Before I started my dog training course, I asked other trainers for their opinion as I experienced many points of friction with my dog Zazu. Zazu struggled to find his way in a world dominated by humans, in other words, he found it difficult to behave in the way that humans want dogs to behave. At the time, I didn't know how to help him relax in his environment.
I thought I had done something wrong and
wasn't looking after my dog well
Zazu developed leash aggression and showed strong hunting behavior.
If the leash was off, my dog was gone for several hours. Overall, he used every opportunity to get away, even when a door was not closed properly. Back then, I was told by several dog trainers that Zazu and I didn’t have a “good” relationship with each other. Every time I heard this I broke into tears, of course I thought I had done something wrong and wasn't looking after my dog well. But since various training methods with Zazu didn't work, I decided to find out what works best for me, firstly by figuring out what a “good” relationship even means and what Zazu and I need in order to be happy in our partnership.
Several questions came up here:
- How do you define a good relationship?
- How can you go from a good relationship to a strong relationship?
- What are the characteristics of it and how can I maintain or even strengthen it?
- What does my dog really need to feel safe and secure around me?
- And of course, the question, does hunting behaviour reflect a “bad” relationship with the owner?
How do you define a good relationship?
In essence, a relationship describes the interaction between two individuals in a broader sense. We enter a relationship with someone because, from a practical point of view, it gives us a mutual advantage. Together we can solve certain tasks faster or master situations better than alone. Different things influence the development of a relationship between two individuals, including between a human and a dog.
A bond doesn’t magically happen, on the contrary, we have to take action to develop a high-quality relationship with our dog. The model of Seewiesen was created as part of several workshops held over a few years at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen, Germany. It refers to certain ‘bonding promoters’ that can have a significant impact on building social relationships. These include attraction, familiarity and trust, tolerability and the availability of both relationship partners.
In the context of human-dog relationship, the following can be taken from this:
- Attraction - A good relationship is based on mutual attraction between the two relationship partners. Leadership competencies by humans, such as fair and consistent behaviour towards the dog increase that attraction. The emotional stability of a person is important here, given that I can only communicate well with my dog if I am calm. Doing intensive and diverse activities together, like fun walks, social games or even physical contact while lying down (e.g., cuddling together) contribute positively to the formation of a relationship bond.
- Trust and reliability - The dog should experience predictable behaviour by humans. That way the dog learns that he can trust people.
- Tolerance level - Every human character does significantly influence the dog's character building and his style of attachment. Humans should therefore be able to constantly self-reflect on their own behaviour and recognize the impact they have on the dog’s behaviour and, if necessary, adapt to it. Dogs support us a lot in our personal development, but we should be considerate and not overwhelm them.
- Availability - The availability of the dog owner adds an important component to the quality of the relationship. Ideally there are several partners available for the dog who can take care of him in a crisis situation.
In addition, a good relationship is enhanced by being open to reconciliation. With an honest apology to my dog, I can show them how important the relationship is to me. Vice versa, I can be welcoming when my dog approaches me after a conflict and thus, I can give a signal of reconciliation to him. If the factors mentioned above are taken into account and incorporated into our everyday life with dogs, we can build a stable relationship with them. In return, we can also ask our dog to do something for us, which our experience has shown they are very happy to do.
So, a relationship is hard work, but it's definitely worth it!
But how do we turn a good relationship into a strong bond? And is attachment always beneficial?And is attachment always beneficial?
Attachment is characterized by an emotional component and builds when the other is no longer replaceable, i.e., it is exclusive. A “good” or “bad” attachment is not the right term here in a behavioural biological sense, there is either a tendency towards a “secure” or “less secure” form of attachment.
The model of the four-leaf clover (Gansloßer & Kitchenham 2015) explains the four aspects that characterize bonding and are of great importance when dealing with dogs:
- Seeking proximity - Handlers and dogs like to stay close to each other, voluntarily, or at least they try to be in each other’s company whenever possible. This applies even if there is some distance involved, for example through eye contact during a walk. In order to create a secure relationship with your dog, it is necessary to be attentive and not only allow possible contact, but also to encourage it. This can be done, for example, by smiling or nodding in the direction of your dog. Dogs often look at their humans for direction, but if the human suppresses or ignores this desire for proximity and bonding too often (even if it is unintentional), it can lead to an insecure relationship in extreme cases.
