One thing I never anticipated after adopting a young puppy three short years ago was the future challenges of dating when you own a reactive dog.
When I first adopted Bean, she was such a tiny, sweet natured pup that it never crossed my mind that she would one day grow to become so fearful of strangers that she would regularly bark and lung at the new people in her life. All of my friends assured me that owning a dog would be great for my social life. I would make new friends and meet new people while walking my dog or taking her to the park. It all sounded like such a dream and I was excited for Bean and I to make new friends.
Unfortunately for myself, that little puppy grew into a much bigger dog with a nasty bark and I lived with an everyday reality that I could not trust her around new people. At first, this was very difficult for me to accept. Despite my love for my dog, I cried and cursed the world that I was unlucky enough to have adopted a dog like this. All my friends’ and my sisters’ dogs were so easy and Bean was. .not.
Eventually, I grew to accept Bean just the way that she is. I’m her biggest supporter and staunchest defender and Bean has managed to make a few friends over the three years I’ve owned her. I’m at the point now where several of my closest friends are close enough to Bean that I no longer fear her reactions with them. She loves them as much as I do, if not more.
But introducing friends to Bean and potential dating partners was a very different story.
There are some of my friends who will never be comfortable around Bean and that’s okay. I’ve come to accept them and respect their wishes. But when it comes to a dating partner there are no other options in my book. If you are looking to date me long term, perhaps one day move in together, you can’t avoid my dog. When I adopted her, I made a promise to my dog and I intend to keep that promise for life.
So what does one do? How do you make sure that your first meeting with your new beau goes as smoothly as possible and how do you ensure that your partner and your dog cultivate a relationship of their own? Admittedly, it’s not easy. It’s one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It takes a lot of faith and trust in both your partner and your dog. But hopefully with a little luck and patience things will turn out okay in the end.
Here’s how I managed to make dating with a reactive dog work:
1. Prepare your partner.
It’s SO very important that you be honest and upfront with your partner about your dog and his or her limits and behaviors from the start. It can be exciting to tell someone new about your dog. You want to tell them all your best stories, all the cute things that they do, and your partner may be super excited to meet them one day. But it’s important that you are honest with them about your dog from the start.
Let them know your dog is shy, or fearful, or reactive. Let them know the kinds of behaviors they may encounter from your dog should they meet and what they can do to prepare themselves for it.
But know it’s also okay to let them know all the great things about your dog once they have come to trust someone.
2. Set your dog up for success.
While it’s important to prepare your partner, it’s also important to prepare your dog as much as possible. For instance, if you aren’t already, begin to work with your dog on exposing them to new people and situations. I was fortunate enough to have a great trainer who taught me how to safely expose Bean to people without putting her or anyone else in danger AND working on her confidence around others.
Before your partner is going to meet your dog, consider calming treats or supplements. Make sure they have an area of the house they are comfortable in with their toys or bones or whatever else they love. Freezing a Kong with yummy treats is also a great distraction.
And be honest with yourself even if it’s hard. Depending on your dog, it might be best to have them leashed during their first meet and greet, but it may also be better to have them muzzled or crated for a while. Know your dog well enough to set them up for success.
3. The Meet and Greet
The first time can be tough. Know that now. Accept it and prepare yourself for it. There might be a lot of barking and growling and lunging. The first time my partner came over, Bean had to be muzzled and even then it was a mess.
The key here for Bean was a can of spray cheese. The key for your dog is their favorite treat. Any time she looked at him, any time he looked at her or got near her and she DIDN’T react she got cheese. This was my trainer’s method, but there may be something that works better for you and your dog or that you are more confident with. I ALWAYS suggest consulting with a positive reinforcement trainer if you have a reactive dog. That’s the best way to set your pup up for success.
Needless to say, there was a lot of barking and slip ups that day and when Bean was near her limit she was placed in a separate room to decompress and enjoy her own space.
I introduced her bit by bit, slowly increasing her exposure to him each time and sure enough her tolerance of him began to grow. But I will never forget the mess that was her first meeting with my partner. (Thankfully I can look back and laugh now).
4. Be Patient.
It look my dog several weeks of exposure to my partner before she could even be off the leash. She eventually graduated to direct supervision. She was allowed to be in the same room as him, but she could not approach him without myself at her side. Eventually, she began to trust him. She stopped barking and growling and now she loves to be around him.
It was a long, painful, bumpy process. Sometimes I lost my patience. Sometimes I was mad. Sometimes I wanted to quit. But it was worth it in the end to see her cuddled next to him on the couch.
It makes me proud. Proud of my dog. Proud of my partner for doing this for me. Proud to call them both mine. It was a true test of faith for everyone involved, but it only strengthened my bond with both of them in the end.