Ask Crystal: Building a Bond

Dear Crystal, 

I adopted a 6-week-old puppy 4 years ago: My intention for her was to train her myself to be my service dog at best or therapy dog at the very least. The idea became very sticky and all tangled up when I became ill and was unable to continue bonding with Lilly. During this extended period of time, anything I taught her was forgotten. My husband, who loves dogs to death, but cannot train one under any circumstance, allowed Lilly to begin pulling the leash when taking her out to do her business. When I felt better, she pulled me so hard I fell on the cement driveway, unable to get up, with no one around to help me get up. I live in the country, so it was quite a while before anyone came home. Well, I got up and haven’t taken her out in a little over 2 years. I unknowingly fractured my hip and needed surgery months later. 

 The sorry thing for me in all this is that she adores my husband — sleeping with her muzzle on his forehead at night and many other lovey-dovey things. She basically ignores me and easily turns and walks away when I call her. She literally acts like a snob! She actually uses me as a plaything by bringing me her rubber “stick” and stuffed play fetch. She also loves to have me rub her behind the ears. I NEED this dog and do not know how to “correct” my bond with her. She gets rattled easily, too. My husband has been hospitalized and will be away for at least two more months. Lilly will now easily obey my commands to go see my daughter (name) or get off the bed. She and her sister will move out of the way when I say “excuse me.”  

 Finally, my question is, how do I approach my pooch to strengthen our bond and stop pulling the leash. I am still unable to take her outside. I can work with her, on a leash, indoors while in my wheelchair. I am sometimes unsteady because of numbness in one leg due to long COVID. I believe I understand the basic theory on how to teach my girl to not pull at the leash but am foolishly ignorant about how to grow our bond. Is my wish a complete fairytale? I am 68, so I cannot wait forever. LOL. 


Dog Mom Needs Help Bonding 


Dear Dog Mom, 

It is a really good question and I don’t think most people really think much about how to help a dog bond to them. People either seem to think it’s a mystical connection thing or that every dog will bond strongly to them naturally. It actually takes some effort to build the type of relationship you need for a service dog. We do see stronger relationships in dogs and people that spend a lot of time together doing activities such as playing and training so there are changes you can implement to improve your bond. 

As far as her becoming your service dog, you are right in that you need to have a very strong bond with her for that to happen. The other concern is that you mention she is skittish. Service dogs usually need to be able to go everywhere with their human. I am not sure what task you specifically need her to do but if it entails leaving the house with you, she may not have the right temperament for that type of work depending on how skittish she is. Service dogs usually need to be bomb proof in new environments and around a lot of distractions.  

One of the things that I have found over the years that has helped my dogs to bond with me, is learning about dog body language and how to understand what my dog is communicating to me. If you can tell when your dog is stressed and can intervene, that can help the dog trust that you will keep them safe. A couple of good resources are these Youtube videos (156) Understanding Dog Body Language – Learn how to read dogs behavior better – YouTube and (156) Understanding Dog Body Language – Part 2 – YouTube. I also like because it also explains how to put body language together with other information to understand why a dog is behaving a certain way and how to help them. 

The other piece is respecting what our dogs are trying to tell us. An example is, when a dog growls at something, a lot of people’s response would be to yell, “No!” at the dog. A growl is a request for space. It is simply a dog trying to communicate their discomfort and a request for the behavior to stop. Rather than yelling, we should stop what we are doing and try to find ways to help the dog feel better so they don’t feel the need to growl. Yelling might stop them from growling but it doesn’t stop the feeling that caused the behavior so what you end up getting is a dog that doesn’t warn before they bite.  

My very first behavior project dog came at the beginning of my animal welfare career. Phoenix was a 4-month-old puppy that would growl when picked up or held. When there was something that would make her growl, I would stop what I was doing back up and look at the situation. I avoided anything that I knew would make her growl. I separately worked on training other behaviors and some handling. Training helped her gain confidence and she quickly got over her concerns about handling. We took many classes together over the years on my journey to becoming a dog trainer. She was my soul dog and never felt a need to growl at me again in her life. If she had, I wouldn’t have taken it personally because it’s just communication. You wouldn’t get angry at a child for being afraid and it is essentially the same thing with a dog. I know that is because she knew she could trust me. That is the first step in any strong dog human relationship. 

