It’s no secret that our dogs are furry little balls of unconditional love who look up to us and admire us completely. Sure, they may have their rebellious or mischievous moments, but those aren’t because they don’t love us. It’s just that they can get excited and forget themselves.
Dogs can also go nuts with love when their humans return home, whether they’ve just gone out for five minutes or have been gone for far longer. I’m sure we’ve all seen the very touching videos online of veterans returning home to be greeted by their dogs, who just explode in joy.
While we humans probably feel as excited, behaving the same way as dogs is probably not the best approach for them. A pet parent jumping up and down or spinning in circles while squealing excitedly would either wind their dog up in an unhealthy way or just make them really nervous.
So how do we show our love to our dogs?
Dogs have many parts
Like humans, a dog isn’t just one component that does one thing. In order to show them love, we have to make sure that we’re fulfilling the needs for each one of those things. They’re not a lot different than humans, although the order of precedence for needs in humans is probably different.
What makes up a dog? Body, mind, and spirit/soul.
1. Walk as a bonding exercise
Showing your love for a dog physically is probably the most direct and, to them, relatable way to show your love. For almost all dogs, the most exciting thing ever is to go to for a walk with their human, which is something you should make sure happens multiple times per day.
Not only is it a bonding opportunity for the two of you, in which you and your dog continue to build mutual trust, it will help calm them down by allowing them to expend their energy in a constructive way. The walk also allows your dog to learn new information about the neighborhood — what’s changed and what’s the same?
2. Snacks and treats — when appropriate
Like many humans, the quickest way to a dog’s heart is often through their stomach. Regular feeding is obligatory, of course, if you want a happy, healthy dog, but don’t neglect the little bonuses of snacks and treats.
Consult with your vet first concerning your dog’s nutritional and caloric needs, then settle on a healthy schedule as well as treats that are acceptable and compatible with your dog’s diet and needs.
Obviously, you don’t want to be tossing your dog a high-calorie peanut butter nom-nom every five minutes, but you can reward them at special times, like during training, or at certain times of the day.
And remember that, like humans, a dog could polish off a pint of ice cream without even thinking about it, although we (and they) really shouldn’t try it — and dogs don’t need to. A human may feel like anything less than an entire Oreo is not a fulfilling treat (okay, you know you just ate half the bag, admit it), but a dog will be content with much less.
First off, anything you give them by hand is instantly special in their minds. It has a bit of your scent on it, you specifically offered it to them instead of just tossing it in the bowl, and it’s a chance for them to show off and please you if you have them sit, shake, stay, wait, or do any other trick before they get it.
Second, in this case size really doesn’t matter. You’ve probably seen the treats professional trainers use, and they are tiny, often not more than an eighth of an inch on a side. What they do have is scent and flavor, and this is what sends the reward signal to your dog’s brain.
3. Help them enjoy going to the vet
The final component of showing your dog love through their body is something they may not see that way, but in the long term it is — take them to the vet for regular check-ups, have their teeth cleaned at least annually, and bring them in if they exhibit any serious symptoms lasting more than a day or two.
The key to having this be a good experience for your dog is for you to not feel any fear or trepidation over it yourself. A lot of dogs freak out the moment you get the car keys to take them to the vet because you’ve been worried that it’s going to be a bad experience for them, so have been sending a signal that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The best thing you can do, from the first time you take your dog to the vet and every time after, is to think of it as a fun adventure to go see old friends. After all, you may have been with the same vet for years, have developed a bond with the staff, and they will have been there for you through good times and bad.
Let your dog meet the front office staff and let them sniff around the exam room all they want when you bring them in — there will be time because vets and vet techs are busy, plus they like to build in that calming buffer.
Finally, don’t pick up and cuddle your dog while waiting or when the vet comes in, and especially don’t do it if they’re showing signs of anxiety or nerves (your dog, not the vet). Have them sit calmly next to you, or on your lap if they insist, and reassure them with quiet affection — a pat on the head or scratch behind the ears or on the chest.
If you get your dog used to the vet so they don’t see it as any big deal, then a visit will become another bonding adventure for the two of you, and another chance for you to show your love.
4. Enrich their environment
Okay, so you don’t need to get your dog music lessons or have them take up painting to stimulate their minds. They’re not quite that intellectual. But you can still show them you love them via their minds by making sure that they always have a stimulating environment.
