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Building the Dog-Human Bond
It’s never too late to reinforce this critical foundation

It was a misty spring evening, the first break in the April showers in over a week. My dog Sumner was strolling off-leash about 20 paces ahead of me, taking in the smells and leaving his mark when the mood struck. Then, a crash amid the trees.

Deer!

Sumner paused for an instant, one foot in the air, and then took off full tilt after the white tail disappearing into the darkness.

“Sumner, wait!” I called.

He skidded to a stop, looked over his shoulder at me, then back toward the hunt.

“Good job, Summie!” I shouted, pleased that he’d stopped mid-pursuit. “Let’s go this way!”

He trotted back to me, all the while throwing glances at the spot where the deer had disappeared.

When he reached me, I leaned down and gave him a quick neck massage. “You are so fantastic! What a good job!”

You might be thinking, “Quit bragging. You’re a dog trainer—of course your dog came back when you called.” Not quite. Yes, I’m a trainer, but I share the dirty little secret of many other dog professionals: my dog is far from perfectly trained. What was at work that drizzly night on the trail was something more than training. Sumner’s magnificent recall was an example of the bond in action.

The word “bond” is tossed around a lot when it comes to the dog-human relationship. Typically, the bond is considered interchangeable with the love we have for our dogs, but I see the two aspects as related but distinct parts of our lives with our dogs. Love usually develops naturally, but the bond takes time and attention to grow. Love is what makes your dog dance when you come home at the end of the day, while the bond is what keeps him from taking off without you when the front door opens. To put it in human terms, you feel love for your in-laws (maybe), but you share a bond with your best friend from middle school. A strong bond forms the foundation of your entire relationship with your dog.

In my early training days, I was confident that dog-friendly training could solve nearly any canine challenge. Your dog won’t come when you call him? He jumps, grabs, steals and pulls? Have I got a solution for you! Happily, the majority of the time I could help troubled duos work toward a resolution through training, but there were more than a few households where things just didn’t seem right, no matter how much training we attempted. There was a distinct lack of “spark” between human and dog—a concept that’s difficult to explain to a frustrated dog guardian!

In nearly every case, a series of human-created bond infractions had picked away at the strength of the relationship between dog and person. Some were major, such as physical punishment or not providing enough exercise, while others were more difficult to pinpoint—a lack of confidence or an unwillingness to have fun with the pup, for example. Basic training certainly improved these “sparkless” relationships, but I often found myself disappointed with our less-than-stellar results at the end of the program.

It became clear to me that in order to have happy, frustration-free partnerships with our dogs, we need more than just love and training. For a relationship that truly thrives, we must cement a bond with our dog built on trust, mutual respect and regard. An all-consuming task? Hardly. Strengthening the bond with your dog can be as simple as introducing novel games into your daily interactions, stepping up the amount of praise you give or integrating simple training exercises into your dog’s routine. The individual bond-building steps aren’t dramatic. In combination, though, incorporated with an honest look at any potential bonding infractions you might be committing, they will lead to a relationship that’s harmonious and envy-inducing.

A former client, Robin, told me a story that distilled the bond to a single concept. She was having furniture delivered and one of the workmen accidentally left the back door open. Spying her dog, Chelsea, he turned and ran back to shut the door, apologizing as he went.

“I didn’t know that you had a dog. I’m sorry I forgot to close the door—we don’t want her to run away, right?”

Robin smiled. Chelsea might wander out and explore the yard, or sniff around the delivery truck—but run away?

“Chelsea won’t leave.” Robin replied. “It’s not fun out there without me.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 55: July/Aug 2009
Victoria Schade, Certified Pet Dog Trainer and creator of the DVD New Puppy! Now What? can be seen on Animal Planet's Faithful Friends. Sumner, the good-but-not-perfect Boxer, makes frequent appearances on Victoria's blog. lifeontheleash.com gooddogobedience.com
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Submitted by B Elder-Munro | March 20 2010 |

Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking column/blog. It hit home today. We've had our rescue Lab/Pharaoh mix, Ellie, for a month now. (She'd been a stray rescued by a vet then two rescue/foster groups.) I've loved her virtually since the moment I saw her. Today, I felt that bond between us. It felt like she let me in, understood this is her forever home and wanted that bond. When we sat together, she had to have part of her resting against me. Thanks for putting an insightful finger on that sense. May you and Sumner continue to share many years of happiness.

Submitted by Suma | April 12 2010 |

Yes, I feel frustrated sometimes with our second adoptee - when we got him initially, he would run off and gave me terrible scare. He has somewhat mellowed down now, but i still cannot feel comfortable that he will not run away. He has dog to dog issues and there are times when I felt very frustrated. Sometimes I feel I made progress but other times I feel I am getting no where. What are the specific steps in improving the bond with him? any help is greatly appreciated.

Submitted by Gregg | September 29 2010 |

I broke this bond with some angry moments due to frustration with my last dog and when the moment of truth came, he choose not to listen to me (i.e. trust me) and was struck by a car and killed as a result. It's a pain I'll never outlive.

We've had our new dog less than a week now and I'm making certain not to make the same mistake twice. Nothing but patience and postive reinforcement trough the training and already he's looking toward me when walking on the leash and checking in with me from time to time at the dog park. In fact, all I need to do when I want to leave the dog park is go to the gate and he comes running. Given a choice, he prefers to be with me.

