Join me as I interview Emily Tronetti, owner of Coexistence Consulting in Bellevue, WA, on the podcast today. We discuss two of my favorite topics: the human-canine bond and how to care for ourselves so we can support our best friends.
Emily is an anthrozoologist as well as a certified dog trainer. She offers training, consulting, and education to pet professionals and parents. Since childhood, her relationships with animals have been so important to her emotional wellbeing and mental health. She ended up pursuing a career in dog training while also attending the graduate program in Anthrozoology at Canisius College. Anthrozoology is the study of the relationships and interactions between humans and other animals.
How would you define the human-canine bond?
Emily says, “The human-canine bond can be hard to define. On an individual level, it’s a very personal experience. Based on my experience and education, I define the human-canine bond as a mutually beneficial relationship in which both the dog and the human are experiencing positive welfare.”
What is the science behind this incredible bond?
“From a scientific perspective, research on the human-canine bond is still pretty new. The research that’s been done so far is uncovering many interesting things about the relationships between dogs and their humans.”
Domestication of dogs research:
- Dogs were the first nonhuman animals to be domesticated somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago (Prassack et al., 2020).
- During the domestication of dogs, these canines underwent several changes. How they looked changed, and there were also developmental, social, cognitive, and behavioral changes that took place. Over time, dogs further developed skills that have allowed them to have such a cooperative, close relationship with humans (Bentosela et al., 2016; Heberlein et al., 2016; Lampe et al., 2017; Range, et al., 2019).
Research on the human-canine bond:
- Dogs can follow human pointing gestures as early as four months old, even without intensive socialization earlier in life (Virányi et al., 2007). Dogs can also interpret the direction of our gaze and have demonstrated an ability to communicate with humans using gaze (Johnston et al., 2017; Nagasawa, et al., 2009). For example, if dogs are struggling to solve a task, they’ll gaze at humans to request their assistance.
- In addition to their attention to our gaze, studies suggest that dogs can also interpret human emotions by discriminating our facial expressions, our posture, our vocalizations as well as our odor and chemical signals (Albuquerque et al., 2016; Siniscalchi et al., 2016; D’Aniello et al., 2018; Siniscalchi et al., 2018).
- There’s also some interesting research demonstrating that there is an emotional contagion from guardian to dog (Katayama et al., 2019). Emotional contagion is a primitive form of empathy, it’s the mirror of emotional states between individuals (Sundman et al., 2019). One example of this is yawning. Some dogs yawn when they see their guardians yawn. One study found that the strength of the emotional contagion between dogs and their guardians increased the longer the dog lived with their guardian in addition to how much time they spend with each other day to day.
- Another study from last year determined that and this is a quote, “dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress levels of their owners” (Sundman et al., 2019). More specifically, they found that the stress hormone levels of dogs and their guardians synchronize over time. A number of factors correlated with this, such as gender, lifestyle, and the guardian’s personality. The researchers discussed how it seems that humans who have high Neuroticism scores on personality tests form strong attachment bonds to their dogs. They also tend to rely more on their dog for social support while also serving as a social supporter for their dog. The researchers said that this may have a positive effect on both the human and their dog’s stress.
Because our bond is so strong and we’re in concert with one another, how can we support ourselves to protect this bond?
#1: Know that you (and your dog) are going to make mistakes.
Many of us pressure ourselves to be perfect not only in our work but in our relationships. Emily comments, “Perfection is not real, and mistakes are just information. They’re just a part of the process of making progress.” One way to be kinder to yourself is recognizing when there is blame or shame in your self-talk and reframing that language.
#2: Know what triggers you so we can be aware of the possible projections.
Dogs know how we are feeling, whether that’s through our body language, our facial expressions, or how we smell, so being aware of when we are stressed is critical for the relationship. Stress influences our body language and behavior which can negatively impact our dog’s behavior. As trainers, we talk a lot about trigger stacking and keeping dogs under emotional threshold. This concept also applies to humans. Practice checking in with yourself and getting to know your own triggers so you can also identify when you’re approaching emotional threshold.
#3: Resource yourself.
Fill up your cup!! With whatever makes you feel capable, rested, and resourced. This could mean saying no to something or saying yes to someone. It might mean noticing you’re getting frustrated and dealing with that emotion away from your dog so it does not negatively impact them.
#4: Know when to ask for help.
Asking for help does not make you a failure. We cannot know it all, we cannot do it all. We all need support sometimes. So, if you don’t have the answer, if you think you might need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who can. That might be a veterinarian, a dog trainer, your spouse, family member or friend.
Emily’s website: www.coexistence.consulting
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