There is some evidence that grooming and petting lowers stress hormones and the heart rate and increases oxytocin. One study showed that teaching your dog to make eye contact and practicing that skill, raised oxytocin for both the human and the dog. 

  •  I always suggest the 3 second test for petting to be sure your dog actually wants to be petted at the moment. Pet the dog for 3 seconds on an innocuous place such as the ear that she loves petted. Remove your hand and watch for the dog’s reaction. If the dog moves in towards you, nudges your hand or tries to engage, continue petting but keep checking in by removing your hand. If the dog moves away respect their decision and stop trying to pet her. Even with my dog that is super affectionate, there are times when she just doesn’t feel like being petted on so I leave her alone.

Positive reinforcement-based training is a great way to bond with your dog. Clear, effective communication eases stress for the dog and the human. It is also a lot of fun and dogs learn more easily and retain the information better if they are having fun while doing so.

  • Dogs are more attuned to physical movements so start by training cues with hand signals when possible. The dog will be more likely to listen if she understands what you are asking and knows that you will reinforce her. Consistency is important to training so if you aren’t that familiar with training, hire a local Certified Professional Dog Trainer here: Certified Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant Directory – CCPDT
  • Name recall is important for leash walking in addition to recalls. I play the Name Game every day with my new dogs to install an automatic response to their name being called.  Start by practicing in the house when the dog is looking away from you. Call her name is a cheerful tone of voice once. When she turns her head to look at you, say “yes” and hold a treat by your side for her to come get. Start from very short distances and work in distance as you go. If she doesn’t turn her head, make some squeaky noises to get her attention. We don’t want to be calling the dog’s name repeatedly so only use it once.
  • To help manage the pulling behavior, be sure that you are using a front connection harness like the Freedom Harness or Balance Harness. These harnesses work to help encourage the dog to turn towards you when they are pulling. 

You are right in that the leash walking training needs to happen inside the house first. Dog training is very much about repetition so practicing every single day is also important. Use her dog food ration to train her and you can be sure you are getting enough repetitions every day. Start by having her standing next to your chair and feeding her several treats in a row for being in the correct position.  

  1. The next step is to reinforce her for every step taken by your side. Move a little bit and treat for every step she takes with you. Over time you will slowly increase the number of steps between treats. Anytime she pulls, stop and call her back to you. Don’t move forward until she comes back to your side. Be very careful not to run over her toes with your chair as that could really scare her.
  2. To increase the difficulty of the training is to go outside and train in outside areas close to the house. You may want to have someone come with you just to be safe when you first start outside. When you move the training outside, be sure to really up the value of the reinforcement used. We can’t usually compete with the environment with kibble when teaching a new behavior. I would suggest chicken or turkey hot dogs to really up the value of the treat. You also want to go back to reinforcing each step so that you are making it easier for her in this more challenging environment.

Playing with her is a great idea! Throughout species, it has been observed that parents who play with their children have stronger bonds. It is also a good way to tire her out before a walk so she would be less likely to pull. So even though it might just feel like she is using you as a toy, just go with it and play with her. You can encourage a dog to snuggle with you if that is something that you want. I know it probably sounds strange but I fed my dogs treats for snuggling with me. I especially enjoy it when they rest their heads on me so I reinforce that heavily. After a little bit of reinforcing with food, both dogs snuggle with me on their own now with no treats needed. You can start by just sitting quietly in a room with her. Don’t force anything. Any time she moves towards you, toss a treat away from you and repeat. You can move towards reinforcing for sitting next to you and then laying on your lap. 

 Dogs are individuals just like us. You can’t force a bond with a dog just like you can’t force a friendship with a human. But you can do many things which will encourage that bonding. Find out what your dog likes and engage in those activities. Engage in spending quiet time petting her and feeding her treats. If you put the effort in, I do believe you will start to see results.  

Until next time, 



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