Updated: Aug 25, 2021
The Human-Canine Bond refers to the relationship between dogs and humans. For centuries, dogs have been known as “Man’s Best Friend”, and there is an excellent reason for this. Dogs can teach us so much about how to be better human beings. They are loyal, resilient, forgiving, and offer unconditional love without judgement. Dogs don’t hold grudges; any minor conflicts are dealt with quickly, then forgotten. Imagine how much our own relationships would improve if we could be more like dogs.
As anyone who has ever shared their life with a dog will know, dogs have an uncanny ability to understand humans. Ever since our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and our dog’s wild wolf ancestors first began their symbiotic relationship, dogs have found their way into our homes and our hearts with their special ability to activate oxytocin (our bonding hormone) and stimulate our desire to take care of them. This led to humans developing close bonds with dogs even when they became less dependent on dogs to ensure their survival.
In modern times, there are still working dogs who help farmers, and there are also working dogs who help in police and military work, search and rescue, as service dogs for people with vision impairment and other disabilities, for scent and drug detection, and many other tasks. But it has become increasingly common for humans to bring dogs into their homes for the sole purpose of companionship and love.
The relationship between dogs and humans has evolved to the point where we have developed an incredible system of inter-species communication. Generally speaking, most people can understand their own dog’s body language and vocalisations, knowing which bark means “I’m hungry” which bark means “Stranger Danger” and which bark means “I am so happy to see you”. Dogs also have learnt how to understand humans, reading our body language, and knowing what we mean with certain gestures (if you point at an item, most dogs will look at where you are pointing), and they have even learned to understand many words in our human language.
Even our closest relatives; chimpanzees do not have the ability to communicate with humans as effectively as dogs can.
Dogs and humans often look into each other’s eyes while interacting, an activity that increases oxytocin and serotonin in both humans and dogs, creating stronger bonds between the two species. Oxytocin is known as the love or bonding hormone, and serotonin increases feelings of happiness. Both these hormones are activated when we are looking into the eyes of our human babies, and somehow this has transferred over into our relationships with our dogs.
This process is incredibly beneficial to the health and well-being of both species, but the really amazing thing about this is that for our domestic dogs, gazing into their human’s eyes is a sign of understanding and affection, even though their wolf relatives would interpret direct eye contact as a sign of hostility. This trait probably played a critical role in the domestication of dogs, as only those dogs who could bond with humans were likely to receive care and protection. What this means is that while dogs may be closely related to the wolf, they are not wolves, but in fact their own unique species.
Outdated training techniques based on dominance theory, alphas and pack mentality just do not apply to our modern canine companions. There is no need to ban your dog from sitting on the sofa, make them wait while you walk out the door first, or Alpha Roll them if they growl at you. Dogs are not challenging us for Alpha Status or trying to be dominant over humans, and there is no need to teach them that they hold the lowest rank in the family pack (beneath adults and children). All this will achieve is creating a fearful dog who does not trust you because you are scary and unpredictable.
Dogs are not wolves, and our training techniques need to be based on understanding modern dogs, the way their brain works, and their innate needs and behaviours. Dogs need their human to be their guide and teacher, to teach them the behaviours we would like to see in a patient and positive manner, and to give them reassurance when they don’t quite understand what we are asking of them.
It is completely untrue that dogs have the desire to challenge their owner for pack leadership. Issues with resource guarding, growling and biting have nothing to do with dominance, and everything to do with the dog not being listened to or understood. Understanding how to read your dog’s body language, learning how to communicate with them effectively, and respecting their need for space is an important aspect of resolving these issues.
Punishing your dog for communicating with you, or for displaying any innate behaviours (for example digging or resource guarding) can lead to even more serious problems with anxiety and reactivity, and if your dog is showing any signs of either, I strongly encourage you to find a force free trainer, or a Certified Veterinary Behaviourist to support you both as you work on building up confidence and resilience for your dog, and learn how to find the motivating tools that will make your dog want to co-operate with you, whether that is treats, toys, your attention, or something else.
Remember that most behaviours have a purpose. Your dog is never just being naughty or spiteful. Whenever you find yourself thinking that your dog is misbehaving, try changing your mindset, and instead ask yourself what your dog is trying to communicate or what they might be struggling with. By doing this and understanding the emotion behind the behaviour, you will be able to help your dog with their feelings, and work through the issues they are struggling with.
Life with a dog can be full of challenges, but the love, loyalty and companionship they provide us with is absolutely priceless. We owe it to our dogs to truly learn to understand them, communicate effectively, and provide them with opportunities to “Be Dogs”. Too often, dogs are expected to fit into our lives and our homes, be friendly to strange humans, other dogs and all sorts of animals, never growl, or bark, or dig, and to just magically understand how we want them to behave, even when our training is confusing or inconsistent. Humans make all the decisions about when dogs are allowed to eat and how often they are fed, and if or when they are allowed to engage in normal dog behaviours such as digging, running, barking and playing.
When we understand that modern dogs have inherited many wild instincts from their wild wolf ancestors, but unlike their ancestors, modern dogs have very little choice or control in their lives, we can begin to find ways to give them some choice and autonomy, and the opportunity to express their natural and innate behaviours in a safe and appropriate manner, which will help them to live happier and more fulfilled lives, and strengthen the bond between you, thus creating a loving and co-operative relationship.
©Rebeca Mas 2021
If you would like to know more about how to strengthen the bond with your canine companion, you can read this blog, or click here to purchase your copy of Sniff Play Bark – Your Essential Guide to a Happier Dog.