1. Get out into the fresh air!
This is probably the best thing you can do with your dog, every day. When I say a “pack” walk, I don’t mean gathering together all the dogs in the neighbourhood and parading the streets. Your “pack” is just you and your dog or dogs: the family unit. Not only is exercise and adventure good for a dog’s body and brain, the shared experience, the reinforced leadership, and the opportunities for learning are all excellent ways of reinforcing the bond between you and your dogs. It’s natural for all canid species to migrate, by instinct, even if they have an established base to return to… so get regimented about walking. Unless the weather is extreme, or your dog immobile, you’ve got no excuse.
2. Use touch carefully with your dogs
Touch is a hugely misunderstood tool in canine ownership. It can feel really good to your dog, or it can feel really bad. As a result, it is always a “tool” – because it teaches your dog something. Gently stroking your dog can improve the wellbeing of both of you, yes – we’ve all seen the studies – but if they enjoy it, then it is also a reinforcer: it is saying “I am very happy with whatever you’re doing”. So, we could use it when they’re barking at a strange person, but we’d be encouraging this more than calming them down. Or, we could remind our dogs that simply lying down calmly in the home is desirable – by giving them some touch, then… it’s very easy to walk past everyday good behaviour, but it deserves rewarding!
3. Get them hyped for you with retrieval games!
If your dog is rewarded for coming back to you, then not only do they see you as a wonderful person, but they also get better at recall, a fundamental skill. Most dogs do have a bit of a chase instinct, meaning that it’s not just Labs and Goldies you can play retrieval games with. The key is to make returning to you, with the ball or frisbee, as exciting as possible – meaning that you should turn and move away to simulate the chase, once they’ve picked up the item, and double-reward them when they get to you: with food, first, to get the item released, and then again with a new chase opportunity when you throw it. Try it out – once you’ve taught the game, you’re onto a winner!
4. OBEDIENCE TRAINING
The vast majority of dogs were originally bred for working purposes. All dogs have a desire to please. Use this genetic trend to your advantage by slotting in some obedience training drills every day. You build your relationship with your dog, here, through a whole bunch of avenues: you fulfil that desire to work and to please; you build a common language between you and them; and every reward you deliver is another deposit in the bank of your relationship. Predictable reinforcement is hugely affirming for dogs – they love to know exactly how to behave, and rewarding specific behaviours takes the guesswork out of this, making for a more settled, trusting pooch.
5. BRING HAND FEEDING INTO YOUR ROUTINE
I’m going to come out and say it: if you’re having trouble with your relationship, or their behaviour, then every meal your dog eats out of a bowl is a wasted opportunity! Feeding your dog by hand teaches them incredibly clearly that the very best things in life come through you. Every piece of kibble you pass to your dog is a reinforcer, both of their current behaviour and of your position as loving leader. In the first week of training a puppy, or settling a new dog into the home, try measuring out all their food for the day into a treat pouch and delivering it by hand, during training and bonding sessions, over the course of the day – and watch your relationship flourish!
6. PUT THEM TO WORK
As we know by now, almost all dogs have a desire to work. Just like we, as humans, have a need for purpose and direction in life, so too can dogs benefit from work. Whilst some breeds were selectively bred to work independently of humans, most are collaborators. Finding jobs that you can complete WITH your dog is a massive benefit to the relationship you build. Maybe you could teach your dog to carry your bag, or the spare lead, or to pull a cart with flyers for a local event you’re involved with, or maybe your pooch is suited to therapy dog: coming with you to visit those in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and schools! Doing these jobs collaboratively is a surefire way to build a great bond.
7. SHOW THEM YOUR WORLD
Remember: socialisation is for life, not just for puppies. One of the most enjoyable ways of enhancing the connection between you and your dog is by taking it on adventures! By showing your dog the world, and guiding them through it as a trusted source of security, you signal that the world is wonderful – and you are the gatekeeper to all that wonder. Through you, all wonderful things are possible and all wonderful places accessible. The key here, of course, is to keep everything below threshold: your dog should always be comfortable and brought through things as slowly as possible – or you run the risk of this experience being the opposite!
8. SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE
A lot of people are of the impression that spending time with a dog requires constant engagement and interaction. This is far from true. Dogs need space and rest! A slow-burner of a relationship-booster is simply to spend time in the same room as your dog, filling the air with the sounds of your breathing, allowing your smell to fill the space. You are a calm and consistent presence in your dog’s life, putting them at ease and leading by example with your contented behaviour. Dogs do of course need exercise and stimulation, but in the down times, strong bonds are formed between you and them with quiet company.
9. LEAVE YOUR DOGS ALONE!
You know that saying, “distance makes the heart grow fonder”? It’s also true for dogs. Don’t take this as a suggestion that you should neglect your dog – or spend all of every day out of the house away from them. But, do make opportunities to leave your dog alone from time to time. Having time apart is healthier for attachment, meaning that your bond is one of calm mutual enjoyment of each other, rather than one fraught with anxiety and stress! On top of that, dogs deserve respect of their space and rest times, and will appreciate you all the more for giving that respect.
10. GIVE YOUR DOG A SPECIAL TREAT... ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS!
I once knew a woman who gave her dog a steak. He liked it so much that she gave him another. Before too long, her dog got a steak pie made from scratch, twice a day, every day – and probably still does. Now, we all love our dogs, but special treats are only special if they’re rare! Giving your dog a special treat every once in a while can help build the bond between you. Remember, though, of course, that a special treat is not only bonding but highly rewarding – so it’s best timed for when your dog has been particularly brilliant, or is behaving consistently in just the way you want her to.