Just as dogs bond with us differently then we bond with them, they also show their love differently then we show our love to them.
- Gazing into your eyes
- Happily greeting you when they come home
- Listening to your voice
- Seeking emotional comfort from their owners (you!)
- Unconditionally loving us
OK that list might seem simple and kind of obvious to most of us dog lovers. But let's break it down a bit so that we can understand it a bit better.
1. Gazing into your eyes - Some people put eye contact on cue or command so that they can ask their dogs to focus on them better. So what's the difference between getting eye contact via command, via cue, or naturally occurring? Giving your dog a command means that you are issuing an order for your dog to carry out & you expect compliance. In this situation, many dogs really struggle with eye contact because your command paired with the hard eyes you would typically have making a demand is off putting to dogs. Some dogs even turn away thinking of this demand for eye contact as a challenge that they don't want to participate in. In the dog world, diverting eyes is a passive way to avoid conflict. Giving your dog a cue means that you are offering a suggestion, that if followed will earn reinforcement that you dog wants. In this situation, there is no penalty for not following through with the request and dogs are free to look away or choose to look you back in the eye. A dog that trusts you, will typically easily turn to look you in the eye unless they are distracted by something that has a higher value then the reinforcement you are offering. When a dog offers eye contact naturally, that is a true sign of love! I capture this eye contact as often as possible because this eye contact has been proven scientifically to make both dog and human feel happy.
2. Happily greeting you when you come home - OK, so this is one where opinions may vary in the dog training world. (Read the linked article from Pethelpful.com to learn about the science involved here.) Many dog trainers advocate that you teach your dog to go to a specific place before a door opens or closes, which often includes when you come home. I'm not saying there isn't good behind that practice! Dogs learn that if they are calm and do as they are trained, good things will happen. So if you totally ignore your dog when you come home until they are calm, you are teaching them good manners. But science has proven that the initial greeting from your dog when you get home, floods both the dog and the person with hormones that help us to feel happy. This probably is why so many dog owners struggle with training their dogs to stay back away from the door, because it prevents that happy feeling when your dog greets you at the door. I choose to do things a bit differently, because dogs can learn the difference! If I'm home and someone comes to the door, my dogs are taught to stay back away from the door. But if I am the one coming home, my dogs are allowed to be their happy, goofy self when greeting me. Of course this is also paired with training that helps them keep all 4 feet on the floor so they are not jumping on me or knocking me over. I suggest you embrace that "Welcome Home" greeting and allow it to flood both you and your dog with that "feel good" emotions.
3. Listening to your voice - Maybe you've noticed that your voice changes when your speaking to a friend vs to a stranger? How about a young child? How about the love of your life? As humans, we typically use several different tones of voice to get our point across. We command something to get done using a stern voice. We ask nicely in a pleasant voice...prompting a child to "Say Please!" We tend to speak more rapidly when talking with a friend about a topic we enjoy or are passionate about. Dogs may not stand every word we are saying, but they sure understand our tone of voice. If all you ever do is issue commands, your dog may learn to tune out your voice simply because they don't receive anything good in return for compliance. If you talk to your dog using your "Please" voice, your dog is likely to keep trying things that have worked in the past to earn reinforcement. And if you talk to you dog in a story telling voice, they often learn that you are not expecting them to change the behavior they are doing, which allows them to relax and simply listen to your voice. (Again read the linked article to see what science says about the benefits of this.)
4. Seeking emotional comfort from their owner - Everyone, including our dogs, experience fear or anxiety. When dogs experience an emotion that is uncomfortable they will commonly turn to their most trusted people. While this happens naturally without training, we can develop this reflex to become even stronger. Now, I'm not suggesting that we put our dogs in situations to intentionally cause them fear or discomfort so they can learn to depend on us more! All training sessions should be set up for success, not failure. What I am suggesting is when our dogs experience something not so pleasant, we pair that with comforting speech, high value reinforcement, and offering our protection or shield from the scary object. You can't reinforce fear by giving your dog treats when there is a trigger present. Again, embrace this natural emotional occurrence by comforting your dog which in turn will help to make your bond with your dog stronger.
5. Unconditionally loving us - I think most of us agree that our dogs forgive our mistakes quickly and do whatever is in their power to help us feel better. This is one of the most quoted dog memes out there. It's ok if we made a mistake in our training session, dogs forgive us. It's ok if we had a busy day and didn't have the time or energy to spend on our dogs. Our dogs simply want to be with us as much as possible, even if we are not the best pet parents on the block.
Sure there are other ways that dogs show they love us. Some dogs like to cuddle, some don't. Some dogs prefer playing games with us. Some dogs follow us from room to room. Dog trainers use another common quote "Train the dog in front of you!" I believe we have to apply this to loving our dogs back unconditionally as well. You may love to cuddle, while your dog may not, and forcing this can drive a wedge between you. Figuring out how your dog is most comfortable relaxing with you can help to make you a stronger team where looking out for each other is a regular part of your day.