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.