As a dog walker in Newcastle, my co-workers are always hearing me say “Once you’ve established relationship, you can let him off.” But what does this mean, and how can you go about building relationship with your dog? In this case, relationship is not so much about feeling (though feeling often follows), but about connection and responsiveness that goes both ways. I’m sure we have all watched the dancing dogs at crufts, or an obedience champion heeling, or even a shepherd’s dog, working to move the herd. Each of these dogs have one thing in common, they are keenly aware of their humans desires, and move quickly to respond. Sometimes, by comparison, our own dogs may seem shut down, bored, stubborn, dull or selectively deaf. And the truth is, that they quite possibly are!
The history of the human and dog bond
Over many tens of thousands of years, dogs have worked alongside humans, fulfilling roles from sheep herder to guard dog, vermin slayer to game retriever. They have given sight by proxy to the blind, and hearing by proxy to the deaf. They have been companions to lonely children, indispensable to busy farmers and learned all kinds of skills from fetching the shopping to water rescue, in the fulfillment of their bond with people. However, in our modern society, where most of us work and many dogs spend long periods alone, a dog’s life is often alien to the instinctive nature of the dog. They have evolved to be the perfect partner to humanity, sharing in the moment by moment bustle of our working lives, then pottering with us, resting with us and even sharing food with us. The understanding between human and dog, of what is needed – or wanted – was mutually present and beneficial. There was relationship, or ‘bonding’ as we sometimes call it.
But somehow, within the space of less than a hundred years, our expectation of our dogs has changed. We need them to be happy on their own, to thrive on two or three walks a day and not much else in the way of shared endeavour. Think on it for a moment… even the concept of ‘walking the dog’ is a contrived tool that we needed to invent, because our dogs are no longer allowed to be part of our daily living. Because they lacked natural exercise of brain and body, we had to start “taking them out” for a walk. Is it any wonder than many of our dogs are lost to us, no longer truly engaged in our lives. It used to be the scraps from our table that our dogs enjoyed, but sadly, now it is often the scraps from our busy schedule that they receive.
However, apart from those who are deeply damaged by the traumas of their past, most dogs are still primed (in an evolutionary sense) to engage with us. It’s us humans who have pushed them out of our living, but most are desperate to re-engage. So how can you go about building relationship with your dog? And is it still possible, for you to improve your bond with your dog, even if they are an adult? In almost every case, the answer to this is a resounding “Yes!” Lets go for it.
What kind of behaviours will stop you building relationship with your dog?
So we’ll start with the things that tend to reduce the bond or damage the relationship between human and dog, and in the extreme, can cause a dog to really shut down. These include, expressed anger and aggression, harsh treatment, physical punishment, exclusion, inconsistency of expectation and the lack of a lot of good stuff like exercise, play, stimulation, fun, time and attention. What does this dog look like? Distant, stubborn, bored and he comes across as not very clever or responsive. He ignores commands (selective deafness), and is often difficult to recall. He can walk on the other end of the lead from you – and seem disinterested in you and disconnected. Do you feel your dog is untrainable? Do you feel like a facilitator (you provide him with what he needs) rather than a friend? Does it feel like there’s emotional indifference running between you?
It’s hard to think in these terms, but also important to realise that disengagement in a dog can be as much to do with a lack of what they need, as it is the result of harsh training methods and human behaviours. And “what they need” is bigger than most of us realise, in terms of our time, energy and shared experience. So on to the happy stuff…
What kind of interactions will help in building relationship with your dog?
Dogs need to feel safe. They also need to feel useful… part of the team. Anything that allows them to reside in those feelings will increase relationship. A dog feels safe when their human is consistent and inclusive. When training is positive rather than punitive, and never involves pushing the dog out of the social circle. Our dogs often spend enough time in solitary, without punishing them with more “time out”. Safety comes from living in a positive and encouraging environment, where the humans are predicable and the source of all good things. Don’t leave your dog’s food down all day for them to pick at. If your dog doesn’t eat their meals look at the food – and allow them choice. There will be some decent food that they can enjoy; it’s simply a matter of trial and error, with a good dollop of patience thrown in. If you want to be seen as the great provider of all goodness, then your dog must associate you with a meal at a predictable time that they really enjoy. Yes… food is *that*important!
