I get asked quite often, "How can I make my dog choose ME instead of other things in the environment?" The very first step in building a better bond with your dog, is understanding bonding from your dog's perspective. Dogs that seem to struggle the most with bonding issues are adolescents (6-18 months) due to the brain changes going on during the adolescent stage, including fear periods, high distractibility, & low impulse control.
We as people tend to bond with dogs at a much younger age or in the first few months the dog is in our lives. But dogs don't bond the same way. If you bring home a puppy home, they spend much of those first months being socialized to new things. If you bring home and older dog, they spend the first 3 months decompressing from whatever their previous home was like and adjusting to their life in your home. The first 3 months we have a new dog of any age, as humans we tend to focus tons of attention on this new comer. We show pictures to all our friends! We go on walks more often! We enjoy training sessions! While we are excited about the new family addition, our dogs are focused on other things. This house has so many new smells! Who are these people? Where do I sleep? Where/When is my next meal coming? This means we bond much earlier with our dogs then they do with us. Typically by the end of the first week with a new dog, we are in love. However, the average dog takes 3 months to adapt to their new surroundings and fearful or shy dogs take even longer.
Adolescence is generally the most distractible period of a dog's life and we tend to think their being distracted is evidence of trouble bonding. The hardest time often falls somewhere between 10-15 months. At this point, we often feel like our bond is weak, as our dogs find us less important. I use this time to play lots of bond building games, many of which make me the most fun thing in the world. I teach new games at home or in my yard in low distraction areas. Once my dog is hooked on a game, understanding it and finding it fun, I'll start adding in distractions or playing in more challenging environments. Games help you to provide for your dog's exercise and mental stimulation needs, and will help you and your dog grow into a more effective team.
I'll be going over all my favorite games in my Winter Workshop: Building a Better Bond!
It's important also, to have realistic expectations for our dogs. As humans, we take it personally if our dogs choose something in the environment over us. In this picture, both Cam & Azul are focused on the deer on the horizon. They are both very bonded to me, but unexpectedly seeing deer in this environment definitely amped up their prey drive. They typically run in this environment and have never seen deer here, which has them hoping I will give permission to chase. That is not happening! So instead, we sit down and watch the deer at a distance, allowing my dogs to decide when it is time for us to get up and continue our walk calmly.
We need to remember, despite all our training and hard work dogs still have instincts that come in to play in some environments. Instead of taking their inability to focus on us personally, we need to manage the situation is environments that hold higher distractions then what our dog is prepared for. Then we need to continue developing that bond and our teamwork skills in environments where are dog has a reasonably good chance of success. To be a successful team, we need to listen to our dogs just as much as we want them to listen to us. That means sometimes, we have to do the type of activities they want to do; play games, go on sniff-a-bouts, play in the water, etc. The more fun we have with our dog will lead to that stronger connection we are seeking.