As a pet owner, you love your dog to pieces. But, as with any relationship, you’ll run into ruts from time to time. Maybe a new job has you tied up at the office working crazy hours. Maybe you just moved, started dating someone new or just had a baby. No matter what, life can get interrupted and you might not have as much time to spend with your pet as you once did. But fear not. As much as we like to project our complex emotions onto our pets, there’s (usually) nothing to be too worried about.
While dogs form attachments to their owners, they “can’t project like an older child or an adult,” says Dr. Leticia Dantas, director of behavioral medicine service at the University of Georgia.
“For instance, if you’re working longer hours and you can’t be with them, are they going to grow distant? No. They don’t have the combination to build resentment and have that kind of higher thinking,” she says. “They will miss you for sure, but that doesn’t mean that they grew distant. It just means that being alone is something they don’t cope well with.”
From buying interactive toys to training, here are a few tips and tricks you can use to strengthen the bond you have with your pet.
Training might not seem like a “fun” activity, but it’s a great way to bond with your dog and can be made fun for both of you. Use plenty of positive reinforcement training—or rewarding your dog when he or she performs the desired behavior—to get the ball rolling.
“It kind of helps us communicate [to] our dogs what we want. It’s just a really fun and engaging activity,” says Dr. Kelly C. Ballantyne, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Illinois.
To start off, Ballantyne suggests teaching your dog to shake or to touch his nose to your hand. You can reward your pup with dog treats or a good belly rub (if he likes that). Be careful to only parcel out food when your dog has performed good behavior, Ballantyne says, otherwise, treats lose their meaning.
Don’t think training doesn’t has to be time consuming either.
“Five or 10 minutes at a time, that’s a huge deal in their life,” says Dr. Amy Pike, a certified veterinary behaviorist at the Manassas, Virginia-based Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia.
2. Special Presents
Reward your dog with a special present, like a new treat or a toy, every now and then. Every Christmas, Pike heads to the Dollar Tree to buy squeaky dog toys, and then she lets her dogs rip them to shreds. “That’s their Christmas morning joy,” says Pike.
You can also take your dog on a walk to a local pet store and let him be the one to pick out his new, special treat.
3. Hire a Sitter
If you know you’ll be out of the house for an extended period of time, Dantas suggests hiring a dog sitter, dropping your dog off at a hotel or having someone come over to walk your dog.
“Just to make sure socially, they have that contact,” says Dantas. “Every dog is different. Some dogs need a lot of social contact. Some dogs are more independent. Some really care about one caregiver. Some care about any human being. You have to adapt what’s necessary to each individual.”
4. Take “Sniff” Walks
Many people think a dog walk should be athletic in nature, but try making it more leisurely. Give your dog time to sniff and explore his environment. Chances are your dog will enjoy it more.
“For dogs, getting out there and being able to sniff is actually really important and enriching for them,” says Ballantyne. “A good way to think about it: that’s how the dog gets their news.”
5. Interactive Toys
Dog puzzles or toys with treats “hidden” in them can be a great way to keep your dog entertained. Pike suggests creating an adventure box where multiple boxes are layered and each layer has a treat or toy for you dog or cat to play with.
This activity is something that’s exciting enough on it’s own that you can check your e-mail or work a little bit while he’s being kept busy. “You don’t have to feel so bad because your dog is being entertained with something so enjoyable,” says Ballantyne.
6. Do What Your Dog Likes
“Let your dog tell you what they enjoy,” says Ballantyne. “Some dogs really enjoy a good snuggle. But it’s important to realize that not every dog enjoys snuggling. Some dogs would rather play a game.”
You also could try playing fetch, tug or petting your dog. How do you figure out what your dog likes? Pay attention to your dog’s body language. Ballantyne says that some signs that your dog is enjoying what you’re doing include a nice, relaxed body posture, a tongue lolling out of the mouth or a wagging tail.
Signs of discomfort include dogs licking their lips or turning the head away, says Ballantyne. Also keep in mind that showing your dog you care doesn’t mean going over the top.
“It doesn’t have to be a big, huge grand gesture,” says Ballantyne.
Pike confirms that building your relationship with your pet doesn’t have to be complicated, either. “Anything that the dog enjoys, if you can engage in that with them, then that certainly is going to strengthen the bond between you two,” she says.
Teresa K. Traverse is a Phoenix-based writer, editor, traveler and dog mom to Chihuahuas Autumn and Rocket.