This week I have been thinking about the “bond” between a human and an animal-that-isn’t-human. Partly that is because Bookends Farm welcomed two new animals this year. One, Walter, is a horse who arrived in June. The other, Wilder, is a puppy who arrived in October. It must have been some sort of cosmic process which caused them to end up with names somewhat similar to each other. It wasn’t a conscious decision.
For many years, I have said that it took a year before I thought an animal had settled in. I attribute that to the seasons which have such an effect on our lives here. The ways I interact with the animals changes with the seasons as well as the ways the seasons affect the animals themselves: their interests, their proclivities in unpleasant weather, their energy levels depending on temperature and more. How we interact in these circumstances affects our bond.
I posted a question on my Bookends Farm Facebook page to see what a bond looks like to different people. A wonderful conversation ensued and I value each response. They all made me think more deeply on the topic.
One person said, “that moment when my dog doesn’t need a command…gets the job done, least fuss. Partnership.” This speaks to a relationship which each participant knows what the other wants without overt communication. Just like knowing another person very well, whether platonic or romantic, we seem to be able to read the other’s thoughts. Thinking scientifically, one would have to study this relationship to see how much of a dog’s responses were the result of unspoken cues. Cues can be body language, environmental, and situational. Someone unfamiliar with how well animals learn these things (not the case with this poster) might think the dog is reading their mind when a much simpler explanation serves. In fact, animals are so perceptive of these cues, that one might say that all responses are cue-based. Does this define a bond? It could.
Someone else wrote, “I don’t think I could judge that from outside a relationship. And I don’t think I have words to describe it from inside. Perhaps a positive sort of interdependence?” First of all, I love that phrase, “positive sort of interdependence”. I think dependence is a huge piece of bond building. The old saw that you become an animal’s best friend by feeding her is the most basic of approaches. There is much more one can do to enrich a animal’s life: going for dog walks, playing games the animal enjoys (as opposed to just throwing a ball because all dogs are supposed to bring back a thrown ball), allowing them choice (of activities, resting places, foods) and giving them pleasing physical contact. Food is a basic need, the others are added attractions. When we supply these, an animal can become attached to us. But note the phrase was “interdependence”. Which means we would be dependent on the animal as well. This can range from companionship to an animal we rely on for safety or income. It’s the companionship which leaves that terribly empty hole in my heart when I lose an animal.
Can we judge a bond from outside a relationship? People claim to all the time when they observe others. “Wow, you can tell those two really have a bond”. Or “that horse really trusts her!”. This last one tends to grate on me because it is so often said when the horse (or dog or whatever) is doing something out of the ordinary such as a horse lying down on command. What I see in those situations is that too often the animal was not given a choice. Training methods or equipment have taught the animal they have to do it or suffer unpleasant consequences. I think “trust” is heavily misinterpreted and unless you know HOW that animal was trained, you best leave that word out of the discussion.
Another person wrote: “There is something about the way an animal greets a human that tells a story of relationship. Also, there is something about when touching/petting where the animal leans in, closes or half moons their eyes and pauses (like a dog burying their face into you or a horse laying their muzzle on your shoulder to breath on you, etc)....those moments I find to mean there is a reciprocal connection.”
This was followed by someone replying: “I think about my awareness of when the animal becomes aware of my presence, and what that response looks like…” These two comments really struck a chord with me. They comment on what the animal does when free to choose, as opposed to how an animal responds to a cue or command. An initial greeting is based on previous experiences with that person. If there is trust in the relationship, the animal (in my opinion) will be far more likely to voluntarily approach, feeling secure that the person means no harm and has good things to offer whether it’s food, activities, or opportunities. This assumes that basic needs are met and the animal isn’t desperate for what the human has to offer.
Someone asked if a bond and a relationship were the same thing. I said that I thought they differed in that you can have a good or bad relationship but a bond is a good thing. Sadly, that was followed up with the information that there is something called a “trauma bond” which is loyalty to someone who is destructive. This certainly happens with animals as well as relationships between people but I really wish that they hadn’t included the word “bond” when they coined a term. I liked to think of a bond as being a two way pull which would only occur if both individuals were healthy and happy in the relationship.
