We are a nation of dog lovers. Almost everywhere you look, you’ll catch someone accompanied by their trusty companion.
The bond between humans and dogs is often celebrated and has led to many fictional and non- fictional famous canine characters. Lassie, a Border Collie, celebrated for her intelligence, Pippin, a noble pooch that followed his owner through various adventures on an airplane, and Hachiko, a dog that mourned his owner’s death, and waited for him at their famous meeting spot, until he eventually passed.
This bond doesn’t come easily! There are many guides and television shows which offer well-meaning but incorrect advice on canine behavior. The information is often based on outdated theories and experimental results. We know it can be confusing to read through multiple sources, all with conflicting ideas on what makes a functioning relationship between dog and owner.
Use this as a comprehensive and up- to- date guide on how to best bond with your dog – suggestions which range from training tips to interaction techniques, which will set you and your dog onto the right paw once more.
The OG bond
A bond, or attachment, is the level of security your pooch feels when he is near you. Many years ago, when dogs were wild and we were hunter-gatherers, we formed a partnership. We offered a consistent food source for them, and somewhere safe and warm to sleep. They offered us a reliable predator deterrence. The tamer animals stayed closer to the food supply, thriving in their new environment near our settlements. Over time, this led to a domesticated animal.
Because of us, dogs look far different from their wild ancestors. They also behave differently, too. Over the years, we have changed their internal chemicals and processes to make them more likely to respond to us humans. When they look at us, a hormone which is seen between mothers and their babies is released in both us and the dog to further reinforce the bond felt.
Dogs, not wolves
Although dogs are a close relative of wolves, we must appreciate them as their own species. For many years, behaviorists, trainers, and scientists alike have suggested that “Dominance Theory” is the holy grail of canine behavior. Wolves fighting in zoos over food surged forward this theory, and soon owners were being told to not let their dog on the sofa, always walk ahead of him, and pin him down if he gets too rough.
Scientists now realize their mistake. Dogs are not wolves, and our training methodologies must reflect this. Wolves are a lot more tolerant than first thought, and their dominance hierarchies are complex. Dogs thrive off a good human-canine bond, which reflects strong leadership and reassurance instead of dominance and fear.
Lack of a bond
You may be wondering how to increase the bond between you and your dog. Perhaps he doesn’t listen to you, or perhaps he is aggressive when you tell him what to do. There are many reasons why the bond between yourself and your dog may not be as intense as you’d want; late training, previous owners, bad training.
Thankfully, dogs are biologically programmed to bond with us.
Obedience classes and behaviorists
👉 Obedience classes can be a fun way for both you and your dog to understand each other better.
We recommend that you attend obedience classes from the moment you meet your dog, whether that be puppy or adult. Although expensive, it can reduce bad behaviors further down the line, which may cost you money (think a chewed-up leather sofa or the bitten sleeve of an unsuspecting passer-by).
Obedience classes can act as a stress reliever for yourself, too. It’s a refreshing break from the mundane tasks of adult living and helps you understand your dog more. For example, dogs licking your lips/mouth area may disgust you. However, their behavior is similar to wolf puppies.
For wolves, licking the mouth of an adult equates to a tasty meal. Dogs have continued this behavior, and it is often stamped as a sign of affection. If you understand why your dog engages in behaviors you’re not too keen on, it can help you to train him, and reduce your chances of lashing out both physically and verbally.
Ways to improve the bond with your dog
Similar to how dogs aren’t wolves, we are not dogs. Although we have evolved ways to communicate with one another, we do not speak the same language. If you can’t read your dog’s body language, you’re likely to cause them stress by putting them in situations he won’t enjoy.
You can understand your dogs’ language by seeing a behaviorist, taking up courses, and attending training classes.
Most people understand that a growl is a dog’s warning sign, but many miss the signs leading up to this. Panting, eyes to the side, mouth licking, and excessive shaking are all small signs that may be mistaken for something else.,
You shouldn’t punish your dog for growling — That’s how they communicate that they’re annoyed/stressed. A dog that is not allowed to growl will feel more uncomfortable in certain situations and is more likely to snap. Teach bite inhibition instead. This way, you won’t confuse your dog by suppressing the need to growl or bite (in self-defense); you’ll teach them that it’s not OK to hurt people, which is the root of the issue.
