How to bond and communicate better with your dog

Tonya Wilhelm

Scientists can't seem to agree about when dogs first became domesticated, but the estimates range between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. That’s when humans started breeding specific dogs together for their inherent skills, such as hunting and guarding.

Today, we still use working dogs for specific jobs. But most people consider dogs to be simply part of the family — a role that requires a healthy, happy human-canine bond.

As a dog trainer, I have seen my fair share of great relationships between dogs and people. When pet parents and dogs are emotionally bonded, there is no limit to what they can accomplish together. On the other hand, when there’s turmoil, an easy task can become challenging and, for some, not worth the effort.

Whether your goal is welcoming a new puppy, changing specific behaviors, calming a rescue or making helping any new pet feel more secure in your home, bonding is crucial to your success.

How to bond with your dog: getting started

If the prospect of bonding with your dog has you feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Here are two important guidelines I encourage all pet parents to keep in mind.

First, remember that every dog is different. If a bonding exercise doesn’t seem to work for your dog, don’t force it. The most important thing is to understand what your dog is trying to communicate. If they are not thrilled with your actions, it’s okay to stop and try something else.

Also, be your dog and yourself.

When a pet parent hires me, most of the time they want to fix a specific problem. They are so stressed, I often hear things like, 'You’re my dog's last chance,' o r 'My dog just doesn’t get it.' Bonding doesn’t happen instantly, and it’s natural to get frustrated. But patience pays off. Remember to be gentle, use positive training methods, and speak softly to your dog for the best results.

Bonding exercises to practice with your dog

If you're not sure how to start bonding with your dog, here are some specific steps you can work into each day.

Remember, you may be super excited about bonding with your new puppy or adopted dog, but bonding is a two-way street. Most dogs need time to warm up to the idea. Stay attuned to your dog’s feedback and ease off if they are showing signs of stress.

1. Take It Slow: There is no set timeline as to when a dog will feel secure in his new environment. But here’s some guidance my dog-training mentors instilled in me: When it comes to bringing home a new dog, it’s all about “the power of threes.” Dogs might experience three days of shell shock, three weeks to get more comfortable with their surroundings, and three months until they finally feel like they are home.

I remember when I brought my puppy home and my family members kept saying how quiet he was, wasn't he such a calm puppy, etc. I kept telling them, “Just wait.” Sure enough, around day three he started bouncing all over, acting like a typical puppy.

Don't rush your new dog into extremely active situations or environments. Allow them to get used to their new family and home. Puppy-proof your house prior to bringing them home, even if they’re an adopted adult dog. You want to set your dog up for success and positivity, rather than get angry at them for getting into the garbage.

2. Keep Your Dog Close and Supervised: Keeping your new dog or puppy within eyesight is a great way to start the bonding process. Your dog will start to get used to your smell, look, and actions. You will also have the opportunity to keep a close eye on them to ensure they’re not getting into something they shouldn't.

Talk to your dog when you are together. If you’re hanging out in the living room, every 15 minutes or so, tell your dog how great they are in a soothing and friendly tone. Hearing your voice regularly is reassuring and builds trust with your dog.

3. Gently Interact and Play with Your Dog: By being close, you will also be able to incorporate short play sessions throughout the day. Research shows that playing with your dog improves social bonds and reduces negative interactions.

Play can be tricky for some dogs. Just like humans, dogs have a preferred playing style. Some like contact sports, others like object play or mind games. The thing to keep in mind is that it's only play if both parties are enjoying the activity. If you try a game and your dog is not interested or seems stressed, try something else.

4. Hand-feed Your Dog: Hand-feeding your new dog is a great way to start the bonding process. Instead of tossing their meals into a bowl, hand-feed them one kibble at a time while telling them how smart they are. If your dog is on a fresh-food diet or eats canned food, you can serve their food in a rubber toy and hold it as they eat. If at any time your dog feels uncomfortable about you being so close to their food, stop and contact a qualified positive-dog-behavior counselor.

