Bonding with Your Dog—Are You Doing it Properly?

Desi And Dog

Bonding develops stronger and more readily in stressful situations. SAR handlers and their dogs have probably some of the strongest bonds we witness between the two species. Photo: Désirée Mallè, Alpine Rescue Team, and her dog.

Bonding in animal behavior is a biological process in which individuals of the same or different species develop a connection. The function of bonding is to facilitate co-operation.

Cat and rabbit (photo by Mark Taylor).

Cat and rabbit (photo by Mark Taylor).

Parents and offspring develop strong bonds so that the former take care of the latter and the latter accept the teachings of the former. This serves both parties best. As a result of filial bonding, offspring and parents or foster parents develop an attachment. This attachment ceases to be important once the juvenile reaches adulthood, but may have long-term effects upon subsequent social behavior. Among domestic dogs, for example, there is a sensitive period from the third to the tenth week of age, during which normal contacts develop. If a puppy grows up in isolation beyond about fourteen weeks of age, it will not develop normal relationships.

Males and females of social species develop strong bonds during courtship motivating them to care for their progeny, so they increase their chances of the survival of 50% of their genes.

Social animals develop bonds by living together and having to fend for their survival day after day. Grooming, playing, mutual feeding, all have a relevant role in bonding. Intense experiences do too. Between adults, surviving moments of danger together seems to be strongly bonding.

Rabbit and kitten (photo by Mark Taylor).

Rabbit and kitten (photo by Mark Taylor).

Bonding behavior like grooming and feeding seems to release neurotransmitters (e.g., oxytocin), which lowers innate defensiveness, increasing the chances of bonding.

We often mention bonding together with imprinting. Even though imprinting is bonding, not all bonding is imprinting. Imprinting describes any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. Some animals appear to be preprogrammed to learn about certain aspects of the environment during particular sensitive phases of their development. The learning is pre-programmed in the sense that it will occur without any obvious reinforcement or punishment.

Our dogs in our domestic environments develop bonds in various ways. Grooming, resting with each other, barking together, playing and chasing intruders are strong bonding behaviors. Their bonding behavior is by no means restricted to individuals of their own species. They bond with the family cat as well and with us, humans.

Bonding is a natural process that will inevitably happen when individuals share responsibilities. Looking into one another’s eyes is only bonding for a while, but surviving together may be bonding for lifetime—and this applies to all social animals, dogs and humans included.

We develop stronger bonds with our dogs by doing things together rather than by just sitting and petting them. These days, we are so afraid of anything remotely connected with stress that we forget the strongest bonds ever originate under times of intense experiences. A little stress doesn’t harm anyone, quite the contrary. I see it every time I train canine scent detection. The easier it is, the quickest it will be forgotten. A tough nut to crack, on the other hand, is an everlasting memory binding the parties to one another.

I even suspect one of the reasons we have so many divorces these days is that we want everything to be easy and oh so pleasant that in the end, there’s nothing holding the two together—but that’s another story for maybe another time. Meanwhile, ponder and enjoy the photos from the great animal photographer Mark Taylor.

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.

Author: Roger Abrantes

Born in Portugal, a citizen of the World. Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology, B.A. in Philosophy. Speaks seven languages. Present work: lecturing on Ethology and sailing and diving in Thailand (marine biology environmental management).