There's truth to what you say in this article; I wish I'd understood this concept earlier.

Submitted by Anonymous | March 11 2011 |

Sometimes I think my dog is too bonded with me. She loves everyone, but me especially. I'm her protector and guardian. We go to the dog park and most times she'd rather play with me. There are a select few dogs that she will really play with and when she does I love to see it. Is it a bad thing if she is too bonded?

Submitted by Jim ness | March 3 2012 |

I have the same experience -but I have a rescue dog and I believe she is afraid to be left again

The problem is vacations - I hate the feeling that she will think she has been sent away

It doesn't ruin y vacation but it sure puts in a road black to complete enjoyment

I am retired so she
he is my companion and complete joy - and has become accustomed to hanging out with me -any routine out of the daily - she sticks to me like glue

Is this bonding okay or too extreme?

Submitted by Snaptails | April 21 2011 |

My dog seems bonded to me around the house, but in the woods, off leash, I don't exist. His prey instinct is huge! I took him to the beach for a leash free romp.... Well, he took off chasing seagulls and ran directly into the ocean full speed. He kept chasing the seagulls as they flew further out to avoid his advances. My daughter and I watched shaking as he swam at least a quarter mile out in the ocean. I called and whistled, but he ignored us. People watching this from beach front condos came out to watch and offer support... He finally swam back and we eventually stopped trembling. This was his first time in the ocean. It was scary, and I dont know I'd want to experience it again. how does one control such a prey instinct?

Submitted by Rachel Simpson | July 28 2011 |

I cannot agree with this article more. Building a strong bond with your dog is one of the most important things you can do with your dog. Good positive-reinforcement training helps to build that bond. A good dose of patience helps, too.
I have been lucky enough to have several dogs that I felt that I had a good, strong bond with, including two rescue dogs that I have now. The younger of the two, who is about 5 years old, is very special because he didn't much care for people at all when we first adopted him. Now, he is one of the most loving dogs ever.
But I am also going through a most frustrating time with a puppy I adopted last year. He is a wonderful little boy and I love him dearly. He is intelligent, athletic and great to work with (he is a border collie), but I have been at my wit's end concerning his behavior outside our home. He is way more interested in playing with other dogs, in chasing cars, in meeting other people, in anything other than me. He does do the "check-back" when we are out walking, which melts my heart. But when we are in agility class, he is way more interested in the smells and the other dogs and other people than in me and what I might be interested in him doing. I adore the fact that he enjoys life so much, and he loves everything and everybody. He has a great drive, and I don't want to do anything to diminish that. But I would love it if he would find me to be more important than all the other stuff. Someone suggested that I use Susan Garrett's "Ruff Love" program, which I read and am considering trying. I am also going to read Ms. Schade's book, now, too.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 10 2011 |

My dog stopped mid persuit after a cat and came back to me. Although, i would never let him off leash on a walk, not because I do not trust him but because there is alot of traffic and I worry he may mess up and get hurt or killed. He comes when called leaves food on the floor when I tell him to ect. We are even a pet therapy team, but I could not agree with you more. I am still working on that bond but so far so good! :)

Submitted by Fred Haney | March 2 2012 |

This is such a great topic. Obedience training is important, but you can't beat the experience of creating a special, trusting bond with your pet. I enjoyed having Victoria as a guest on the "My Doggie Says..." talk show. We've linked this article at www.mydoggiesays.com/blog.

Submitted by Jeff McMahon | July 27 2012 |

I have an eight year old rescue cattle dog mix I adopted at age two and a half. Her name is Muriel and she and I shared a connection from our first meeting. We worked quickly together to tackle all of the basics of obedience and threw in some fun tricks, like hi-five, wave, crawl, play dead, and spin. Next, we played at agility (and still do). Even though Muriel always had her own path in mind, she dutifully obeyed my verbal and nonverbal cues and today we can navigate open and excellent courses with ease (only I have trouble with where to put myself in relation to her!).

Despite "clicking" with each other in obedience and agility, it wasn't until we started K9 Nose Work that i felt a deep bond with Muriel. In K9 Nose Work I wasn't commanding Muriel to do things, I was providing an environment for her to exercise her natural hunting instinct. Here, her job was to hone her sniffing skills, and my job was to become a skilled observer of Muriel's behavior when searching.

Working with Muriel in searches, the two of us working as a team, with Muriel acting as the Sherlock Holmes to my Watson, felt like perfection. I finally found an activity where one of us was not dutifully obeying the other in order to have fun.

I feel like I understand Muriel more because of K9 Nose Work. I understand that she sees (smells) the world in ways that are too complex for me to fully grasp, and I understand that she is just as good at making decisions and communicating with me as she is at interpreting and obeying my commands. I understand that Muriel is a scenting & searching expert. I like working with an expert. We achieve great things.

Today, Muriel and I compete at the highest level in the sport of K9 Nose Work and I teach the activity to others. I just started writing about K9 Nose Work at the official K9 Nose Work blog.

Check it out: k9noseworkblog.blogspot.com

Here's to finding that special bond with your dog!

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