But it does lead to a concern that was included in my musings on what a bond is. What if someone says they are bonded to an animal but someone in a place of authority disagrees? Perhaps the worst case scenario might be hoarders, who have too many animals because they “love them all”. In some cases those animals might never have known anyone else or any other kind of treatment and so they show fear when removed from the person. Does that mean they were bonded to that person? What about someone who just has not been educated on the body language of animals? They pat the dog too hard on the top of the head, they invade the dog’s space when he is eating or sleeping, and they don’t see the emotional signals from the dog showing discomfort, fear, or worse. They may feel companionship with the dog and so feel bonded, whereas the dog is not happy and may appear bonded simply because he comes when the person feeds and walks him. But is that a bond? All too often, we trainers see a bond break when that dog finally says “enough!” with a growl or a snap or a bite. The person is horrified, never saw it coming, and may want the dog out because the bond is now broken. If they are both fortunate enough to have a trainer involved, that bond can be fixed with education. Otherwise, the dog may need to attempt to form a bond with another person, unless the dog is doomed to euthanasia through no fault of his own.
Less dramatic but no less sad are when people use animals as tools for their own pleasure without knowledge or concern for the animal’s opinion. People may feel closely bonded with their horses used in sport or for work. The horse earns them prizes or money. They will tell you how much they love the horse and what good care they take. Problem is, the care may be more closely associated to their success than to the animal’s needs and desires. Fancy medical procedures so a horse remains sound enough to compete; carefully calibrated diets for optimum performance; a multitude of sheets and blankets so the horse’s coat is easy to care for and appears fancy; solitary stabling and turnout to ensure no injuries which could hinder the competition schedule are inflicted by another horse. How many of these would a horse choose if she could? If you opened a gate to other horses for companionship, naturally occurring forage and trees for shade…would that bond keep the horse with the person or would human be left standing alone in a sea of expensive accoutrements?
I do think that bonds develop when a human and animal share a challenge. This could be a competitive challenge as long as the welfare of the animal is taken more seriously than the final placing…every single moment. A simpler challenge might be something as brief as riding out a thunderstorm under a tree and comforting each other until it’s over. Or perhaps it’s a shared training challenge: finding one’s way to a goal in which the primary objective is to have the animal focused each step of the way, and as happy to achieve it (as opposed to exhausted and relieved that it’s over). I know a big piece of my bond with my Eloise dog was going through the Karen Pryor Academy training together. This involved all three of these challenges. We trained daily for six months, with KPA values front and center. We endured the discomforts of travel together: long drives to the training weekends and nights in hotels (some people like hotels, but I am not one of them and Eloise didn’t seem impressed either). Then we had our final exam. Eloise bounced through it all with body language communicating that she loved every minute of it. We passed and got the certificate to prove it which I appreciate but means nothing to a dog. It’s no wonder that KPA grads have “that special bond” with their KPA dog.
Another comment from the Bookends Farm Facebook page: “I think for a long time [horse’s name] and I had a relationship - that was based on what I could teach him, offer him, withhold , give, I think when I first realised we actually were developing a bond was when I noticed him start to "look" to me for help rather than rely on himself to sort out a difficult or scary situation - so could that be it? the bond began when he realised he could rely on me, or I on him? - and when those feelings of fear left me and I realised I could rely on him during situations what ever they might be, where we needed each other, or helped or supported the other ? - not conditioned behaviours required in a given situation but the innate knowledge that we were "there for each other”?” This comment just makes my heart explode with happiness.
And another: “if in the course of training, working or recreating, your dog isn't laughing...you're doing it wrong.” This one makes my face explode in a smile.
Someone commented on how equally their dog treats each member of the couple. That introduces another fascinating twist. I would say that most of the animals I know tend to have a tighter bond with one member of the family than others. Maybe that is just my own experience.
Bringing it back to Walter and Wilder. Wilder puppy is as appealing as only a puppy can be. He makes me laugh and loves to burrow in close to my body on the couch when I read. He wags his tail when he sees me and comes when I call. But I would not call us bonded. Yet. I don’t have any doubts it’s in progress due the the aforementioned. I guess I don’t believe in love at first sight, nor that one bonds with an animal in a short period of time. I’m not sure I could prescribe a specific time for a bond to develop but…time.
Walter has a wonderful eye. The body worker who looked at him before I purchased him commented on it. I have no idea how to define the look in a horse’s eye which radiates kindness but Walter has it. I noticed it immediately. But at that point it had nothing to do with me. He just had a kind eye. A couple weeks ago I went into his stall and there was an added ingredient to his expression. He moved his head toward me and the eye stayed soft, not as if he was expecting a treat. He just leaned in, as one of the commenters said, and I leaned toward him. We had a moment, forehead to forehead. After six months, something turned over in my heart and now I felt a bond with this horse. I hope he feels the same.