Bonding with Dogs–or Not

If you had a superpower, what would it be? I know people whose answer might be, “I can whip up an amazing meal in ten minutes, regardless of what’s in the fridge” or, “I can run for ten miles without getting tired.” Mine would be, “I can bond with any dog in .5 seconds.” Okay, maybe it’s not such a unique superpower—many of us seem to have the ability. And it’s especially easy to bond with puppies. One gaze of those big, brown eyes and you’re lost: the oxytocin flows, your own eyes go soft, and very soon, high-pitched baby talk is flowing from your lips unbidden.

I’ve never, ever had a problem feeling closeness with a dog in a very short amount of time. So imagine my surprise when we first got Bodhi and I felt…a lot of nothing, unless you count apprehension. My husband and I had adopted Bodhi from a shelter at roughly 1-1.5 years of age. He’d been given up by a college guy who “couldn’t afford his upkeep,” and it was obvious that he’d never had training in manners or anything else. I’ve written before about how Bodhi’s anxiety and lack of manners was so bad at first that he’d jump up and mouth us in a disturbing, desperate fashion any time we tried to cross a room. He was also terribly destructive. And he lunged and barked at other dogs. Also, he and Sierra’s play would escalate into aggression all too often. I could go on.

It took a very long time for me to feel true affection for Bodhi. Although I felt bad about it, it was understandable; the dog had turned our lives upside down, and not in a good way. The whole subject of non-bonding got me thinking about some of my group class students in years past. Over time, I’d heard too many owners make comments about their dogs such as, “He’s stupid” or “She’s stubborn.” There seemed to be a direct correlation between the strength of the owner’s certainty that the dog was disagreeable in some way, and the size of the emotional gulf between them. If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we’ve got to admit that it can be easier to love a being who is easy-going, affectionate, cute, and so on, rather than one who’s anxious, destructive, ill-mannered, and worse. And yes, that applies to both dogs and people.

No caring owner wants to go through life feeling distant from their dog. But the solution is simpler than you might think: You’ve got to stop being at odds and form a team. How that happens is up to you, but an excellent way to start is with training. Training with gentle, positive methods necessitates interaction and communication, and working together to achieve goals. In the process, you and your dog learn each others’ signals, what makes the other happy, and what causes stress. You begin a fluid dance of cooperation and communication that leads to feelings of pride, accomplishment and, eventually, togetherness.

Another great way to encourage bonding is to engage in dog sports. It doesn’t matter what the sport is—agility, Rally, and nosework are all wonderful, among others—so much as the fact that you’re learning a new skill together and working as a team to make it successful. The shared hurdles and little victories can’t help but bring you and your furry teammate closer. And it’s hard to feel distant from a dog as you proudly relate to your friends or spouse the accomplishments of the day.

Even if you don’t want to be involved in dog sports, and training is something that only seems to happen every now and then, you can still spend quality time together. Getting out with your dog for long hikes or walks around your neighborhood offers another opportunity to build closeness. Instead of watching the clock, watch your dog. Notice the things he likes to do. Does he keep his nose down, intent on the trail of critters? Does she wag with delight at the approach of other dogs or people? Observing what makes your dog light up offers the chance to learn more about who she really is. And understanding what makes another being tick is often the first step to true bonding.

When you can’t seem to bond with a particular dog, it’s easy to feel that something is wrong with you, or to believe that something is wrong with the dog. Either way, don’t wait for fondness to magically manifest with the passage of time. Be proactive. Find things you can do together. Maybe our collective superpower is that regardless of our emotional state, we can still make the effort to do what’s best for our dogs, and ultimately, for our relationship with them.


16 Responses to Bonding with Dogs–or Not

  1. Malamute Mom says:

    Well said, Nicole. I completely agree. Having had two dogs who came to me with dog-dog issues and having worked for years with cc/ds, these were the dogs with whom I’ve had the most amazing bonds. You work together and become so in touch with every movement and response. You truly become a team. The rewards of your efforts become very powerful and rich. I believe one also gains a greater understanding for the cause of their issues which gives one real compassion for what they weren’t given in their puppyhood. It can be a long road, but the process brings forth an amazing relationship. Thank you for this post.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Pat,
      Thanks for bringing up the point that sometimes the dogs you have the most trouble bonding with are the ones you end up having the closest bond with–and it makes sense, since you typically go through so much together. Still waiting for that to happen with Bodhi , but it sure is a good lesson in patience.
      Take care,

