The Human-Animal Bond is the connection between a human and a pet and includes the development of emotional attachment to that pet, with genuine feelings of affection and a sense of responsibility for their well-being.
Considering dogs and humans are two very powerful predatory species, it is remarkable that we have a bond at all, but the fact that we can live together in relative harmony is a testament not only to us, but also the dog’s amazing ability to adapt, which has made them the most successful domestic species on the planet.
It is not necessarily true that only the fittest survive. Survival depends on how a living thing adapts to a changing environment or situation and dogs have adapted for centuries as they have evolved with us. Unlike the dog’s common ancestor – the grey wolf – domestic dogs are able to cope with novelty. The dog in your home copes with new things every day – a person coming into your house, a new dog on the street, different sights and sounds he experiences on a car journey. Most dogs live very successfully in a human domestic environment and their adaptive skills have been enhanced through selective breeding.
Attachment theory has shown the life-long need for humans to have close affectional bonds. Animals are like human infants in their need for attachment, and are affected by separation and loss. The bond with a pet is part of the inner working model of attachment and family relationships for humans, and a pet is particularly needed when someone is going through a tough time. Affection and bonds between pets and their people are shown to be as strong as those between a human parent and a child. The perception of a broken bond leads to increased neediness on the part of the individual that perceives this.
Evidence of social bonding with our pets is more obvious than ever. We call our dogs our children and refer to ourselves as mum and dad. We celebrate our dogs’ birthdays and buy them presents. We spend thousands of pounds a year on food, supplies, clothes and other services. This is the modern way we show love to our animals, but the human-animal bond has existed throughout our history of cohabitating.
Building a bond with a new puppy or adult dog is more important to begin with than teaching cues, such as sit, come and stay, because the relationship you build with a dog at the beginning of her life with you, builds a solid foundation for everything else in your future together. If your dog is playful, play the games she loves. If she loves smelling things, take her out to walk and sniff. The more you are connected with being the source of pleasant, fun things, the more your dog will want to be with you and the quicker she will respond when you start teaching her life skills.
The bond can also be strengthened by knowing what your dog needs and wants from you and seeing if your own expectations match those needs. Finding common ground with your dog ensures a more harmonious relationship, and once you have a better idea of expectations, you can focus on behaviors and skills you want your dog to learn.
We all have different needs and wants including the need for safety, security, love, choice, food, water and companionship. Our dogs have the same biological needs as us in that they also need to be safe, find shelter, eat food, drink water, socially bond with their own and other species, sleep, play, and have the choice to make certain decisions. But are there other things you could give your dog that matches your needs and enhances the bond between you?
If you asked your dog to write a list of everything she needed, what do you think she would ask for? I know my dog Jasmine needs similar things to me – food, water, companionship, love and shelter – but her wants are quite different. I think she would tell me that she loves when I put food in her toys, that she wants to sit up high, chase every chipmunk and squirrel she sees, avoid strange people touching her, play fetch and roll in dead animal carcass without me bathing her afterwards.
You can do this exercise with your own dog and see if any of his needs and wants match yours. Does your dog need love and companionship? Does he want to have fun and play? Do you want your dog to be a good walking and exercise partner? Do you want him to have the confidence to be left alone for short periods of time without chewing or toileting in the house? Do you need your dog to be friendly?
We ask a lot from our dogs and sometimes we don’t realize the pressure we put on them to be perfect. We don’t want our furniture to be chewed on, our shoes to be eaten, or for our dogs to beg while we are eating, even though chewing is a puppy’s favorite pastime and dogs spend most of their lives being hungry. Dogs don’t know that they cannot toilet in the home unless they are taught. Eliminating outside comes with all kinds of dangers and discomforts, especially when a dog has to go in the rain or when the ground is burning from the hot sun, but many people are oblivious to these behavior altering obstacles.
I often see people running in my neighborhood with panting dogs trailing on the lead behind them, but did they ask if their dog likes running or did they make sure that their dog had the stamina to run with them before they started? A dog’s pace is very different from a human’s and running slower or trying to keep up might be uncomfortable for them.
So while there are similarities in what both dogs and people need and want, we obviously want very different things, and unless we negotiate from both perspectives, we are likely to have problems. To avoid any issues, start thinking about your dog’s needs and wants right from the start and be sensitive to what he is trying to tell you. We don’t need dogs now to survive and be happy, but domestic dogs need our care so they can be safe, and sometimes they have to negotiate tricky waters in order to do that. If dogs don’t meet human expectations, they often find themselves homeless or in a shelter wondering what happened and why the family that supposedly loved them gave them away. The bond can break very easily in many situations, but this can be prevented if time is taken to understand each other and expectations are met on both sides.