This can mean lots of regular toys to chase and capture or chew on, but it can also mean more challenging things, like “hide-a-treat” toys, which can be as simple as a Kong with snacks in it or their EasyTreatTM Kong stuffing which comes in a can like a whip cream container in flavors including peanut butter, bacon & cheese, liver, and pepperoni. This challenges your dog to figure out how to get the good stuff out.
There are more elaborate hide-a-treat toys that involve your dog having to sniff out the treats and move around covers and lids in order to find them. Either way, you’re using your dog’s nose and appetite to get it to solve an intellectual challenge.
If you have access to classes or a backyard with room in it, you can also expose your dog to agility training, which isn’t just for the body. By teaching them to follow a specific course with different challenges, you’re helping them develop memory skills, as well as teaching them to focus as you guide them to the next obstacle.
Finally, don’t ignore scent. There are certain essential oils that can calm dogs down and their senses of smell are incredible. Note, though, that you should never apply any essential oil to a dog nor let them be able to get access to the diffuser or container. And don’t forget to put an old T-shirt that you’ve worn without washing into or near their bed or crate so it will always seem like you’re nearby.
5. Always keep teaching them new tricks
One thing you should always be doing is teaching your dog new tricks, even if your dog is old. Start with a trick they already do with barely a command. For a lot of dogs, this involves the trick “shake” or “paw,” because it’s natural for them to use a paw to manipulate a treat or toy and it’s probably the second trick they learned after “sit” anyway.
Some dogs learn the trick so well that their paw gets going as soon as the treat is out. This can be cute, but it’s also an indication that it’s time to build on the trick. Try turning “shake” into “high five,” for example — same idea, but your dog swings their forearm up at the elbow to tap your raised palm.
If your dog only ever shakes with one paw, then try to switch the movement to the other one until they can shake with both, but be sure to give a different name for each paw, like “left” or “right.”
It is surprising, by the way, how many dogs only shake with one paw and how often that it’s the left one, but this is probably humans’ fault, since we’ll reach out to train them with our right hand but don’t teach them the “crossover” idea, which is probably just weird to them anyway.
Remember: Our dogs want to please us, so they’re going to learn exactly what we teach them!
You can also teach your dog a second language, which is great incentive for you to use the ones you already know or to learn one yourself. You don’t need a lot of vocabulary or grammar, but try gradually alternating and then substituting commands your dog knows with the new words.
Always keep the same intent, but you’d be surprised how quickly a dog can pick up on the meaning of a new word in a foreign language when you associate it with the original, until you can drop the association altogether.
A lot of police dogs, for example, are trained in Germany since the majority are German shepherds born and raised there, so they learn their commands in the native tongue before being sent all over the world. However, it’s up to the local handlers as to whether they’re going to learn the German commands or teach their dog the ones in their new country.
6. Keep calm and dog parent on
The best way you can love your dog by soothing their spirit is to stay calm around them at all times. The worst thing you can do in any situation, especially outside the home, is to lose your cool and start freaking out.
For example, you come home and your dog had an accident on the floor. A lot of people would immediately start scolding the dog, saying things like, “Who did this? Did you do this? Bad dog!” The dog knows they did it, although they probably didn’t remember doing it until they saw you see it, but your reacting like this is just going to make your dog anxious in future.
The best approach when you find that surprise mess is to calmly get the supplies and clean it up without saying anything. It’s all right to feel a little disappointment, but don’t start shouting. You can glance at your dog occasionally during the process to let them know that you know they did it, which will get the message across.
When you’re done cleaning up, ignore them for a while. They will probably come running to you to apologize.
Not keeping calm at home will just give your dog issues — like they may become nervous about your return from work, school, or wherever. But not being calm when you’re not at home, like on the walk, can cause bigger problems.
For example, the worst thing you can do if your dog and another one start to get aggressive with each other is to start screaming “No!” and pulling hard on the leash. Your dog understands this as, “Danger! Help!” and it’s going to make them go even more on the attack.
Instead, stay calm and say nothing, and redirect your dog to the side away from the other dog. You can walk between them if you’d like (being careful to avoid being bitten by either), then gently pull the lead into the outside turn, as it were, and calmly head in a different direction.
