The Human-Dog Bond

The Human-Dog Bond

Me and Shadow cuddling - a very close human-dog bond

Shadow and I had a very close 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.


Hand and paw print in the sand signifying the human-dog bond

The human-dog bond just continues to grow

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.

the human-dog bond in evidence in a walk on the beach

A human-dog bond will grow the more you share

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.

Recent Posts

Predatory Aggression In Dogs

Predatory aggression in dogsThe number of attacks made by dogs on humans and other pets is sadly on the increase.  Whether this is down to the owners lack of knowledge, lack of proper training, poor socialisation or bad breeding, there is one possible cause that appears to be over looked.  That of predatory aggression.

What Is Predatory Aggression?

It can be difficult at times as your dog snuggles up to you, looking at you with big, round brown eyes or bounds around you in a goofy way begging for attention that at one point in his/her development, your pet is descended from hunters.   

Every dog has some level of prey drive (the motivation to chase, catch and kill small furry or feathered creatures) because hunting and killing was a way of life for their ancestors and their only means for survival.  This is hard-wired behaviour that is still present in our dogs today.  It is important to remember that predatory aggression by dogs does not reflect a psychological problem and neither is the dog being vicious, malicious or vindictive.

Predation is a natural survival-related behaviour even though it may sometimes alarm or disgust us.  The entire predatory sequence displayed by all predators involves searching, stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and then eating.

The problem we have as dog owners is that predatory behaviour is not preceded by a significant mood change or threatening gestures.  This absence of warning signals plus the fact that killing is the natural end point for predatory behaviour is what makes it dangerous for target animals, children, cyclists, joggers or anything else that moves quickly.

In domesticating dogs, certain parts of this see-chase-grab-kill sequence has been diluted but never fully eliminated.  For example, the herding breeds are very strong chasers, but do not go for the bite-hold-kill as readily as other breeds. Terriers, on the other hand, will readily grab-bite and kill.  How many of you have seen your dog grab a toy then shake it’s head rapidly from side to side?  That innocent and sometimes comical act is in reality, the final phase of the predatory sequence, the kill.    

So despite domestication, dogs still have an instinctive desire to chase, grab, bite and kill things that look like prey.  Incidentally, this is why so many dogs like to chase a ball or play with tug toys etc.  In the case of the domesticated dog, predation is instinctive and not based on hunger as is the case in wild predators. 

The level of predatory drive depends on the individual dog and what it has been bred for.  Movement always starts the sequence and allowing a dog to chase down small animals or toys will strengthen that prey drive.  Predatory behaviour may be exhibited by dogs of any sex and age and dogs showing intent or becoming agitated by the movement or vocalisations of children or other pets need to be closely monitored.

There are some people who do not regard predatory aggression as a proper form of aggression given there is little mood change and because a dog that chases after, catches and kills a rabbit shows none of the affective signs associated with dominance or fear aggression.  As far as the dog is concerned, it is just business as usual. However, when viewed another way, it seems reasonable to me to classify predatory aggression along with other forms of aggression as it results in damage or destruction of another creature.

So, what constitutes prey?

You may have seen during springtime for instance, dogs or cats killing birds and upsetting wild rabbit nests.  Our response, should we witness this sort of behaviour often ranges from being horrified to dismissing the action as the animals natural instinct.  We rarely see it as a problem.  However, it does become a problem when this predatory drive is directed towards running children, cyclists, traffic or small dogs and cats.  For us these targets are not prey, but to the dog they move like prey, sound like prey, and look like prey, hence the danger.

The results of such cases of mistaken identity can range from annoying to painful and even life-threatening.  A dog exhibiting the predatory mode may slink up on their prey and, when within range, launch an attack.  They then accelerate towards their target, either nipping at heels or biting at calves or thighs, perhaps hanging on in an attempt to drag their prey to the ground.  Sometimes other dogs will be drawn in to the attack displaying “group” aggression.  When the subject is a young child who is attempting to run away, the results can be disastrous.

What makes this type of aggression dangerous is it cannot be trained, medicated or counter conditioned out of the dog.  You may have a dog who previously chased cats, who can now be commanded to stay or sit around a cat but they will still chase a cat down at some point especially if you are not around.  This aggression can be shocking to the owners as it manifests so suddenly and is directed to what we do not see as prey.  For the dog however, instinct dictates otherwise.

Risks of Canine Predation

Realistically, there is no real treatment for predatory aggression and the only sure way to control predatory aggression is 100% avoidance of the situations that put humans and animals at risk.  The sudden high arousal level, a fixed focus on the prey subject and difficulty distracting the dog, are all indicators of a poor prognosis.  Dogs that are born with a high prey drive and have it fine-tuned by experience will always be likely to display this behaviour under certain circumstances.  Quite simply, they cannot help themselves.  This means if your dog chases cats, it cannot live with a cat.  If small dogs are the prey, your dog cannot be around any small dogs, especially when out on walks. 

As previously mentioned, this behaviour is neither malicious nor vindictive but simply biologically driven and natural  though unacceptable and downright dangerous when expressed toward humans. It therefore remains the responsibility of dog owners to recognise and appreciate tendencies in their dog and to take precautions such as keeping the dog on a lead etc.

It is your responsibility as a dog owner to recognise that if your dog only comes back to you when there are no distractions then your dog does not have a reliable recall and therefore should not be off the lead until one is taught.  It is not enough if your dog attacks another animal or child to say “he/she has never done that before” or “he/she only wanted to play”.

Reward-based obedience training will increase owner control, but will not prevent predatory behaviour when the owner’s back is turned or when the owner is absent.