The Human-Dog Bond
The human-dog bond is an integral part of dog training. Everyone who owns a dog knows that their pooch needs to learn the rules of the house as well as those laid down by society, after all, we all need to live within these boundaries otherwise anarchy would ensue. But how many owners actually fully understand that before a dog even learns to sit much less anything else, there needs to be a rock solid foundation, a mutual bond of trust and respect between the dog and the owner. If you’ve got it great, if not, well it’s never too late to fix it.
So what is this ‘bond’, where does it come from and how do we get it? Well and from a science point of view it’s an area that has been studied and quantified by psychologists and anthropologists since the 1930s but we’ve really only started talking about it since the 1980s with the onset of therapy and service dogs. As to what the bond is, simply put, it is the sum of every interaction you have with your dog. It’s the level of your relationship and attachment you share and not the slavish obedience some people expect. It’s all about whether your dog trusts you and it begins with how you see your dog. Is your dog a member of the family, or, when you see his furry face, are you looking at a shaggy serf who’d better be standing close by to do your bidding? Most people get a dog because they want companionship, and companions usually have two-way relationships.
The Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria, recently studied the human-canine bond and concluded that when the bond is healthy, it most resembles the relationship between a child and a parent. The study called it the “secure base effect.” From the safety of a caregiver’s protection, a bonded dog feels confident to explore it’s world. They are more motivated to experiment, learn and solve problems. When confronting the unfamiliar, the dog will look to it’s caregiver for advice. It’s not a question of who’s in charge. Obviously, you are. You control access to the outside, you operate the can opener, you have the keys to the car for rides and walks. It’s a matter of nurturing a member of another species in an often confusing human world, not so that they become a little shaggy person, but so that they become a self-assured dog who trusts your guidance.
Bonding is a powerful thing. An Emory University study found that when a dog smelled the scent of his human, his brain lit up in scans the same way a human’s does smelling the perfume of a loved one. When your bond is strong, a dog’s level of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone linked to a sense of attachment and bonding, rises when he simply looks at you. It climbs higher when you look each other in the eyes. When a dog is bonded with his owner, he frequently looks at the owner during play, he checks in. Because, simply put, his human is the acknowledged center of his world.
You may see how this affects a dog’s training.
Bonds are built on mutual respect and attentiveness. You might assume that since your dog can’t work a crossword puzzle, he’s a little dim. But then, you can’t chase down a rabbit, either. Your dog doesn’t hold it against you does he? You’re members of two different species, each with marvelous abilities. So the bond begins with your appreciating your dogs abilities and learning his shortcomings, over time understanding their likes and dislikes, and becoming attentive to your dog as a unique individual. What’s his play style? Does she like to meet strangers? How does he feel about fireworks? Is she easily frustrated with new lessons? When your dogs sees that you know him, that you’re listening, that you’re patient and allow him to make mistakes, when he knows you’re watching out for him, he has a human he can trust.
The Human-Dog Bond And Dog Training
This carries over into our dog training sessions, which is in itself a dialogue between you and your furry companion. You communicate a specific behaviour you want from your dog. If you’re bonded, he’s tuned into you not stray scents, dogs barking down the street, or other distractions. He trusts you so he’s willing to experiment. He performs the behaviour, he’s rewarded and praised. You’re in harmony. How you train your dog builds on that bond or it can suddenly tear it down. Imagine you began an obedience class and you put an electronic or prong collar on your dog who now has come to see you as a parental figure. If he doesn’t understand the command the first time or is too slow in responding, he gets shocked or jerked with metal prongs in his throat. Do this to a child and you’d be charged with abuse. But some pet owners and trainers do it to dogs on a daily basis. Imagine the sense of confusion and betrayal the dog feels. His caregiver is now his tormenter. Trust and security go out the window.
Modern, science-based training is force-free. Dogs are rewarded with treats or other incentives for the correct response. The bond is preserved and it’s strengthened when you praise your dog often, encourage him and tune into his mental state and stress level and adjust your sessions accordingly. Being in charge of your dog isn’t about being the top dog, its about wise nurturing. It’s the kind of leadership your dog naturally expects.