Dogs can bond with more than one person

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 4/27/11
By: Gail T. Fisher

A reader wrote:

“I am single and live alone with Jake, my four-month-old Golden Retriever. When my girlfriend visits, Jake goes wild. He acts as if I don't even exist. He doesn't greet me as excitedly as he does her. When she leaves, he looks around the house for her, and won't respond to my calls until he's finished looking. When she's gone, he seems depressed. Is it possible that he's more attracted to her than to me even though I'm the one who feeds, walks, cares for and loves him?”

This pup’s attraction to the girlfriend is called “bonding'' or the formation of strong attachments. The first bonding period in puppies occurs around six weeks of age, when a puppy will form a strong attachment with its primary caretaker.

Bonding can be gender- and even race-related, which is why it is important for puppies to be well-socialized with lots of different people during the formative developmental period, prior to twelve weeks of age. We don’t know anything about Jake’s first four months, but I’m guessing his breeder was a woman, that he may not have been socialized with men, and was 12 weeks or older when adopted. These factors would make his attraction to women greater. If the reader’s girlfriend spent time with Jake when he was first adopted, that would have strengthened the bonding. But this doesn’t mean that Jake doesn't love and respect his owner as well.

Although bonding is often permanent, it is not usually exclusive. Many dogs bond with more than one person in their lifetime. When I bred my second litter of Mastiffs, the owner of the stud dog got the pick of the litter, so at the age of eight weeks, I brought the best male puppy to the stud owner's home and left him. When I left, my puppy had his front feet against the fence wires watching me drive away.

A year and a half later, the woman who had bought this puppy called me to say that she could no longer keep Argus and offered him back to me. I went to see him, and when I walked into her kitchen, I was plastered against the wall by a huge, 185 pound Mastiff, planting his front feet on my shoulders and covering my face with huge, wet kisses. His owner said, “I've never seen him do that! It's almost as if he remembers you.” He did.

Despite not having seen me since he was eight weeks old, Argus had bonded with me. Many breeders have told me of similar experiences being recognized by dogs they haven't seen for years since they were young puppies. It’s not that a dog is pining for the one with whom he bonded. Argus had a wonderful relationship with his former owner (I did take him back. How could I not?), and had not spent a year and a half missing me.

My recommendation for the reader is to relax and focus on his own relationship with Jake. Building a bonded relationship is more than feeding, caring for and loving. It is helped by engaging in activities together. Training is an important activity—using a positive approach with lots of rewards. Do things Jake enjoys such as taking a walk in and letting him stop and smell the roses. Teach Jake to retrieve, and play games such as tug o’war.

Finally, the reader should talk to his girlfriend so they can work together to overcome Jake’s focus on her when she’s there, and his stress when she leaves. For example, while she’s there, the owner should play with Jake, train some tricks, or do some things to focus Jake on him. Whenever the reader calls Jake, she needs to immediately remove her attention from him, including stopping petting. Jake should see her leave, so he doesn’t need to search the house for her, and the reader should immediately do something Jake loves—take him for a walk, throw a ball for him, do some tricks. Teach Jake that fun things happen whether she’s there or not, and fun things continue when she leaves.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2011. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.