Enhancing the Human Animal Bond
There is no doubt that people and their companion animals have an emotional connection, and this emotional connection can be strengthened and enhanced, bringing more joy to the lives of both. “People and their pets connect via shared brain structures that predate the development of the human frontal cortex with its apparatus of language and rationality. Animals and humans interact from their respective limbic systems, the brain’s emotional parts. Unlike people, animals are acutely sensitive to messages from the limbic brain—both their own and that of their owners1￼ Dr. Mati tells a story about one of his patients and her pet rabbit. As his patient Rachel began working through her repressed anger, her pet rabbit was able to help her recognize her anger. If Rachel tried to pick up her rabbit while she was angry, her rabbit would refuse, by running away or hiding from her. Rachel learned to recognize her anger by noticing how she was feeling when her rabbit refused to be picked up. As Rachel learned to recognize and work through her repressed anger, her emotional bond with her rabbit grew even stronger.
Allen M. Schoen, DVM, MS has suggestions for how to increase the bond between pets and their owners in his book, Kindred Spirits. He describes “co-species meditation” and “kindred relaxation” as ways to deepen the emotional connection. He outlines the steps, which include finding a quiet place, sitting in a comfortable position, or lying down, closing your eyes, and breathing slowly and deeply. Visualize your animal friend relaxing with you, stay with the breath and your visualization for five to twenty minutes.
I have a daily morning meditation practice that follows my yoga practice. My cat Tate likes to curl up between my shins while I’m lying down. It has become such a routine that he greets me when I get out of bed and follows me to my yoga mat. There is something especially calming about having a warm, purring feline join me for meditation. It helps me to feel more connected to him and to my deeper self.
If meditation isn’t your thing, try walking your dog mindfully. As you and your dog walk, allow yourself to follow your breath to help calm your mind. Then, begin to imagine being inside your dog’s head. Envision how the world might be perceived through the canine eyes and more especially the canine nose. Notice what you see when looking from your dog’s level. Notice what smells you perceive. Pay attention to your dog’s behavior and see if you can figure out what (s)he is responding to.3 These practices improve your awareness of your dog as well as deepen your connection to him/her.
Mindfully connecting with a cat probably won’t happen in a walk setting. But it’s still possible. One approach is to get down to his/her level, begin to breathe slowly and visualize your surroundings from your cat’s perspective. Perhaps you even take a short cat nap with your cat. Don’t underestimate the power of touch. Petting, scratching, caressing, even gentle brushing connects you and your cat, and they have also been shown to lower stress levels and blood pressure.
Expanding on the idea of mindfully thinking like your pet, you can try to imagine your home environment from the perspective of your dog or cat. This can be particularly helpful if your pet is beginning to experience mobility issues. View your surroundings from their level, maybe even physically crawling through the house along your pet’s usual routes and to his/her favorite places. This may sound silly, but it’s helpful in gaining insight into their perspective and in finding ways that you can make the environment more accessible for him/her.
Dr. Schoen also recommends talking and listening, and having a conversation with your pet. Many of us already talk to our animals, but how closely do we listen? Try to make your conversations more intentional and listen more than you talk. Really focus on what your pet might be communicating to you. Is it just time for dinner, or is your pet letting you know how much they love and appreciate you? Be curious and open-minded. With dogs especially, we are always telling them what to do, and sometimes even yelling at them. Recent research has shown that yelling actually causes dogs to “display more stress-related behaviors and body postures…and higher levels of cortisol….and were more pessimistic in cognitive bias tasks.” 4 The researchers concluded that positive training methods and interactions were more effective and that yelling at and/or punishing your dog could lead to long-term negative effects on your dog’s mental state. By listening to what our dogs and cats are trying to communicate through their vocalizations and body language, we can better understand their world and deepen our bond with them.
There are many ways to strengthen the bond between our pets and ourselves, but all of them include spending time together and above all being respectful. If we are more attentive, more mindful, and more intentional with our words and actions, we will connect more deeply with our companion animals. Strengthening the bond happens when both the pet and the pet owner choose to connect. Our pets often follow our lead. Dogs especially look to us before deciding how to respond. If we are more direct and deliberate with our thoughts and actions, our pets will respond in kind, enriching both our lives and theirs.
1 Gabor Mati, M.D., When the Body Says No.
2 Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, Kindred Spirits, p.207-211.
3 Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, Kindred Spirits, p.212-215
4 Michelle Starr, “Heart Wrenching Study Shows Why You Shouldn’t Yell At Your Dog,” sciencealert.com