Phones were ringing.
Announcements were blaring over the PA system.
Power saws were buzzing as they cut boards for a construction project.
People were coming and going, and the smells were intense ... The Home Depot on a busy Sunday afternoon.
I stood over my little dog, staring into his eyes as a shopper with small children moved past us. The man’s shopping cart with its one loose wheel was rhythmically clattering as he went.
“It’s okay. You’re okay,” I said softly to Bueller as I held his gaze with my hand in a “stay” position between us.
He was okay, and he trusted me … even as one of the shopper’s children suddenly knocked a box of screws off of the shelf, sending them crashing to the floor and scattering them a few feet away.
We held our eye contact for two minutes, then three. I glanced at the timer on my phone, and at three minutes and 30 seconds, I said, “Good.” It was over, and I think both dog and handler inhaled deeply.
At seven years old, my Maltese-Yorkie mix had always been a good dog. He was, of course, “my buddy.” At home, he was always nearby. He was a follower. Where I went, so did he. Watching TV or taking a nap, whatever I did, he followed. Nearly anyone you might ask will tell you their dog is the best, and Bueller was. I did not always realize how much better and happier he could be.
When I brought Bueller home as an 11-week-old puppy, I recalled a promise I made to him: “I will take care of you and give you everything you need to keep you healthy and happy.”
I had not always upheld my word, though.
At just over three months old, Bueller and I took a beginner obedience class together. He was stellar, learning things quicker than many of the older dogs in our class. Our instructor said, “I have seen a lot of dogs, and he is scary smart.” I was proud of my boy, and we had our photo taken with his graduation cap sliding off of his little head at the course’s completion.
After that, well, he was, perhaps, little more than a “scary smart” house pet. He was never badly treated but more like the way most people treat their pets. They are great when you want them around. They do cute or funny things that we enjoy. But, life has more important things going on most of the time. Like most dogs, Bueller was always seeking attention, often not getting enough of it, but old enough that he had either outgrown destructive behavior or learned by trial and error that it did not work. Perhaps, he was content, but he had so much more to give if I would pay attention.
I had been a passionate runner for a few years, running long distances for hours almost every day of the week before an injury stopped me in my tracks in 2019. A foot surgery left me nearly bedridden for several weeks and in a cast for 63 days. On those days I laid in the bed, Bueller was there beside me. Often, he would lay his head on my cast as he slept. He was supportive in his company, day after day, owing to the Maltese in his genes. In the 16th century, Maltese dogs were believed to have medicinal powers and were placed with the ailing for comfort and healing.
Bueller was a comfort, but he looked so bored. I realized that Bueller would be doing the same thing if I were not ailing, just being bored and waiting for some interaction with me or for the doorbell to ring, perhaps, or a noisy truck to go past our house. What else did he have?
I made him another promise. When I could get around again, we were going to do more together. I began reading and watching videos and movies about dogs. I have always had dogs and loved dogs, but they are really amazing creatures. Amazing dogs do amazing things, and the ones you hear about all have one thing in common. They have good people in their lives who came to recognize their personalities and souls as sentient creatures.
As more and more people bring dogs into their homes than ever in human history, we are only a generation or two from the days where dogs had a different place in our lives. That place was the yard, not the sofa and definitely not the bed. While I am not saying that all dogs should be kept indoors, I say that we often overlook that dogs do possess emotions and feelings. Their personalities, desires, and motivations are unique to each dog. Not all dogs are the same, nor are dogs of a particular breed the same. It is a good dog owner who gets to know his or her dog and creates a two-way bond based on that understanding. Dogs evolved to become very keen human observers since the days when the first “dogs” left their wolf packs to live near humans. Your dog surely knows your personality and habits. It is only fair to learn theirs.
Now, I kept my promise to Bueller. Based on his ability to comfort me, it was natural for me to pursue a therapy dog certification for him. He came to life and eagerly accepted our training time. We began working at home with basic obedience skills and then with distractions ranging from new environments to vacuum cleaners buzzing only inches away. Through each step up in the distraction level, Bueller came to trust that if I told him a command or gave him a hand signal cue, he would be safe. “You’re okay,” I would say if he began to get nervous, and I never lied to him.
