Asking ‘what is the human animal bond?’ almost feels like that question, “what is love?”
Animal trainers often discuss the Human animal bond in terms of “relationship”, which we also describe in terms of the scientific concept of “reinforcement history.” Dr. Ivan Pavlov’s research in the early 1900s clarified our understanding of how animals learn to make associations, including strong emotional associations. Pavlov demonstrated that dogs would form an association between the sound of a bell and the presentation of food, such that they would have an involuntary salivation response to the bell, even if there were no food present.
The human animal bond can be described from the perspective that animals learn to associate good things, like food, with us and that our relationship history stems from that. We form positive associations with animals in a similar fashion. Some might interpret that this perspective simply distills the human animal bond down to a set of expectations that humans and animals develop for each other over time.
Of course, anyone who has experienced a strong human animal bond will feel that it is more complex and goes deeper than that.
Types of Human Animal Bonds
To a certain extent, though, it is true. The deepest bonds really do happen when an animal feels safe and secure in their expectations of how you will behave towards them, and vice versa. One could even call it trust, and trust is one of the deepest levels of connection we can feel.
Let’s think about visiting the zoo, or watching a nature documentary. As you watch African wild dogs ferociously rip apart a toy they’ve been given, or see a wolf hunting its prey, has it ever crossed your mind that your dogs at home have the same equipment and are capable of the same behaviors? Yet, they sleep next to your children.
“The amazing thing is that we are able to do this because we are connected by mutual benefit. We benefit from them, and vice versa.” – Megan Phillips
Human animal bond research shows that we are social creatures who need each other to survive. We are naturally predisposed to be attached to others, and many animals are the same way. We’re all searching for things in the world that help us attain the environment and experience we desire: more safety, more resources, etc.
“When you take that natural inclination for attachment then add associative learning and positive reinforcement, it furthers the human animal bond.” – Jody Ambrose
If a strong bond with an animal helps to fulfill that search for what we want or need in our lives, the connection happens quite naturally, and it is no less magical.
When was the human animal bond recognized?
At Train with Trust, we started noticing more discussion of the concept of the human animal bond within the past decade. We started seeing more talks and presentations on the subject around 2012. It was also around this time that we started seeing more presentations on anthrozoology, human animal bond articles, and discussions at industry conferences like ABMA (American Behavior Management Alliance). Since then, we’ve seen more and more discussions on the human animal bond research initiative.
This timing also coincided with Megan’s move from work in zoos and aquariums, to full time human animal behavior consulting with domestic animals. The human animal bond is very evident there because that bond is often disrupted by how an animal behaves.
People can feel very hurt or even angry when an animal behaves in a way that is undesirable. Likewise, if an animal feels betrayed it shows in their behavior. Where the human animal bond is concerned, the stakes are high because animals risk being surrendered to an animal shelter or worse.
The field of animal behavior consulting, is about examining behavior problems and then finding solutions that promote behavioral wellness. These solutions always involve participation from both human and animal, and they generally involve a certain level of compromise. The willingness to see things from the other’s point of view, and to invest energy in making things better, is only possible when there is a meaningful human animal bond.
“Why is the human animal bond important? As a longtime dressage trainer, I think of those moments when a horse and rider are working together in perfect harmony. When everything clicks, it feels as if the horse’s body and yours are moving as one. To me, that’s sort of the ultimate example of the human animal bond.” – Jody Ambrose
Any horse, even the smallest ones could severely injure, even kill a human, or simply refuse to cooperate. They are perfectly capable. When they decide to work together with humans for a common goal, it is because they choose that.
This is where reinforcement history comes into play. If you have a history of bringing good things into an animal’s experience, they will look forward to having you around. If you have a history of being clear with communication and giving the horse a reason to want to work with you, they will. The human animal bond is extremely important when we have things we want to accomplish along with them.
History of the Human Animal Bond
Whether we have used animals for food, protection, companionship, exercise, competition, therapy, etc., humanity has a long history of being deeply interconnected with animals.
Animal human bonds can be important in different ways. Just like you have people in your life that you enjoy working with but don’t “hang out” with, human animal bonds can differ based on the individuals and circumstances. For example, a working bond can be found between a human and their herding dog, whereas you may have a more familial bond with your pet dog.
At the end of the day, human animal bonds are important because we depend on each other. This is not for just the individual, family, or community, but for our world and our global society.
It is a microcosm of experience.
When you step back to see the ecological view, the animal bond with human is about being connected.
“When you feel that empathy and bond and connection and understand it, you recognize that whatever essence is inside of that animal is the same as yourself.” -Megan Phillips
When we see a dog or cat use their paws like hands, we get excited. We say, “Look, look! They look just like me, like a little person!”
When we see ourselves in others, animals especially, we know we are all connected.
Think of therapy-assisting animals. There is a growing practice of using animals as therapy-assisters or a tool in psychotherapy, to promote certain kinds of feelings. Because of this trend, more research has been done about what happens to humans’ heart rate, blood pressure, and other things when they interact with animals.
There has been a kind of merging of objective science-based understanding and the more “touchy-feely” aspects of relationships that people gravitate towards.
Equine assisted therapy is a field that is growing rapidly. If you think about it, we have a lot we can learn from horses. They are, by nature, “big presences.” There is something very grounding about being very close to them. Yet, they are also prey animals, so people can relate to their fear. We get something important from them psychologically, by seeing ourselves in them.
The human animal bond is important because it helps to remind us that we are all connected. It helps animals to have better lives. It helps people to live better lives.
In this way, the human animal bond is far more important than just ourselves or our pets. The human animal bond is important because it is a microcosm of our experience of life on this planet when things are at their best. It is incredibly important that we remember that we share the world together with other living things, and it is almost impossible to recognize this quite as strongly without the human animal bond telling us we are important to another creature and belong to this planet.
How do bonds affect the well-being of animals?
When we think about how the human animal bond affects the well-being of animals, it comes back to animals’ dependence on humans. “Domestic” animals, by definition, are dependent on humans in some way. To examine the well-being of animals is to look at how well we humans are living up to our end of the bargain.
From a welfare perspective, we should always evaluate what we can, or should, be doing differently to fulfill that agreement. If we think it is important to provide the conditions for good welfare, then the human animal bond is critical. It is the motivation that drives us to do what is needed to give animals a good life. That is: a life free from unnecessary pain and suffering, while having opportunities for social connection, to express natural behavior and to have choice and control in their environment.
Beyond Domestic Animals
The well-being of animals doesn’t stop with domestic animals though. Animals living on their own, in their natural habitats are also affected by the choices and actions of humans. Everything we do can have a negative or positive impact on the natural world and the animals living in it. The stage for how to have a positive impact has been set by scientists such as Dr. Jane Goodall, who has always been an inspiration to both Jody and Megan. Her pioneering work studying wild chimpanzees and her on-going efforts in building community-based conservation efforts showcase the fact that we are all connected and dependent upon each other.
“There are no such things as ‘wild’ animals. In today’s world, animals are dependent on the goodwill of humans to survive, wherever they are.” – Jody Ambrose
Our bond with individual animals helps us to connect and elevate the welfare of all animal species as a whole. That sense of connection, a feeling of familiarity and kinship – the human animal bond- can be the motivation for us humans to make choices that will benefit the health of the environment and by extension, the animals who depend upon it.
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