Of course, dog aggression can be triggered by the humans expecting it, and people can fall into the vicious circle of thinking that their dog is aggressive, so they react nervously on the walk when they see another dog and tense up on the leash as that dog approaches.
Ta-da! That’s the secret formula to get your dog to lunge at a strange dog, because your tension and nervousness has told them, “I’m scared. You need to do your job and protect me.”
Much better to see the other dog and train yourself to think, “That dog is no danger. Maybe they can say hello.” Create the pawsitive experience in your head and you’ll telegraph that calm right to your dog.
7. Be a good listener
Some dog breeds are more talkative than others. For example, huskies can get quite vocal when they’re frustrated or not getting what they want from you. Other dogs are quieter, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t talking to us all the time.
The problem is that we don’t always listen to what the dog is actually saying and try to interpret it in human terms. For example, your dog walks into the room, sits, and stares at you, probably with a relaxed jaw and tongue-lolling “smile.”
If you reply by narrating what your dog is “thinking,” then you’re not doing it right. Announcing “Look, she’s saying, ‘I love you Daddy!’”, especially in a high-pitched baby-talk voice, is not only not listening to your dog, but it’s completely denying the idea that they have anything to say.
Dogs speak simply, with their body language, and a dog “sentence” is generally only three parts: The person whose attention they’re trying to get, the thing that they want, and then a confirmation that the stupid human understood.
So when the dog sits and looks, it’s to get your attention. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, you. Pay attention now.”
When they think they have your attention, they’ll next turn to what they want. For example, they may look up at the cupboard where the food is, or at their (empty) water bowl, or at their leash hanging by the door. Once they’ve taken that look and focused, then they’ll turn back to you, possibly with a head tilt. This is them saying, “Got that, or do I have to ask again?”
The great part is that dogs don’t really need verbs — the action words are in the person they’re talking to and what they want. Obviously, you’re not going to walk their water bowl or fill their leash.
Dogs can add emphasis, though, so sometimes it progresses beyond staring at you. You may suddenly find a furry muzzle insistently leaning on your leg, shifting position and pushing harder if you ignore it. Some dogs may even progress to nipping at ankles or grabbing socks or pants legs if you’re not listening right now!
A vocalization or a bark is the most serious emphasis. That’s dog for all caps and triple exclamation marks.
8. Live in the moment with them
Dogs are natural masters of living in the moment. They don’t lie around brooding about the past or worrying about the future. A dog won’t suddenly become depressed because they remembered not catching that squirrel last summer, and they won’t become anxious because you’ve made a vet appointment for them next week.
When it comes to this, humans aren’t so good at it. And, to be honest, it’s impossible for us to live in the moment all the time, because we do have past things to think about and future events to focus on. That’s probably 80% of our day — “Did I mention that new client at our team meeting last week or not?” “Okay, don’t forget that the kids’ soccer practice was cancelled next week, but music lessons are still on.”
It can be a quite distracting monologue, but if you can manage to turn it off at some point and just sit quietly with your dog somewhere, it will calm you down enormously, as well as help you connect to your dog directly. With both of you just focused on “right now,” you’ll start to experience the world as they do, and they will sense that and be very happy.
I mean, what better way to show your dog you love them than to become like them for a while?
How to do everything at once
Those are eight ways focused on three aspects of your dog, but there’s one thing you can do that will cover all of them at once and let you show the greatest love of all.
Go for a walk with your dog. Although it was number one under Body, it is also good for your dog’s mind, because it exposes them to a wider horizon of sights and smells. And it’s good for your dog’s spirit because it gets them outside of a man-made environment and puts the sky overhead — especially if you can get off of sidewalks and use hiking trails or grassy parks.
The walk directly imitates the experience of a dog in a wild pack — moving through nature together — and will put them in touch with their instincts in a positive way.
Listen and love
While we all love our fur-babies very much, we can sometimes forget to show it in the day-to-day hassles of life. It’s not enough to just fill the food and water bowl, go for walkies, and give them a comfy bed and blankie.
Showing our love for them is a daily and conscious effort, and we have to make sure that we engage all three parts of their being: Body, mind and spirit. They will notice, and they will thank you for it. Just remember to always be listening to your dogs, because they have a lot to tell you.
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