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.
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.
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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.”