It doesn’t mean you have to spend hours every day revolving your life around your dog. You don’t even have to do these things every day (though some of them you certainly could). But making a little bit of time goes a long way in creating balance in your relationship with your dog and will filter into other areas of your life too…
1) Take a Class Together. Just like humans, dogs need a proper mental outlet for their energy, and it’s been proven that learning new things can keep your dog’s cognitive function from deteriorating with age. This could mean taking various levels of obedience training classes to hone your dog’s skills, and even go beyond basic obedience to Rally-O or agility classes. Or many breeds of dogs like having a job to do, as they were originally bred to work in some capacity, so why not play off of your dog’s natural instincts to get this mental stimulation in a productive way? Hounds may love scent classes, retrievers could enjoy dock-diving events, herding breeds may get their thrill from rounding livestock, and gun dogs could take their energy out year-round on classes where they “hunt” baits (and not just during hunting season). And if you partake in this natural excitement with your dog? They’ll think you’re better than chasing the cat or herding the grandkids. Check your local breed clubs, doggy daycares or specialized training facilities for class schedules.
Perhaps you have some soft music playing, like you might find in a spa or yoga studio. The point is, all of your other life obligations are put on pause for a few moments and you can just hang out with your dog. There’s a reason people meditate – even a few minutes can provide the mental clarity you may need to recharge, and your dog will love spending this quality time with you without interruptions! And don’t forget – petting a dog or cat can increase levels of dopamine and oxytocin in our brains, making us happier, less stressed and more productive! So I say, why not make this a daily ritual??
3) Share a Snack Together. While I am a fan of using whole foods as treats and to supplement a dog’s diet, normally I don’t condone sharing what you’re eating with your pooch at the same time that you’re eating it. If done in the wrong way, this can create begging behavior. But if done in the right (and very specific) way, it will not and can even work to increase your bond with your dog in a positive way (hey, everyone bonds over food, right?). For me and my dog, it’s blueberries at breakfast…
I add blueberries to my meal almost every morning, so I set aside some for my dog. As I sit enjoying my breakfast, he lays quietly at my feet while I eat. I periodically give him one of the blueberries I had set aside on the table (it doesn’t come from my bowl). My rules: he must be settling, and if he’s staring a laser beam through my forehead demanding a blueberry he does not get one. He gets one for resting his chin on the floor or for staying put while the cat comes sauntering by to get her own breakfast in the next room. By doing this, I am reinforcing my positive leadership role as well as his good behavior while also enjoying some time together – the best of all worlds!
Maybe seek out a new park or discover that small town that you’ve been dying to check out but haven’t made the time. It’s not about how much you see, but more about how comfortable and relaxing you can make this experience for your dog (and for you). Doing socialization the right way (without pressure and while making positive associations) helps to build trust, which is a key element to any successful bond.
Even in the colder weather, hiking gets your body moving and using more muscles than just walking on a treadmill at home or in the gym (which will have you warming up and burning calories in no time). Let’s not forget all the physical and neurological effects that exercise gives to us. My favorite quote about exercise is from the movie Legally Blonde, in which Reese Witherspoon's character Elle declares, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Haha! While a dog who doesn’t get exercise may not try to shoot your husband, giving your dog the exercise he needs even during the winter months will keep him mentally and emotionally balanced, which means he’ll be better behaved in general. And if he associates you with these activities that make him happy? You’ll make a best friend even better!
And because I love my dog and sharing things with him so much, here’s a bonus…
Grooming your dog is also a great way to bond. Particularly if you have a long-haired or wiry-haired breed, grooming is a necessary part of the care routine to keep your dog’s coat healthy and free of harmful mats (which microbial critters and bacteria love to call home). Lay your dog gently down and make long, smooth strokes with a slicker brush (or the kind of brush that is appropriate for your dog’s hair type). As you brush with one hand, you can gently lay another hand on your dog for some soft petting. Talk to your dog in a soothing voice. If your dog has long hair, he may really enjoy if you remove his collar during this grooming session! Always brush the hair in the direction it grows, not against the natural flow (or rather than being relaxing, this can be jarring and painful). Don't you just love when someone styles your hair or massages your head for you? This grooming can actually relax both of you and keep your dog's coat healthy at the same time!
I hope you will find that you and your dog can enjoy these kinds of bonding moments together. Our dogs love us unconditionally. So really, making some time to show them some affection and include them in our lives even when times are busy – they deserve it. As the American poet Douglas Malloch says, "Thorns may hurt you, men desert you, sunlight turn to fog; but you're never friendless ever, if you have a dog."
Maria Huntoon, CBCC-KA