Back when I was in high school, I had a friend I’ll call Sue. We were so close. Weekends, we’d lounge around in pjs and watch movies while binging on our favorite snacks, sitting in a comfortable silence that was quite sweet and cozy. In the summer after chasing down the ice cream truck, we’d kick back in my yard dipping our feet in a kiddie pool and talk about everything. In the winter months, we’d sit in my kitchen, trying out cookie recipes and laugh our bums off over private jokes to the point of tears. She and I had a lot of fun together.
All was well as long as we were on our home turf, just the two of us. It was a different story whenever we were in class, at a football game, at the mall, or at a party with other kids from school. In those circumstances, I’d often get the cold shoulder. Sue would leave me behind to join groups of kids she knew from after school activities and never bothered to introduce me. She’d either not invite me along, or, if we ran into these other kids while the two of us were out and about, she’d just leave me standing alone awkwardly. Sometimes she’d even walk about 50 feet ahead of me as we walked home from school if we ran into these other friends of hers.
Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking, wow, your friend sounds not so great; she was obviously more interested in other people than you and didn’t value your friendship that much. And, yeah, that that’s probably true. There was definitely a disconnect in our relationship.
Yet so many people accept this same sort of behavior from their dog. It makes me a little sad and certainly causes me to wonder about the quality of relationship when I see this sort of disconnection between dog and owner, such as a person who is staring at their phone screen while their dog runs willy-nilly either ignoring, or worse, blowing off their owner at every turn for things as exciting as another dog’s butt or as inconsequential as a leaf blowing in the wind.
Aren’t dogs supposed to be our best friends?
Yes, a dog makes for an excellent best friend, but just as with any other relationship, it’s important to invest in strengthening the bond.
There are many ways to do this, such a creating a positive emotional response by teaching your dog to like your touch, the sound of your voice calling their name, and to look forward to being in close proximity to you. Hand-feeding your pup, especially when you first meet, but even say, once a week for life, does a lot to jump start (and maintain) bonding.
Daily rituals are another great way to connect with your dog. For example, do five minutes of trick training before feeding each meal, as there is no real fun in just dumping food in a bowl. If you are doing that, you’re missing a fabulous opportunity to make feeding time fun time. Or consider taking your pup for at least two short leash walks a day for their primary potty breaks and literally stop to smell the roses together, rather than just letting Fido out in the yard or unleashing him at the dog park.
Speaking of dog parks … everyone is always so concerned about their puppy or dog “socializing” with other dogs, but I am here to tell you, people are first priority in your dog’s socialization efforts. Reading that may surprise you, but let me explain why.
Your dog is a dog. They already speak dog. But most dogs live with humans, a very different species indeed. So when we bring a dog into our lives, a lot of what we must do, if we want them to live with us successfully, is teach them how to fit into our human environment. We know they can bond with other dogs, but we’ve got to make an effort if we want them to have the same sort of deep connection with us. Proper pup socialization to prepare them to live among humans isn’t about running wild with a pack of hounds; rather it’s teaching our pups to not greet nor shy away from passersby on the street or trail, be they dog or human — to just pass by, neutrally. It’s teaching our dogs to enjoy walking by our sides and to come joyfully when called, because they prefer our company over anything else.
It takes two to tango, and your dog will just follow their instinct and your lead, so don’t disconnect at the dog park. Put down your phone and don’t rely on other dogs to provide your pup with a social life. Play interactive games such as tug, hide and seek, or fetch. Practice these games at home at first, as part of your daily rituals as mentioned above. Teach your dog that playing with you is the most fun thing ever. Both of your lives will be richer and rewarding when you take the time to really connect with your furry friend. Isn’t that what life with dog is all about?
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by alexei_tm / iStock