Relationships are essential to human well-being. The need to love and be loved, to belong and be accepted are high level motives characterized by Abraham Maslow and prioritized on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Meyer, 2014). Many humans use canines to fill this special niche in their emotional bank account (Amiot & Bastian, 2014). The attachment theory developed by Bowlby in the late 1960’s has been used to explain the need for humans to protect and to be protected. This, along with the need to belong and be loved, could explain why over 70 million households report dogs kept as pets in the United States (Dotson & Hyatt 2008). Many dog owners seem to develop anthropomorphic attitudes towards their dogs in which they project human feelings, motives, and qualities, and often perceive their dogs as human substitutes (Fine, 2010). Many people believe human-canine relationships are more reliable than human-human relationships. Biophilia is another theory explaining why humans are interested in dogs. Biophilia is the emotional attachment humans have for non-human life forms (Kahn & Kellert, 2002). The need humans have to bond with dogs is well documented.
Relationship is a rather broad term, and is used in this paper to refer to the interaction of humans with domestic canines. Companionship, attachment, bonding, connection, and perceived emotional closeness may spring from human-canine relationships. Human-canine relationships vary from assisting humans in maintaining homeostasis, to filling high-level motives such as feeling safe and being loved. However, some cultures maintain the human-canine relationship for food and clothing (Amiot & Bastian, 2014). Because different human cultures view dogs in different ways, human-canine relationships may be divided into four categories: object-oriented (dog as a possession), utilitarian/exploitative (dog as a servant), need-dependency (dog as companion or child replacement), and the actualizing (dog as a respected significant other (Dotson & Hyatt, 2007).
The proven benefits of a close human-canine bond are biopsychosocial. In other words, the benefits to humans may be physical, mental, and social. More academic information is found on the biological benefits of having a relationship with a canine than the psychological aspect of the relationship (Meyer 2010).
The biological benefits of a human-canine relationship have become more apparent in the last 20 years as more studies have been done, and the results published. Close emotionally based human-canine relationships can activate a region of the brain called the prefrontal-cortex which is responsible for the release of “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin. Oxytocin has a calming effect and has actually been proven to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure, as well as lower cortisol levels and increase beta-endorphins and dopamine (Fine, 2010). Health benefits of dog ownership have been touted in several important studies. One such groundbreaking study involved 92-outpaients in a cardiac care unit. These patients, who were all dog owners, were found to outlive patients who did not own dogs (Friedmann et al., 1980). This report prompted an entire series of health related studies and also opened the door for discussion of the apparent health benefits of dog ownerships.
The majority of people don’t own pets for the physical benefits, but for the social and mental health benefits (coulter & Pichot, 2007). People accompanied by an animal, even in a picture, are perceived in a more positive manner by other people than if they were without an animal (Amiot & Bastian, 2014). Animals are nonjudgmental, quick to forgive, and are not emotionally demanding. Forming relationships with animals eases mental stress and fills the need humans have for companionship. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted activities (AAA), and animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are a few of the well-documented programs in which human-animal interactions are developed to improve human mental health. Owning a dog also helps facilitate social interactions between other human beings.
Integrating the dog into a successful relationship with a human is as important as teaching the human how to train the dog. In order to aid in the development of human-canine relationships, it must be determined exactly what type of relationship is desired by the human. A scale devised by Monash University, Victoria, Australia, the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS), was devised to measure human-canine relationships in a psycho-metrically sound, multidimensional way, so as to increase understanding and the scope of the relationship in an empirically valid manner (Bennett, Coleman & Dwyer, 2006). The scale recognizes the fact that self-interest underlies all human-canine interactions. A portion of the scale is based on, what social psychologists call the social exchange theory, which suggests that only when the perceived benefits of the relationship out weigh, or are balanced with, the perceived cost, will the relationship be worth maintaining (Meyer, 2014). In all human-canine relationships, the canine must be a compliant counterpart no matter what the desired outcome of the relationship happens to be. Teaching humans to train the canine counterpart to be an obedient participant in the relationship is paramount to the existence and maintenance of the relationship.
A large body of research and practice on animal learning and cognition exists on which to base a humane curriculum in dog obedience training. One such study was conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He began studying the way animals responded to stimulus in their environments. He started from the idea there are some things a dog does not need to learn. For example, dogs don’t learn to salivate whenever they see food. This reflex is “hard wired” into the dog. It is an unconditioned response, or a stimulus-response connection that required no learning. He realized he had made an important discovery, therefore, Pavlov used salivary secretions as his experiment. Hungry dogs were shown food and he noticed they salivated, thus being considered an unconditioned, natural response. Taking it one step further, Pavlov rang a bell when showing the hungry dogs food. He noticed the dogs began to salivate upon hearing the bell. This response was considered a conditioned, or trained response (Meyer, 2014). Most of today’s positive training produces a conditioned response. Harsh methods can create unconditioned responses as the dog’s natural survival skills kick in.
In the early 70’s obedience training involved intimidation of the animal being trained. Positive trainers were few and far between and often scoffed at. I started training using William Koehler’s intimidation methods and found my dogs were working for me simply because they were afraid not to work. William Kohler’s argument against positive training methods was he wanted a dog to be 100% reliable. In other words, the dog was afraid to respond incorrectly, knowing the consequences for an incorrect response (Koehler, 1972). I found dogs given severe corrections work fearfully not happily.
In the early 1980’s, while searching for more positive methods of training, I came across Jack and Wendy Volhard. Their methods were based on human psychology, and although corrections were used, positive behavior was rewarded with treats. One reason for using human psychology with dogs is that there are many similarities in the cognitive and physiological processes underlying learning in humans and animals (Flaherty, 1985). Completely positive training, using no corrections at all, has shortcomings as well. Extinction will occur when treats are decreased or stopped (Meyer, 2014). However, spontaneous recover, or the reappearance of the desired response to commands happens when treats are re-introduced (Flaherty, 1985). I embraced the balance of their training methods. After using their methods with my dogs and seeing the results, I knew their method, coupled with pack training, was the method I would use. Every dog has a natural, innate, pack mentality. The pack mentality is one of the greatest natural forces involved in shaping a dogs behavior (Millan, 2006). Even though I disagree with some of Cesar Millan’s tough training methods, being a calm-assertive pack leader is crucial to the success of the relationship.
In 1993, after using mostly the Volhard method of training for almost ten years, I spent a week in Syracuse, New York with Jack and Wendy Volhard at a camp for obedience instructors. The mechanics of instructing and method review were covered.
Training dogs and people is a terribly complex task, one that calls for a full measure of patience, tact, humor, technical skill, and optimism (Fisher & Volhard, 1987). Being an obedience instructor can be one of the most nerve wracking and tiring professions. It can also be on of the most rewarding professions. The rewards are the successes of the students—establishing harmonious and mutually enjoyable relationships between the students and their dogs.