‘It’s the month of love, Luna, the time of year when we shower our favourite people with cards and gifts so that they know how much they mean to us.’
That’s odd, thought rescue dog, Luna, safe in the knowledge that her humans know exactly how much they mean to her and she has never bought them a card or a gift since the day they brought her home.
That’s not to say that Luna, hadn’t received gifts and even an edible card on one particularly memorable Valentine’s Day, but that’s not how she knows she is loved, far from it. The feeling of love is all in her head. Literally!
If you believe that the chemistry between you and your dog is real, then science agrees with you. It’s all in your head, too.
Our ‘happy hormones’ are created in our brain. The well-documented trio consists of dopamine, which is released when there’s an initial attraction, as a result, our serotonin levels increase and then oxytocin is produced. When we see a dog, our brain delivers a rush of positive emotions and we don’t think twice before declaring our undying love to the cute furball. It’s chemical; love really is all in our head.
One of the ways that we can get a rush of oxytocin is to make eye contact with someone we care about. The brilliant thing about making eye contact with our canine family members is that they get a rush of oxytocin too. Please don’t race home and stare into the eyes of your dog, that probably won’t make either of you feel great, but do think about the interactions that you have with your dog and the ways you can use eye contact in your everyday communication. For me, calling my dogs’ name means that I’d like them to look at me, I just want their attention. I don’t use names for recall, but that’s a blog for another day! Once I have my dogs’ attention, I can ask them to do any of the other things I’ve taught them and the burst of oxytocin delivers immediate positive emotions, for both of us.
But, is the oxy-love chemical enough? Calling our dog’s name and looking at each other isn’t enough to build the relationship we want, is it?
For us, our dogs are extraordinarily beneficial. Stroking our dogs is another way that we can get an oxytocin hit; even thinking about our dogs has been proven to increase our oxy-levels. Try it; close your eyes for a few seconds and think about your dog. Remember your favourite walk together, hanging out at home together and how you laughed when they ran off with your new slipper. How do you feel when you think about them? That feeling is literally changing your physiology. Oxytocin reduces stress, increases our pain tolerance and enhances our wellbeing. Even when they’re not with us, our dogs have the ability to improve our lives.
How can we reciprocate that gift? I don’t think that leaving a selfie by their bed when we head off to work is going to be enough, do you?
It’s the secret to relationship success! When there’s misunderstanding and confusion, we no longer feel safe. Among our own species, those humans we spend our time with and especially with those we care deeply about, we have regular misunderstandings and feelings of confusion. Of course, there’s going to be confusion when we’re communicating with a different species!
Dogs pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. Every single thing we do in their company teaches them something. Are we showing them, through our actions, that we understand them, that we are actively keeping them safe and that we are a safe haven for them to turn to?
Training is the perfect way to reduce confusion in the way that we communicate with our dogs. Being able to share an understanding of specific cues means that our dogs know what’s being asked of them.
If they’re not dropping your new slipper no matter how many times you repeat ‘drop it, please, just drop it, seriously, DROP IT!’ then maybe they don’t understand the instruction. Spending time teaching them what you mean by those two words will mean you have a brilliant time together learning the cue and you’ll be able to use it when you need it. If the first time your dog hears those words is when they’re excitedly play bowing and you’re turning their newfound toy into the best game of tug they’ve ever had, then we can assume it’s not an optimal learning situation.
Humans and dogs that play together have a stronger bond, that’s science. The slipper game doesn’t count, well, not unless you actually use slippers to play tug with but I imagine the game won’t last long.
Playing in a way that enhances your bond doesn’t mean chucking a ball for your dog; it means you have to get involved. How often have you raced your dog to the ball?! How often have you been involved with whatever they’re investigating? I’m not suggesting you join them at the foot of a lamppost, but a simple ‘what is it?’ in an excited tone when they’re exploring will brighten their day. Playing scent games, running together, tug toys and brain games can all be enhanced by your involvement.
How much time do you spend with your dog? I don’t mean the times you’re both in the house together or if you’re on your phone during walkies. How much time do you spend sharing experiences with your dog?
When we the last time you explored with them on walkies? When was the last time you sat in silence with them; no screens, just sharing a few moments together? When was the last time you properly stroked your dog, not just a quick rub of the head as you return home, but sitting with them and stroking them?
Make the time. It will benefit you as much as it will benefit them.
In this month of love, let’s ditch the presents and cards in favour of time and connection.