Humans need to feel connected to others, and we sometimes bond as deeply with our dogs as we do with those of our own species. However, the flavors of human-canine bonding can vary wildly. On one end of the spectrum are those who fall in love with dogs based on their looks, personality or intelligence. On the other end are those who become attached to dogs in order to fill the holes left by emotional wounds. There probably are as many variations of this bond as there are dog owners, and any variation can be unhealthy if proper consideration is not given to providing for the dogs' needs. So, what do dogs need from us?
In order to be happy and healthy dogs need some basic necessities: food and water, shelter from the elements and a social group to bond with. However, dogs have another need that, when it is neglected, leads to many behavior problems: leadership. Left to their own devices, dogs resort to a canine way of doing things: jumping, barking, biting, chasing, soiling wherever and whenever they like, and following every prompting of their impulses. But to live alongside of humans, dogs must respect us and the boundaries we set. Simply put, they must accept us as their leaders. Here are three rules for creating a healthy leadership-based bond with your dog.
• Make your dog work for resources. If all the things your dog loves and needs are available for free, he has no reason to listen to you. The result is a spoiled dog that exhibits a pushy, demanding attitude. However, if you require your dog to work (typically, by having him obey obedience commands) for the things he needs and wants, he will learn that you are the source of all good things, and that his needs are met when he is responsive to you. The end result is a dog that wants to please you – and if a dog wants to please you, training him is simple.
• Build trust with gentle, rewarding training methods. While it is possible to force obedience using harsh methods, punishment usually compromises trust. Punishment does not make the dog want to obey you; it simply makes him afraid not to obey you. If your dog is afraid of you, his training is likely to fail when he realizes he can evade you, or when he is beyond the range of the punishment. A better approach is teaching the dog that being close to you is safe, and that obeying you is worth his while.
• Set firm, consistent boundaries. If you make your dog get off the couch twenty times and then let him stay on the couch on his next attempt, you will have succeeded in teaching him that, with enough persistence, jumping on the couch eventually becomes rewarding. When your dog exhibits an unwanted behavior, mark that behavior with a “no,” and redirect him into a more acceptable behavior. In the above example, you might quickly make the dog get off the couch and then have him rest on a nearby dog bed. Once you set boundaries of any kind, it is important to consistently enforce them. While dogs may probe the boundaries many times, most learn to respect them once they become convinced the boundaries have changed permanently.
If you follow these principles, your dog will learn to respect and trust you, as well as adhere to the rules you establish. When this happens, you will enjoy a mutually fulfilling bond with your best friend.
About the writer: Thomas Aaron is a certified dog training instructor and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC in Denver, Colorado. He is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement training, believing it provides the most humane path to a well-trained dog and nurtures an appropriate and strong bond between people and their dogs. He has trained hunting hounds since childhood and currently specializes in off-leash obedience training, behavior modification and positive gun dog training.