grown into wonderful dog. But there’s one aspect of his personality we’ve never found a way to successfully address: He’s never liked other dogs.

We tried socializing him in various ways when he was young, but in every case, he would either completely ignore the other dogs, or—worse—end up snarling and snapping at them. (He never hurt another dog, but he has scared quite a few. He’s a big boy, 80 pounds.) We ended up just doing our best to limit his interaction with other dogs to avoid such scenes. Over the past few years we’ve exercised him mainly by hiking, but he’s getting old and creaky now and no longer wants to be as active.

I worry that he is lonely and bored, but I’m also worried that he would hate a new dog if we adopted one to give him companionship. Am I being too neurotic about my dog not having any canine friends?

—Curmudgeonly Canine

Dear Curmudgeonly Canine,

Once, around the holidays, I sat near an elderly man who was eating dinner by himself. He hadn’t brought a book or anything else to hold his attention, and, in between bites, he stared forward into the empty space that a spouse, friend, or child might have otherwise filled. After the waiter took his appetizer away, a woman and her young son approached the man. “I don’t mean to bother you, sir,” she said. “Would you like to join my family for dinner?”

“You are bothering me,” he said. “Tell your family ‘no.’ ”

I admired him, despite his rudeness, since he was actually being rather considerate. Had he accepted the woman’s invitation, it would have ruined dinner for everyone.

Like that old man, your old dog is set in his ways. You shouldn’t force him into situations that make him anxious or act out—especially at his advanced age. But that doesn’t mean he’s doomed to be a loner for the rest of his life.

The younger the dog, the easier it is to socialize. As soon as a pup gets all its vaccinations, owners should make haste and plan play dates, sign up for group classes, and do all the other things that will help the young’un get used to other dogs. Nonetheless, teaching a dog to open up isn’t always easy, as you can attest. Considering your dog was prone to showing signs of aggression, you were right to exercise caution. Ideally, you would have been able to seek the help of a behaviorist, but that’s not always a feasible option.

Don’t beat yourself up. You’ve managed to provide your dog with a happy, active life, and it’s OK if he’s a grump around his peers. If you’re terribly concerned about his loneliness, know that it’s not too late to salvage some semblance of a social life. But do it slowly. If you have neighbors or friends with dogs, arrange a crew for morning walks. Warn them that he’s a little prickly, so they know to give him space. He doesn’t have to play with these new acquaintances, but just having someone within sniffing distance can be enough to entice him out of his shell. Given his history of snarling and his current creaky state, you may want to avoid dog parks altogether. It doesn’t sound like his scene, anyways.

While it may liven up your pooch’s home life, introducing a new dog isn’t a quick fix. You may tell yourself that you’re doing it for him, but you should think about whether or not you want another dog right now. Smooth integration requires considerable preparation, and success will depend on your attentiveness and patience. The move will affect the lives of two dogs, so it’s not something to take lightly.

In the meantime, you can enrich his life in simpler ways. He might not be in hiking shape anymore, but you’ll still want to take him on simple walks around the neighborhood. (If this is physically difficult for him, consult with your vet for other options.) There are lots of toys that make dogs work for treats, and introducing some of these will help keep his noggin busy. Food mazes also do a good job with this, though I can’t guarantee he’ll take to one immediately. I’ve found grumpy old men to be rather particular about their dinners.