  2. It’s unfortunate that people just don’t invest the time necessary. I have a puggle who is now 6 years old. When I first got him at 8 weeks old he was the worst puppy ever lol. He didn’t just “puppy bite” he bit with a vengeance. You couldn’t even walk past him without him attaching himself to your ankle bone. So I called a family meeting and said even though he was just about the cutest puppy ever he had some behavioral issues that needed to be addressed immediately. Of course one would think that a family that lives with a behavior specialist and trainer would be 100% on board – not! I found myself feeling resentful and regretting taking him in the first place. You couldn’t pet him, hug him and sometimes not even touch him without him biting. He would get “that look” just before he bit. I had actually thought to re-home him and then realized that I was more capable than anyone to counter this behavior. Finally I took myself out of being Joey’s “mommy” and went into professional mode. I invested a lot of time into “puppy basics”, socialization with our other dogs and with adults and bite inhibition. I finally got the biting under control and introduced him to kids. Joey was a rescue from a puppy mill and I still think to this day that he is just a little off. However, he has turned into the sweetest, most cuddly dog ever. He’s wonderful with kids and with other dogs. His only problem still is that he can smell a scrap of food tied up in 15 plastic bags and will do a running leap for the kitchen garbage pail! I think I’ll keep him because he has become the best “pillow” I have ever had.

  3. […] Bonding with Dogs–or Not. Trainer Nicole Wilde reflects on that emotional challenge of not “bonding” with a dog instantaneously. This was encouraging to read. For the first few weeks we had Pyrrha, I didn’t feel really bonded to her–and I felt really guilty about that. My deep and sincere attachment to her has, of course, grown over time, but it’s nice to hear someone admit that it’s not always immediate. (Wilde About Dogs) […]

  4. LisaH says:

    I fell in love with my 1st dog instantly, and the intensity, the fascination, & joy w/him hasn’t lessened in 5 years, but I didn’t have that immediate intense bond w/my 2nd dog. I absolutely love her and care for her but its not quite the same. She hasn’t any behavioral issues of significance so its not that & we interact hours per day, walks, cuddling, training, agility, etc. so its not lack of time or effort. She is very sweet and biddable. I’ve found that probably the easiest way to increase our bond is when I take her with me on out town trips w/o the other dog and we have entirely 1:1 time together.

  5. Carmen says:

    Thank you, Nicole. From the bottom of my heart. I have been having a very difficult time bonding with my new one and half year old dog whom I adopted from the local shelter as a German Shepherd/Pincher mix and who acted nothing like either breed. She had gone through six owners before I found her…. I just could never walk enough, play enough, do anything enough, and felt like I wasn’t doing the dog justice. By chance (?) a person stopped me during a walk and asked “where did you get your Kelpie?” and I went home and googled it and then contacted breeders. Sure enough — the new dog is a purebred Australian Kelpie who wants nothing more than to herd sheep all day long. It all clicked for me. Now, I play games with her, throw the frisbee (I am learning :-), my walks are now less about the distance covered but the movement, and we are working on our communication. I contacted a trainer and will meet her next week. Maybe agility? Just got a bike, too. Don’t know, but I am much more optimistic about our future together. Thanks so much for writing about this difficult subject — I was relieved to see that I wasn’t alone. You do so much for all of us, dogs and their guardians alike: Thank you! Carmen in Germany

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Carmen,
      Thank YOU for being the kind of owner that hangs in there to find out what motivates her dog, even though you were having a difficult time bonding. I’m so glad you found out that she’s a Kelpie! As far as activities, what about the new sport of Treibball? It actually originated in Germany and is becoming very popular here in the States. In case you aren’t familiar, it’s like herding but with giant balls instead of sheep. I bet you’d both love it. Here’s the link to the American association for more info, but I’m guessing there’s one in Germany as well. 🙂
      Take care,

  6. Carmen says:

    That’s a great idea! I checked if there were any trainers around here that teach it, but this part of Northern Germany is normally behind the curve. Doesn’t matter. I can get a training video and a few balls and just teach her myself. Fantastic! Thanks so much!