Try to be fully engaged during playtime
All work and no play can make anyone mad. Including your dog. Games such as scent trails, fetch and play fighting can increase the bond felt between you and your dog, and give you both some recreational time to unwind with one another. Allowing a dog to play with you can improve your dog’s overall feelings of happiness⁸. They find play rewarding, so if they begin to associate you with playtime, the bond will be reinforced.
Watch your tone of voice
Dogs have evolved to respond to our voices. They respond better to happy voices, rather than shouting. Have you ever done the high pitched “doggy voice” when talking to your pup? It works. Using dog-related words such as “walkies,” “good boy,” and “treat” in a high pitched voice increased the time a dog wanted to spend near his owner³.
Likewise, humans are able to tell the emotional state of dog noises, such as barks, whines, and growls. Why? Because humans rely on the same rules to assess emotional valence and intensity in conspecific and dog vocalizations. Both humans and dogs have areas in our brains that respond to each other, so it makes sense that they can tell a happy human from an angry one.
Try not to shout at your pup during training sessions. We know it can be infuriating when your dog just isn’t “getting” the aim of the session, but they are hypersensitive to our voices. Shouting may disrupt the session even further. Shouting may result in a fearful dog. Instead, when he does the right thing, put on an extra nice “baby voice” talk. Some studies have shown that dogs respond more to the human voice than treats during training⁴.
Make a habit of petting
Despite this, dogs prefer petting to the human voice. Petting can be a positive experience for both dog and owner. If you’ve ever relaxed after a hard day’s work by petting your dog, whilst his tail beats rhythmically on the sofa, you’ll understand why. But, you have to make sure you’re stroking him right. Head and paw touching can be a stressful experience for your dog⁵. It is recommended that you train a puppy to tolerate all parts of their body being touched, but some owners may not do so. Refrain from hugging your dog, and extended periods of eye contact, as this may be perceived as an aggressive threat.
Take advantage of the ‘critical period’
The critical period is used in both canine and human psychology. It’s a time during every puppy’s lifetime when he is learning about the world. Expose your dog to as much as possible, to create a balanced and happy dog. Take your puppy to busy cafes and restaurants, take him to parks where there will be other dogs, and bring him to family events where he will face a brigade of screaming and shouting children.
Your dog learns what situations are dangerous and what situations are fun. For example, if he is bitten by a large dog during the critical period, he may struggle to trust larger dogs in the future.
For this reason, rescue dogs may be more nervous/anxious in certain situations, and you may find it harder to bond with them.
Embrace your dog’s personality
We must respect that each dog has a personality. A personality is a consistent display of behaviors through different situations. Some are shy, whilst some are bold. Some are proactive, and some are reactive. To increase the bond, you should respect that your dog is an individual, with his own wants, likes, and dislikes.
Just because he doesn’t come when called, doesn’t mean he despises you. Just because he’s not a snuggler, doesn’t mean he wishes for your demise. Try not to force your dog into situations that make him uncomfortable and anxious. He should see you as a safe space – not someone that frequently leads them to danger.
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Remember, amazing bonds take time
The relationship between a human and their dog should be respectful and mutualistic, and you should both benefit from the years that you will spend together. Some careful consideration of the canine language, paired with some guidance from an expert will ensure that you and your dog can make the most of your relationship. You’re not a bad owner; some dogs just need a gentle nudge to reassure them that you are to be trusted.
A note on special needs dogs
Despite the staff’s best efforts, the shelter dog environment is not the best for welfare. Dogs are surrounded by other unknown dogs, and they rarely receive the one to one interaction with humans that they crave.
For this reason, dogs from a shelter may find it harder to bond with their owners. Shelter dogs may be more anxious, and a study showed that when approached by an unknown human, they showed more submissive, fearful behaviors². Contrary to this, the bond may be too intense. You may find yourself with a Velcro dog, which howls and chews excessively when you leave the room. More than 13% of rehomed dogs had separation anxiety⁹.
I recommend working alongside the shelter and a canine behaviorist. Your pooch may need alternative methods to enable the bond between you to flourish. It would be irresponsible of us to suggest behavioral fixes. We don’t know what is causing the lack of a bond in your shelter pup. It may be boredom, fear, agitation, aggression, food guarding.