human-animal relationships

When the human-animal bond fails

We often hear the phrase “human-animal bond.” “Bond” seems to imply that all is warm and fuzzy and positive. But not all human-companion animal relationships are successful. There are complications and, at times, relationships that are downright unsuccessful. Some people who acquire a pet for themselves or for a child have no real capacity to bond with an animal—there simply is no fellow-feeling. Sometimes a particular human will fail to bond with a particular animal, perhaps because conflicting personality traits or unmatched needs create too much tension and not enough mutual love. And, of course, sometimes there is a strong bond between a person and an animal, but the relationship nonetheless fails to work because the animal has behavioral issues or emotional needs that the human is not equipped to handle.

Veterinarian Mary Stewart in her book Companion Animal Death outlines some of the primary reasons for unsuccessful human-animal relationships:

1. Choosing the wrong kind of animal, or the wrong breed, for particular lifestyle or expectations. The classic case is the over-extended family who adopts a yellow lab—just like Marley—but is actually too busy to have an animal, much less one who thrives on interaction and needs a lot of attention.

2. Having unrealistic or very specific expectations. Maybe, for example, someone gets a cat because they want an animal who will curl up on their lap. But not all cats like to curl up on laps. Or maybe someone acquires a large dog to protect their house, only to discover that this particular canine is more likely to lick an intruder’s face than bark and growl.

3. Not understanding that having a pet is hard work and there are difficult aspects to pet keeping. It looks so fun to have a puppy…. but once you get it home, you realize that in addition to all the snuggling and puppy breath, having this creature in your life also means getting up at all hours of the night, cleaning pee and poop off the floor, going for a walk whether you feel like it or not, getting woken up at 5 a.m. in the morning on your day off, and finding holes in your favorite shoes. 

4. Not being realistic about the financial commitment of caring for an animal. The ASPCA estimates that owning a dog costs between $1,300-1,500 a year and a cat a little over $1,000—assuming that no special veterinary needs arise. Even a guinea pig will cost about $700 a year.  

5. Ignorance about training and socialization, with an untrained animal then having behavioral problems. Behavioral “problems” are the number one reason dogs are cats are relinquished to shelters, and the primary reason healthy animals are euthanized. More often than not, the fault lies with the owner, not the animal. People may be enthusiastic about teaching their new puppy to sit, but it requires discipline and commitment to continue working with an animal throughout her lifetime, and there is a lifetime of behavioral and emotional negotiation between human and animal. Behavioral patterns can change as an animal ages; new behaviors—sometimes quite challenging—can develop. We have to work hard to shape the behavior of an animal to fit our needs and expectations, and it is unfair to blame an animal for failing to learn, when we have failed to teach.

6. Ignorance about needs of the animal. Someone might, for example, decide to get a Dalmation, because their daughter loved 101 Dalmations, and the puppies are just too cute. They might not—because they didn’t do their homework—realize that Dalmations need a lot of exercise and can become a bit wacky if not given enough physical and mental stimulation. Or, someone might stop at the Crab Shack kiosk at the mall and buy their kid a hermit crab whose shell is painted like Spider Man. Many of these impulse-buy crabs will perish because their human owner doesn’t know that the chlorine in tap water will kill the crab, or that they need a humid environment, or that hermit crabs are not, in fact, hermit-like and actually need the companionship of other crabs.article continues after advertisement

7. The first six reasons really have to do with human expectations and responsibilities. But animals, themselves, can sometimes be difficult to love. An animal may have a personality that doesn’t “match” the owner’s personality; human and animal may have a mutual dislike; or an animal may have difficult quirks and challenges—like severe anxiety. Some animals can “have a screw loose” and exhibit truly problematic behaviors such as extreme or unpredictable aggression.

When the bond fails, things can get ugly. On the human side, the failure to bond can be exasperating and disappointing; it can generate feelings of anger and frustration toward the animal. And it can often leave a person with feelings of guilt and self-doubt. For the animals, things can be even worse. At a minimum, an animal can be stuck in a home where he or she is unloved or neglected. When a human feels anger and frustration toward an animal, the animal will often be unfairly scolded or punished. And often when a relationship fails to thrive, the animal winds up out on the street, quite literally. Or relinquished to a shelter. Or even, in the worst case scenario, being euthanized. (Notice that Mary Stewart’s book is entitled Companion Animal Death.)

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Livesblank

Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Petsblank

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possibleblank

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animalsblank

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Ageblank

Editors Comments

Human-animal relationships sometimes fail – at best causing distress to the dog and the dog’s owner and at worst leading to the dog being abandoned or even euthanized. In fact many street dogs and shelter dogs are the result of a breakdown in the human-animal relationship. Can this breakdown in the human-animal relationship be prevented? Well hopefully this article will help dog owners to avoid the seven primary pitfalls.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever had bonding challenges with your dog that you have been able to successfully resolve? Please share them with our readers using the comment box at the bottom of the page or alternatively by sharing your story here [email protected].

Previous articleIs Your Dog a Stress-Eater?
Next articleIs Your Dog in Pain?
Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (Chicago, 2016) and The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives (Chicago, 2012). Additional authored and co-authored books include Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (New World Library, release date of Feb. 6, 2019, with Marc Bekoff), The Animal's Agenda: Compassion and Coexistence in the Age of Humans (Beacon Press, 2017, with Marc Bekoff), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals; Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases; The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care; and Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics. Some of the questions she explores in her writings on death and dying in animals are: Do animals have death awareness? Why is euthanasia almost always considered the compassionate end point for our animals, but not for our human companions? Is there ever a good reason to euthanize a healthy dog? Why do people often grieve more deeply for their pets than they do for people?
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments