People laugh at how my Great Dane, Annabelle, will sit on my lap at the vet's office. Or how at the dog park, when she's nervous, she leans on me and plays next to me. But these same people aren't laughing when it's time to leave the dog park, and Annabelle walks right along beside me, ready to go home without a fight. They're also not laughing when my boyfriend and I were so absent-minded one day, we forgot to put on her leash and let her out the door. We made it all the way to the front gate of our apartment complex before we realized, she wasn't leashed. Why? Because unlike many dogs who would use this as an opportunity to run free and wild, Annabelle stayed by our side, walking down the steps, as if she was on a leash the whole time.
You might say we have trained our dog well, and yes, we have. Annabelle is a very well-behaved dog. But she wasn't always that way. When I got her as a puppy, she was defiant and somewhat troublesome. She was certainly a handful, to say the least. More so than most, it seemed. She would often slip out of her collar, forcing me to chase her around parking lots – in what was often a vain attempt – to catch her. My mom once told me that she was the most difficult dog she'd ever met, and most people told me I should consider rehoming her.
But I didn't. And through the years, Annabelle and I bonded. I don't formally train her as well as often as I should, but part of the reason for that is because I don't have to. Annabelle trusts me. We can now go to the dog beach, which isn't fenced in, and let her run free, knowing she isn't going to run off. If she gets too far, I merely call out her name and she rebounds back to me without a moment's hesitation. Though even that is rare, as she always keeps an eye on us and makes sure to stay close by. She has no desire to leave her humans and run off. She loves us.
But it's more than just love. She also trusts me.
I say me and not us because while she adores my boyfriend, he wasn't here from the beginning. He came into her life after she was a year old, and moved in with us when she was four. He's had less time to bond with her. Where I was at home with her during her formative years, all day, every day. He wasn't.
She gets super excited when he comes home from work, to the point that she's almost unmanageable. She loves him so much. But when it comes time for a command, she always looks to her mama. Or when she's scared, like when we had an earthquake about a year ago, she ran to me and sat on my lap.
And this is important for a number of reasons. When Annabelle got deathly ill and lost part of her foot to a freak flesh-eating bacterial infection, I had to soak her paw in medicine for half an hour, twice a day, and then wrap it. She let me. When it comes time to put medicine in her ears – something she hates with every fiber of her being – she lets me. Warily, sure, but she lets me. She knows mama knows best and would never do anything to harm her. It makes life so much easier to have my dog trust me unconditionally because she's so bonded to me.
Many people know that training your dog is important as it makes everyone's life a little easier. And there's no doubt that we all love our canine companions and yes, they love us too.
But if you're frequently frustrated with your dog or think they're too “stupid” to learn basic commands, perhaps there's another issue in play here – something that training nor love can fix. Perhaps you need to strengthen the human and dog bond.
I can hear it now! You love your dog so much! Of course you do, we aren’t questioning that. But people often mistake their love of their dog for a bond. It's not exactly the same thing. Love is something that occurs naturally, it's what makes your dog happy to see you when you come home, and what makes you happy to see them. You can love without bonding, though. Think about it. You might love a relative, say a distant aunt or an in-law, but it's not the same feeling you have with your significant other or your best friend. And part of the reason is that you love them, but you're not bonded with them.
And the same can go for your dog. Loving them makes them happy to see you, but bonding with them makes them stay by your side when the urge to run out the door is strong. It goes deeper than obedience training to make your dog come when called, it takes trust. It takes bonding.
The human dog bond doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, it's usually a natural process that occurs when you own a dog and go through all the steps in raising them. Initially, your puppy may not look to you for guidance, but as you build up that trust, you will find training gets easier and easier.
How can you tell if your dog is bonded with you? Look to your day to day life and activities.
* When you're out walking, do they pull on the leash and walk ahead of you? Or do they match your pace? Do they look up at you from time to time as if they're checking to see if you're still there? A bonded dog will check in with their owners as they're out and about on their walks.
* At the dog park, yes, your dog will likely run off to play with other dogs. As they should! But does you dog look for you from time to time, perhaps even coming back to you just to check in? If so, that's a sign of a bonded dog who doesn't want to lose sight of their owner.
* When they're faced with something scary, say the vet or a thunderstorm, do they look at you? Maybe they'll sit in your lap or hide under your feet? This is a sign that they trust you to protect them. Even if they do run and hide elsewhere, they will probably keep an eye on you, watching you for signs of danger because they know as long as their human is calm, everything will be okay. That's a sign of a strong human-dog bond.
If this doesn't sound like your dog, there's no reason to fret. Different breeds bond differently, and some take more time than others. And this is one of those things you can continually work on. Bonding with your dog won't happen overnight. It took about a year to get where I am with Annabelle, and now, everywhere we go, people comment on how well-behaved she is.
It's because she trusts me. And you can work on this trust with your dog as well.
First and foremost, you need to look at the training you provide your dog. Research has proven time and time again that positive reinforcement works better than punishment and alpha dog training. A happy, trusting animal will listen better than one who's scared of punishment. Sure, if you punish or use alpha dog training, you may get the dog to do what you want, but ultimately, they're doing it from a place of fear, not trust. And in the long term, it's less effective. And many dogs will merely act out when you're not around to punish them, which defeats the whole purpose of this anyway.
Harsh punishments such as spanking, yelling or an alpha roll are not going to help your dog bond with you. Instead, offering direction, praise and treats will make them eager and happy to please you. Over time, as they see that you are looking out for their best interests, they will learn to trust you more. And the more they trust you, the more likely they will look to you for guidance.
How to bond with your dog:
* Playing with them. Have fun, let loose and let them be a dog. Toss a ball around the yard or play tug of war. Learn their favorite games, buy some of their favorite types of toys, and just play. Not only will it help strengthen your bond, it will relax you and allow you to truly enjoy what it means to have a dog in your life. It's not all hard work and frustration after all!
* Training. Yes, a well-bonded dog will be easier to train, but it goes the other way as well. Training your dog will help you bond with them. Not only is a trained dog allowed more personal freedom, but they mere act of training them – in a positive fashion – will bring you closer together.
* Remain calm. Yes, owning a dog - especially a puppy - comes with frustrations and anxiousness. And sometimes it's not even about your dog, but life in general. But yelling, screaming and throwing a temper tantrum will frighten most dogs, even if that anger isn't directed at them personally. And if it is, then it's even more damaging. Do your best to always speak to your dog in a calm voice, even when they just ate your favorite shoes. Yelling doesn't do anything to fix the problem, it only causes lasting damage to the relationship you have with your dog.
* Pay attention to their body language. Learn about canine behavior and read up on body language specifically. This will help you understand what your dog likes, dislikes and what scares them. This will allow you to prevent problems before they start, and to remove your dog from situations that scare them or make them uncomfortable. Once they learn that you will keep them safe, the trust between you will grow. Also, this will allow you to prevent bad behavior before it happens, meaning less frustration and less punishment, both of which can hurt the bond with your dog.
The bottom line is this: Owning a dog should bring joy to your life. It should also provide the dog with what they need to be happy and content. By creating happy moments and by caring for your dog, there's really no way you won't bond over time. Yes, all dogs are different. Some show their feelings in a different way. Some don't bond with everyone, while others bond easily. It just takes time, patience, and the willingness to go the extra mile.
I call Annabelle my Soul Mutt because we're that close and sometimes, it seems like she just gets me, and I get her. We have the ideal dog-owner relationship, and for that, I'm lucky. But it didn't happen overnight and it wasn't always easy.
But I can speak from experience. It was absolutely worth it.