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Understanding the Human-Companion Animal Bond with Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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There are two types of new puppy owners: Those about to embark on dog ownership for the very first time and those with previous experience. For the latter "repeat" owners, what I am about to say may be old hat or, perhaps, it might help them to understand why they developed such a strong bond with their previous pets. For first time puppy owners, this account will inform them what they have to look forward to as their puppy matures and develops into a fully-fledged family member.

Why Do We Enjoy Having Pets?

It's a strange thing about us humans that we take such great pleasure in pet ownership (or as some would have us say, pet guardianship). Left to our own devices and desires we accumulate all manner of creatures to us. Those that hop and those that run; those that walk and those that waddle; those that slither and those that swim. It seems that the other creatures with whom we share this planet hold great interest for us so we enjoy taking them on as dependents, nurturing them, and, in some cases, attempting to strike up some kind of relationship with them. For some pets, like iguanas, the relationship arrow points in one direction only, from us to them. Iguanas are solitary animals and prefer to remain so. It is we that enjoy having them around to look at, talk to, touch, feed, and show off. They become living chattel and live (healthily we hope) for our pleasure. At almost the other extreme of the pet spectrum come cats and dogs, who are sometimes owned for similar reasons. But both of these latter species have the capacity to enter into a bilateral relationship with us in which they invest dependence and trust and, in return, receiving care and affection, or even love. A bond of this nature is bidirectional, symbiotic, and sometimes extremely intense. So intense that sometimes when one individual is deprived of the other a state of depression prevails. Some people bereaved of animals that they have come to cherish are so severely affected that they need grief counseling. Pet loss grievance hotlines are springing up around the country to deal with this now more frequent occurrence. Similarly, bonded pets deprived of their owners' company for one reason or another may exhibit panic, anxiety, or frank depression.

Puppies as Pets

The bond that forms between a new puppy owner and their pet develops rapidly though it may take many months or years to mature. People who have owned a new puppy for a matter of days may find it difficult to return that puppy to the breeder even if they find out that the puppy is flawed in some way. A couple of weeks after the acquisition of a new puppy, most families would choose to keep their new charge despite veterinary predictions of trouble and expense down the road. As time goes by, the bond usually strengthens between the growing pup and family members as the youngster assumes a significant role in its human family. Affections develop for the pup's cuteness both because of the way it looks and the way it behaves. Nature designed us to fall for this old trick. But later, experiences shared, both happy and sad, anneal the developing bond to virtually shatterproof strength.

The Pup Grows Up

By the time the pup reaches one year of age, family members have developed such an intense bond with the youngster that it might as well be a teenage son or daughter. Likewise, the puppy has all but forgotten its earlier days with its litter and now comes to view human family members with affection bordering on adulation. And for the pup, each family member plays a different role. The man about the house may be the one to take the pup out on walks and play games of fetch and Frisbee. He might be "the fun one." The wife is usually the one who does the feeding and petting – "the nurturer." The children of the family, who rough and tumble with the pup and give it hugs and kisses may be more on a peer level with the pup – "the sibs." And the pup laps it all up, positively radiating affection and trust. And just as humans can appreciate their own children maturing to become responsible adults, so the new puppy owner can appreciate the maturation of the youngster into fully fledged doghood. The interaction between the dog and the family has different facets, as do the relationships between people. People and dogs share fun loving moments, quiet moments in which nothing is said, affectionate moments, and moments of concern as the relationship continues to evolve and mature. Eventually, the owner knows almost every aspect of their dog's mentality, its needs and wants, its likes and dislikes, and its strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, the dog comes to understand its human caregivers, knowing what to expect and when, and knowing who to trust and when. And as with human relationships, not all moments are necessarily joyous. There may be times when an owner becomes exasperated with their dog and times when the dog is out of sync with the owner, yet the theme between the two is one of mutual tolerance and respect, affection, dependence and yes, even love.

This then is the human/animal bond between an owner and his dog. It starts at the beginning with the acquisition of a new puppy and, unless it falls foul of some unforeseen circumstances, will flourish and blossom into old age, till death. Sometimes strong bonds of this nature develop between one person and one dog. Other times they involve a whole family. Because of the unfortunately short life span of most dogs, the end of the rainbow of the human/animal bond usually comes with pets' demise. Owners grieve and, as they know, no pet is fully replaceable. Sure, the family can get another pup, but the relationship they establish with each dog is unique and, as such, cannot be duplicated. This is not to say that a new different bond can't be established with another dog, for it can. Just that each dog, like each person, passes this way only once, leaving in its wake a ripple of unique influences and impressions.

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