You can also incorporate some food-focused games into each day. Try leaving a trail or line of kibble on the floor and allow your dog to eat the row of food. Gradually, over time, start hiding the food in corners of the room and around furniture for them to sniff out and find.

5. Reward Good Behavior: As a trainer, my philosophy is that it’s better to be proactive in a dog's training and care vs. reactive. If you like it, reward it. If your dog is eating kibble, you can place a handful of his food or healthy treats in your pocket and reward good behaviors the minute they happen. That can be anything...even coming up to you to say hello.

Tips for how to communicate with your dog

While we may consider dogs to be part of the family, in reality, dogs and humans are two entirely different species. I'm sure that's not news to you, but it’s important to keep that in mind as you bond with your dog.

Think about this: What would it be like to learn a new sport from a coach who spoke a different language and wasn't very good at the sport to begin with? That's what dogs are dealing with...It's a wonder that they learn anything at all! Give both yourself and your dog a break when trying to navigate the learning process.

You can start by learning how dogs communicate with each other. Take a positive dog training class, set up private sessions with a dog training coach, read good dog behavior books, and watch scientifically-focused dog behavior videos.

As a general rule, if the trainer recommends anything that will intimidate your dog, cause him discomfort, or advises not playing with your dog, I would look for another trainer. Specifically, seek out a trainer who sets dogs up for success and treats your dog with kindness.

Watch your dog to learn his body language. As a trainer, I suggest my clients pick one body part to watch each day. Take your dog's tail: If you watch that area throughout the day during different activities, you will certainly see a variety of positions — low, neutral, high, fast wag, loose wag, etc. They all mean different things. A tail held high and stiff can signal pointing or agitation. A tail held at a neutral position and wagging loosely is usually a sign of friendliness and an invitation to engage.

If your dog can see and hear, he will be looking at your signals to understand what you are trying to communicate. Dogs are great at responding to visual cues, but tone is equally important.

Visually, dogs tend to appreciate space. If you are trying to encourage your dog to move toward you, try facing sideways, bending at the knees and tapping your outer calf. This is visually inviting to dogs. The more traditional approach of facing forward to call your dog actually tells your dog that is your space, not to approach. Granted, some dogs have no concept of personal space, but as a general rule, most are quite focused on it.

Verbal communication is important, too. And just as with humans, it’s not what you say to your dog that matters, but how you say it. Be aware of your tone and try not to send mixed messages. For example, when you use high-pitched, repetitive noises, that could mean either “it’s time to play” or “I’m upset.” Happy-go-lucky dogs might find your tone exciting, but if you have a nervous dog, they may get stressed thinking that something is wrong.

Start with a sweet vocal tone when you're building a bond with your dog. As you both start to understand one another, you can play around with tones and energy levels.

How to bond with your rescue dog

Special thanks go out to those who rescue dogs in need! Just remember, special measures may also be required to bond with your new dog. While some rescue dogs fit into their new family right off the bat, others may take more time to decompress. With all dogs, it's important to remember that they are individuals, and they all will have their own personalities. Some dogs are coming from horrendous, abusive situation or the complete opposite — a loving home and a long-time bond with an owner who passed away.

Whatever the case is, there’s often a big difference between bonding with a rescued dog vs. a puppy. A typical puppy doesn't come with baggage, just normal developmental puppy issues. Rescued dogs may come with behavioral issues that need to be addressed or unlearned through a good positive behavioral modification program.

If this is the case, I would highly recommend seeking a professional sooner than later so you both get on the right track. Trying to figure it all out on your own may lead you to rehome the dog.

Better Bond = Better Life

I love all animals, but there is something special about the human-canine bond. A trusting and mutually beneficial relationship with your dog that’s based on lots of love and bonding is like other. Now, step away from your computer and go have some fun with your dog!

Tonya Wilhelm is a dog-training and cat-care expert who promotes positive ways of preventing and managing behavior issues with a holistic approach. Twice named one of the Top 10 dog trainers in the U.S., she has authored several books on the subject and pens a popular blog Raising Your Pets Naturally.