That is how we found ourselves training in a large hardware store with distractions of every sort bombarding him from multiple directions as we prepared for the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test, a good warm-up for a therapy dog evaluation. When we lock eyes, I know my dog and what he is thinking. He knows as long as I am watching him, I will keep him safe, even when he is sitting or lying on the floor in the middle of a noisy Home Depot.
As our bond became stronger during training, Bueller demonstrated who he was even more. We began learning tricks, some of which would be useful during therapy visits as entertainment and others just for fun. Bueller can solve basic math problems by barking the answers. He can select a person’s playing card, unknown to us, from a deck spread on the floor by watching eye and hand movements and then picking it up with his mouth. Bueller can “read” basic commands from a sign and then perform them with no words spoken. He loves agility work, especially jumping through hoops, but we don’t do that too often as he is aging.
I know when he is having good days or bad days, as he knows mine, because of our time together, and we are “buddies” now in the truest sense. Since we began training, and I did more with him as promised. Bueller and I have made nearly 250 therapy visits, and many, many people have had a chance to appreciate his personality to a degree. He holds the AKC title of Therapy Dog Excellent. He is also an AKC Trick Dog Elite Performer, the highest AKC trick dog title.
I would have never thought before my injury that I was missing the opportunity of knowing so much about this little creature that liked to hang out around the table whenever I was eating. I am sorry that it took perhaps half of Bueller’s life for me to discover who he really was, but better late than never, I guess.
Here are some things to consider when bonding with your dog.
Take a beginner obedience class with your dog with a trainer who is a positive reinforcement dog trainer. This will ensure your dog learns by choosing to do behaviors versus being made to do them. No one, dogs included, enjoys an activity they are forced to do.
In a dog training class, the trainer should train YOU to train the dog. Having someone else prepare your dog for you may save you time, but the bond developed from working with your dog yourself is absent.
Develop a routine for doing things with your dog and stick to the schedule as much as possible. Dogs love routines, and the more consistent you are in keeping to them, the more your dog will enjoy their day, looking forward to their time with you.
Dogs are pack animals. They want to be with you all of the time if given a choice. Respect that desire, and make time to do something with them that is stimulating, whether it is obedience training or throwing a frisbee. At the least, offer them a puzzle toy that they can do for your praise and reward.
Do not let your bonding effort be spoiled by giving them whatever they want whenever they want it. Throwing your dog a French fry from the table is bonding them to bad behavior and health problems.
Bonding with your dog generally means hugging them less, not more. In doggy language, the act of putting a paw or foreleg on another dog is an act of control. When you are hugging your dog, you are saying, “I am in charge of you,” not “I love you.” Most dogs do not like such a forceful statement. FYI, a kiss from a dog is typically a sign of submission or, at best, a grooming instinct directed to a packmate.
Just as dogs like routines, they also like clear and concise rules. Rules make life more predictable – if you stick to them – and predictable is less stressful and confusing. They do not understand exceptions to rules, so be consistent.
Learn your dog’s body language. Dogs communicate about 95% in body language. Knowing what signals they give off when they are stressed, happy, scared, or angry is vital to developing their trust for you. Do not thrust them into situations where they are uncomfortable but build up to things gradually. In turn, your dog will have learned your body language and can tell when you are feeling emotions that may be contrary to what you are saying to them.
The way to a dog’s heart is through its stomach. Dogs are food motivated, so giving them small training treats is an excellent way to reward them when they are doing what we like. If something makes you happy, it makes them happy. When they understand what makes you happy, they won’t even need the treat to get to that behavior in time.
There is maybe nothing more critical in bonding than giving your dog the three forms of attention they crave from us: touch, eye contact, and verbal. When your dog is behaving correctly, give these things in abundance.
There are signals that you and your dog may have a weak bond. These signals could include a lack of desire to play or make eye contact, sedentary behavior, attempts to run away, a distaste for being handled or outright aggression, and a failure to respond to commands, especially “coming when called.”
Signals of a strong bond would include a constant need to check in with you, even when off-leash, doing obedience commands without hesitation, a desire to be near you, frequently looking at you even on walks, coming when called regardless of distractions, and a love for physical interactions.