  7. Matthew says:

    I know in my case, my bond with my dog is very tight. my wife claims “obsessed”. But I have been working for close to 3 years now on his dog/dog and dog/human fear driven aggression. HUGH, HUGH progress has been made, but his energy levels, the amount of attention he needs in order to meet his mental and physical needs, the training etc. has all taken hours of book learning/DVD watching, learning to read him, learning what to do in order to help him. When X do LAT, When Y do “watch me”, When Z run away…

    In my wife’s case, she has had a real hard time with him. after getting him and after his issues manifested, she shared with me that she had been attacked as a child by a dog. his VERY over the top “aggressive” behavior (he is a bluffer thank god, verse an actual desire to fight) is VERY unsettling for her. So her ability to be “excited” about him and bond with him and want to take him for walks and learn to train him…all went right out the window once he came out of “new home shock” and started displaying OVER the top reactive behavior.

    Me…all it took was learning he was driven by fear and low confidence to be able to get past his behavior.

    There was a time I was saying NEVER again. But today..I have to say I would very much consider another “project” dog. you learn so much and you really (or at least I seem to) bond with the dog as you become a team. Getting to watch my dog progress to the point he is now able to give a couple dogs in the neighborhood who are also VERY fearful and reactive some good experiences with another dog, learning he has inspired at least two other people to work with their fearful dog, watching him not care about 85-90% of the dogs we pass etc…all makes it soooooo worth while to have worked with him. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  8. Rebecca Rice says:

    I will say that this post touched a cord with me. I have been working with Katie for two years now, since she is a “generally anxious, sound-phobic” dog. It hasn’t been easy, but we do have a deep bond. And then I brought home Pixie, a little rat terrier, which is a breed known for bonding strongly with their owner. And I felt guilty for how much easier it was to bond with Pixie. Having a dog that WANTS to be snugged up tight against you, that dances with excitement when you walk through the door, that jumps in your lap while watching tv… all of that is so much easier to bond with than a dog where you have to go find her, sit by her but not touching, and gently pet. But Pixie is rubbing off on her… Katie is getting bolder about going on walks, and coming to greet me (restrained and politely, which is a nice change from Pixie’s somewhat over-the-top method) when I get home, etc. So, it is about finding things that work, and not beating yourself up too much about how you feel.

  9. Michaela says:

    This week’s This American Life had a back to school special. One of the things they talked about was a new program in Chicago that helped mothers bond with their kids, and the way they did that is by showing the mothers how to teach their kids something. As the kid learned something, the mother’s assumption of the child’s intelligence grew. It sounds like the same instinct at work as the owner that thinks the dog is “stupid” when she hasn’t worked with the dog at all. The episode:

  10. Kristen says:

    Nicole, first I’d like to thank you for your blog and your books. I appreciate that you talk about your own difficulties as well as your successes. As the “owner” of a troubled dog (Cane Corso with fear aggression that we brought home from the shelter when he was about 18 months), it’s easy to feel like we are just doing everything wrong. And so many websites, videos, etc. (regardless of which school of dog training they come from) make it sound like you can instantly cure any dog behavior with the right technique. So I find it encouraging that even you have bad days! Anyway, with regard to the bonding issue, I think it’s also because when the dog misbehaves, it sows doubt. Can I do this? Do I want to do it? Can he be rehabilitated? If so, will we manage before there’s an accident? And there’s also fatigue, psychological and physical. I started blogging about our giant, but terrifying puppy (he really acts like a giant baby with us) to help deal with the psychological issues, but have also found relief through:
    * Installing extra tall pet gates between rooms so we can keep him away from scary guests without his being deprived of our company in the way he would behind a closed door.
    * Finding a boarding place specialized in mastiffs that is willing to take him despite his issues. It’s a bit more expensive than most boarding places, but they only take 5 dogs at a time and make sure they get lots of exercise and playtime with similar dogs. (My play-crazy giant is frustrated beyond belief at the local park since most of the dogs are small and afraid of his overgrown puppy antics.) Having time a way can be really helpful and also let’s us remember how much we miss him when he’s gone.
    By the way, your book on separation anxiety was a godsend after his arrival. We worked really hard to get him through it, and now he can stay alone for long periods if necessary. Thanks!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Kristen,
      Thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad the separation anxiety book was helpful as well. I give you a lot of credit for hanging in there, I know how the problems can seem endless. I too feel frustration that so many websites and trainers promise instant gratification, when behavior modification is a processing, and sometimes an ongoing one. Thank you for pointing out how having resources like the boarding place and the gates can offer relief from the mental exhaustion. Keep up the great work. Your Cane Corso is lucky to have you. 🙂
      Take care,

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