Feeling useful and part of the team is fed by inclusive behaviours. Rather than routinely leaving your dog at home when you go out, try to think of ways to allow them to come to. Most dogs can enjoy an evening at a pub, and loads of eating places now allow dogs, including a recent upsurge of dog cafes! Did you know that it is roughly 3 times as tiring for a dog to be mentally challenged with ‘work’, than is is to be out walking. That means that 15 minutes of challenging brain games, is as effective at tiring a dog, as a 45 minute walk! For most dogs, walking should be a part of the whole though, as physical exercise is important too, but remember; they can get this in ways other than walking.
Bonding can be greatly improved by time spent “doing fun stuff” together. Shared activity is the key here. A dog who is learning, doing agility, scenting or fly-ball is engaged and stimulated, just as a dog who is playing hide and seek, doing recall, putting their toys away with you or walking in an interactive way, is engaged and stimulated. It’s only us humans who differentiate between work and play. There’s a wonderful activities based site for dog owners that covers everything from games to herding! The link leads to the games page, but make sure you explore, as there are so many ideas there, and all dogs are individuals with different needs.
Other useful tools
Other activities that can increase relationship are positive training, treating, communicating, touch (including TTouch), grooming and spending time together. Educate yourself to better understand your dog, perhaps with a TTouch course or by studying canine body language. I would recommend the Your End if the Lead course (3rd down on the linked page), which combines TTouch with human coaching, to equip you to really work positively on your end of the lead. Here’s an example of what other people say about this course:
I’m not sure what I expected when I signed up for this course but I had hoped it would strengthen my relationship with my dogs and maybe help me develop a better understanding of my own reactions to their reactivity. I didn’t expect it to affect me the way it has, nor did I foresee that I would change so much about the way I think about, train and communicate with my dogs. I am now much calmer when out on walks and feel better able to deal with any situation which may arise. Both my dogs have benefited too. I never thought I would be able to get my fearful collie to accept TTouch, but I have actually been able to use it to help him cope with the fireworks this year. I have also been practicing the touches on my GSD and have found that, not only has it deepened our bond, but it has helped with the stiffness in her hips too.
I volunteer for a dog rescue center and had hoped that doing this course would help me improve my skills with the dogs. I’ve not been disappointed! I’ve found that by keeping myself calm I can build a better rapport with new dogs and I’ve felt more confident with them as a result. I am also putting the skills I’ve learnt into practice with these dogs, with great results – I am walking them on double clip harnesses, which has eased their anxiety and reduced pulling, and I’m successfully using Ttouch to help calm some of the more boisterous dogs. Can you tell I think the course is fantastic??
I like the fact that there are so many learning options and different resources, including videos, articles, and posting questions on the community forum. It is a much more effective way of learning than merely reading a book or trawling internet articles, because of the feedback and encouragement available. I’ve felt supported throughout and Janet has always been there to explain or advise about anything I didn’t understand. I’ve also met a lot of inspirational people and have learnt a huge amount from them. I absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of dogs. – Lindsey Maggs, Volunteer at K9focus Rescue
To wind up, lets take a quick look at what a responsive, engaged dog looks like. They will look for you and at you, even when in a highly distracting situation, and focus on watching you and matching your pace, rather than pulling out on the end of the lead. They are often listening to you, and pretty easy to recall, returning to you voluntarily and checking in. When there is a strong bond between you (it’s a mutual thing) you will both be more easily able to determine what the other wants or needs. A bonded dog is always willing to help, and they will look to you to determine what you need. There’s so much out there to help you expand your relationship with your dog. I hope you will enjoy building relationship with your dog and both have fun rediscovering each other.