As the saying goes, dogs are our best friends. But maybe it doesn't feel quite so buddy-buddy between you and your dog these days. Perhaps you're constantly frustrated because your dog ignores your commands or is always getting in your way when you're doing chores around the house, or doesn't cuddle like you wish he would.
What these and other issues often comes down to is how bonded you are as a team. This bond isn't something that automatically happens as soon as you bring a dog home. It also isn't static. It's something that takes work to build and can grow over time. If you want to have a dog that is more attentive to you, here's how to start.
Study up on dog body language
Have you ever had a great friendship where one of you does all the talking? Likely not. A real friendship requires talking and listening by both parties, a two-way communication that allows each to know what the other is thinking and feeling. As two highly social species, both dogs and humans have intricate ways of communicating with others. However, we humans tend to dominate the conversation with our dogs. We have an expectation for them to understand everything we're asking of them, yet we don't always put equal work into finding out what they're asking of us. But we can.
Dogs tell us vast amounts of information through body language. From the more obvious cues like how high or low a tail is held, how quickly it is wagging and in what direction, or how they're holding their ears, to the more subtle language held in the shape of their eyes, the angle at which they're holding their body to something, or the tenseness of the corners of their mouths, are all words written on a billboard for us to read.
If you want to build a better bond with your dog, the first place to start is to study how dogs communicate with their bodies. You can then better understand what your dog is trying to tell you, and when you start listening, the two of you will get along much more easily.
Get to know your dog's likes and dislikes — and respect them
Just like humans, individual dogs have their personal likes and dislikes. Some dogs enjoy cuddling while others prefer to have space. Some adore a game of fetch while others would rather play tug. Some love to learn new tricks and some would rather just go on a walk. Some dogs enjoy affection of all kinds, including hugs, but many dogs barely tolerate, or even flat out dislike being hugged. There are many things we humans assume dogs enjoy when really, they are just tolerating it.
Knowing your dog's individual likes and dislikes, and then respecting them, is the key to connecting with your dog. If you pay close attention, you may find that your dog doesn't like the hugs you give her. But she really loves being scratched behind her ears. By realizing this, you can swap out the hugs for ear scratches and your dog will recognize that you're someone far more enjoyable to be around because she won't have to suffer through the things she dislikes and will readily receive the things she does want.
But this goes beyond the right kinds of affection. By recognizing that your dog loves playing a certain game, or a certain type of toy, you can use these preferences to your advantage in training. Maybe your dog is more food-motivated than toy-motivated, or prefers a game of chase above all other things.
The best reward is the one your dog wants the most and will work the hardest to receive. So figuring out what your dog likes and dislikes is also part of getting the most out of your training sessions.
Train your dog every day
One of the best ways you can improve your connection with your canine companion is to work on training every day using positive reinforcement. Exercising your dog's brain to learn something new and providing rewards for successes is a great way to increase trust and joyful experiences between you and your dog.
Training happens every day whether you're aware of it or not — every walk, every interaction with other dogs or people, every interaction with you is essentially a form of training, of shaping your dog's perception of the world and behaviors, good or bad. So make a conscious effort to get the most out of these moments. You can work on a new trick or even practice old behaviors to freshen up on them. When you go on walks together, make them interactive, asking your dog to sit at every corner, to change direction with you randomly, to change the side he walks on, to change his pace to match yours as you slow down and speed up.
However you choose to work on it, be sure that some form of active training with positive reinforcement happens each day. You'll notice a distinct difference in how much attention your dog pays you, and how much more fluidly you interact.
Set up your dog for success
Having effective training sessions and a dog that trusts you lies in large part in setting your dog up to be successful when you ask him to do something. For example, asking your dog to do a difficult trick and withholding rewards until he gets it right only increases the amount of frustration you both feel and decreases the amount of fun your dog has in trying to do what you ask. Instead, break a trick down into small, accomplishable pieces that your dog can build on, and reward your dog for each successfully completed step.
Setting your dog up for success goes well beyond training and into every day life. Think about how your dog might view or react to a situation, and if it will be positive or negative. Take steps to reduce the possibility of negative consequences. For instance, don't leave the food bin unattended with the lid off and expect your dog not to dive in face first the second you leave the room. Or on a social level, don't push your dog to interact with another dog or person who he's clearly uncomfortable with, which could lead to a fight or a bite and a loss of trust in you to protect them. (And along those lines, read up on the 15 things humans do wrong at dog parks, which is all about trust.)
Know your dog's preferences and limits well enough to determine what situations he can and can't handle. Then modify the situation the dog is in to be one that he'll handle with flying colors. Making the effort to help your dog have successful interactions with you and others will increase your dog's confidence as well as his trust in you as a strong and safe leader.
Be the source of all life's necessities and goodies
If you want your dog to hang on your every word, then you want to be the sole source of all life's wonderful things, including food and toys. If you are free-feeding your dog, put away the food bowl. If toys are scattered around the floor or in a place a dog can get to easily, hide them in the closet. These things are rewards that are earned, and your dog is going to be much more attentive if you are a walking goodies dispenser.
When it comes to food, have your dog work for snacks and meals just as he works for treats. For meal times, prepare your dog's food but have him wait a few minutes, or ask him to do a few tricks before giving the OK for him to dive in. This creates a connection in your dog's mind that working with you earns access to that delicious food. For play time, pull out toys for special play sessions, reserving tug-o-war, fetch, hide-and-seek and other games for when the two of you play together, or as a reward during or after training sessions.
When you are the provider of all life's good things, your dog will look to you — and listen to you — much more readily. This will help so much with getting and keeping your dog's attention when you need it.
Spend one-on-one time every day
Speaking of special play sessions, make sure you spend time focused on just your dog every day. This doesn't include walks when you're distracted on your phone, or in the yard when you're gardening and your dog is wandering around smelling things. One-on-one time is 30 minutes or more of time spent playing brain games, grooming, going on an interactive walk, even talking with your dog.
This is a great time to practice reading your dog's body language, to gauge his energy level to see if he needs extra exercise, and to build on all you've done to help grow and solidify the connection and trust you have with your dog. Plus, it's simply quiet, stress-free time for you to enjoy with the company of your four-legged friend.
Dogs are a social species just like humans, and time spent focused on each other will increase the connection you share, which benefits both of you.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in December 2014.