The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the Human-Animal Bond as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.
I damaged my relationship with my own dog.
I’m passionate about this area of human dog relationships because I damaged my bond with Jake in our early years together before I discovered positive reinforcement training. I worked hard to repair it but still have to live with those memories of having harmed him through my ignorance.
We know humans can develop deep and abiding emotional attachments to their dogs and that dogs reciprocate those feelings. It isn’t just our own dogs that we can form bonds with either. As a dog trainer, it is my goal to form a bond with all of the dogs I work with. This is especially important when working with fearful or reactive dogs. A strong bond helps build the dog’s confidence which enables them to feel less need for fear or aggression and allows them to focus on feeling love and joy.
Although there is still some debate on this topic, studies have shown – and I truly believe – that dogs have Theory of Mind in relation to humans. Theory of Mind is a scientific concept defined as one’s ability to interpret the mental and emotional states of others and of oneself. Basically, theory of mind is empathy, the ability to imagine what another may be thinking or feeling. (For more on this concept, read this article from Psychology Today.)
Bonding with your dog improves your health and well-being
Petting a beloved animal companion has been shown to lower stress, heart rate and blood pressure in humans. Caring for pets helps to increase your daily level of activity and social interaction and teaches children about kindness and nurturing others. Animal companionship also alleviates loneliness and depression. That’s a lot of benefits from a sweet snuggle with your pup! In fact, for both humans and dogs, just looking at each other releases oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone.
Natural bond of a mother
Interestingly, dogs have evolved to stay “puppy-like” throughout their lives and to transfer their natural bond with their canine mother to their human guardian. Cats do this as well. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about positive reinforcement dog training. If our dogs bond with us like a child to a mother, how can we then conceive of hitting or electric shocking those adopted children? When dogs are mistreated, hurt and even abused in the name of “training” it damages and even breaks the precious emotional bond they have with their owner which is a tragedy any way you look at it.
How do you know if your bond is strong with your dog?
Apart from feeling it, some of the signs that you are emotionally bonded with your dog include:
The number of possessions your dog has. Do you buy all the latest toys, comfy dog beds, etc.? If you buy your dog as much as you would a baby, that’s a sign of emotional attachment. My Jake has his own room at my house.
Do you call your dog your child and you his mom or dad? I do!
Do you celebrate your dog’s birthday and include her in family events? I’m currently planning Jake’s 10th birthday party for later this year.
Do you sign cards to others from you and your dog?
Basically, do you treat your dog like a person?
Some studies have shown that the dog-guardian bond is particularly strong among single people, newlyweds, couples without children and empty-nesters supporting the idea of our dogs as canine children.
At the other end of the spectrum, a damaged or broken bond between a dog and its human can lead to neglect, relinquishment and even abandonment. Signs of a damaged bond include:
Using labels to describe the dog such as the dog is a “jerk,” etc. (not in jest as many people do but in a serious manner, truly believing that your dog is a jerk on purpose and being bothered by that.)
Taking the dogs behavior personally and expressing frustration or anger about that behavior.
Claiming the dog is damaged goods and came to you unfixable.
Thinking you chose the “wrong” dog.
Spending less and less time with your dog and reducing the quality of care you provide.
Damaged bonds can be fixed if you are willing to put in the work but if there is truly no bond between you, it is better for everyone to rehome the dog. I damaged my bond with Jake in the beginning before I discovered positive reinforcement training and worked hard to repair it so I know it can be done. I loved Jake and we had a bond. I mistreated him through ignorance of appropriate training methods and lost his trust which is what I had to work to restore.
Living with a loving dog is a privilege, not a right. Taking time to build a strong bond with your dog will garner immeasurable benefits. Training your dog without any use of force, pain or punishment is an integral part of building a strong bond with your dog.
Download a pdf checklist of ways to bond more closely with your dog along with the pdf of this article.