- Separation anxiety - A secure attachment is demonstrated by the dog’s behaviour during separation, once the human leaves. This does not mean that the dog displays anxious behaviour, showing fear or panic. However, due to the exclusivity of the bond, behavioural problems can occur here. After the initial protest phase (e.g., howling/barking or searching for the owner), a phase of depression can occur, demonstrated by the dog eating less or not at all, behaving passively and/or mourning. Of course, this is not what I want for my dog when I leave the house to go shopping or visit the cinema. Staying alone should therefore be trained slowly and patiently with the dog, so that it can experience and learn that the human always returns and that there is no reason to worry. In addition to that, as a dog owner, I should definitely think about whether it is right for my dog to have only one exclusive handler. Something can always happen and especially then it is important to have someone who can take good care of my dog instead of me, without him feeling bad. But if the dog does not care at all when the human leaves the door, that could also be an indication of an insecure relationship.
- A solid foundation -In the presence of the handler/owner, more discovery and curiosity are shown. The dog can explore its environment in peace and simply be a dog, since humans give him the security to do so. So, I am allowed to give my dog the space to be independent and to accompany him. Dogs that follow people everywhere, also at home, show insecurity. But if my dog can move away from me while I’m there and explore its surroundings, it is a “secure” bond.
- A safe space - Another basic requirement for a safe bond is receiving social support. In crisis or stressful situations, I should definitely take care of my dog, meaning my dog can hide behind me and I send other dogs away or that I sit next to him during a thunderstorm and soothe him through physical touch. Whatever it is, if my dog asks for my help, I shouldn’t ignore it under any circumstances, as it can impact our relationship significantly in a negative way.
It is important that those aspects are balanced.
As a dog owner, I should make sure that seeking proximity (eye contact or looking for guidance in humans) and basic security (the dog's exploratory behavior) balance each other out to some extent. Elli H. Radinger and Günther Bloch (2016) summarized it as follows:
"Nevertheless, the quality of the bond between humans and dogs must not only be characterized by mutual respect, consideration and attention, but also by occasional distance and separation".
Only when all four aspects are equally important for a partner, then we can speak of a secure attachment. If I enjoy living together with my dog and at the same time do my best to understand his needs, solve problems together and take on a supportive role in difficult situations, then I am well on the way to having a strong relationship with my dog.
In addition to a secure form of attachment, there are other styles.
Originally these are taken from mother-child psychology, but they can also be transferred to the human-dog relationship.
- Anxious, ambivalent – a dog with this style of attachment experiences constantly inner conflict between approach and distance (ambivalence), sometimes they even show aggressive behaviour towards humans. Often, these dogs have experienced inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour towards them as well as permanent human control. So, it is necessary that, I as the owner, become predictable for my dog and that he can learn to rely on me.
- Avoidant, dismissive - dogs with this style of attachment often show no separation anxiety and develop what is known as "pseudo-independence" (Gansloßer & Kitchenham 2015). They behave as if they could take care of everything themselves, based on having received little social support from humans and / or their attempts to gain proximity were often ignored in the past. It would be important here, that these dogs are allowed to learn how to get close to their humans again, instead of being ignored or punished for mistakes.
- Disorganized - These dogs do not display a consistent strategy of any behaviour. Even in a quick moment where the dog reacts to the owner leaving them, strange behaviours or even stereotypes can suddenly occur, the dog is unpredictable and switches back and forth between behaving one way or the other. They seem to be under stress all the time. More often than not, these dogs have been generally neglected and may not have experienced any security in their lives.
Just because something is that way, it doesn't mean it must stay that way
For me, it was very helpful to get to know all forms of attachment, as I was able to classify Zazu and myself correctly and thus work on shifting towards a secure form of attachment. Just because something is that way, it doesn't mean it must stay that way. The experiences we make when bonding and the quality of the bond shape us and our dogs, but certainly these paradigms can be changed. Dogs always live in the present and react immediately to our changes. As dog owners, whenever we are ready, we can make the decision to change something in the way we treat our dog and to improve our relationship with them. Our dogs certainly are ready!
because life with a dog is an everlasting adventure and offers constant room for growth
And last but not least -
of course Zazu and I have worked on all of these aspects together over the past few years in order to deepen and strengthen our relationship. It is important to note however, that hunting behaviour has little to do with a secure or insecure bond between a dog and their owner, because other factors such as genetics and upbringing also play a role here. Being a husky-pointer-greyhound mix, it was clear that my dog would be motivated to hunt. But by working together with him and above all by listening to what we want from each other, we have now found a common ground. To satisfy Zazu's passion for racing we practice various dog pulling sports together, such as canicross and bikejoring. On our walks, Zazu is attached to a 15 m leash and instead of running after wild animals like crazy, we take the time to observe them and follow their tracks. We have started to communicate and discuss what makes our relationship more harmonious every day. But we are still far from the end, because life with a dog is an everlasting adventure and offers constant room for growth.