Everyone has heard of baby ducks seeing a human when they first hatch and imprinting on the human; that is to say, identifying with the human as their parent rather than their actual mother. The term “imprint” has come to mean any time an animal seems to connect with an animal of another species, usually relating to that animal as a mother. The correct, technical term for imprinting is “filial imprinting.” True imprinting is limited to certain species of birds, but many mammals model their behavior of that of their mother, whether she is a natural mother or a foster mother. And we commonly refer to this as “imprinting” as well.
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The Root of the Behavior
A puppy is born into the world with eyes that can’t open and ears that can’t hear. She is completely helpless and utterly dependent on her mother. Her eyes will open after about two weeks, and her hearing will take a little longer to develop. At the end of the first month, she will be able to stand, walk a little, and truly begin to experience the world. Her identity as a dog will still be developing. By the time a puppy is between seven to ten weeks old, she will have gained much of the basic experience she will need in life. She has learned how to eat, how to defecate and urinate, and how to play and interact with her littermates. Once she has learned the basics, she will begin to learn how to interact with the larger world.
A dog develops her identity as a dog by interacting with other dogs. They give her an idea of the expectations and language of “dogness” in the same way that people learn about being human through interactions with other people, first within our families and then with others in the world. A dog develops her sense of self first, then she gains a better understanding of being a dog, and then more confidence in herself as a dog by interacting with other dogs. Dog trainers and behaviorists refer to this as “socialization.” Trainers and behaviorists advise dog owners to expose their animals to other animals early and often so they can get used to being around others.
What we often call “imprinting behavior” in dogs generally means “bonding.” A dog raised properly does not mistake herself for a human, but does come to regard humans, and usually one human in particular, as the source of food, shelter, and safety. The dog shows her bond to her human often by following him around, learning to follow his commands more quickly, and in general, listening to him more than other people. We’ve all seen that one dog that, while friendly enough to other people, really only has eyes for one person. And, by the same token, we have all known dog owners who seem to regard their dog as their child.
Encouraging the Behavior
There’s a school of thought that says that as humans domesticated the dog, the dog changed her behavior to appeal to humans; behaving more like a puppy for longer, seeking attention and physical affection and offering the same right back to the person. It’s been well documented that interactions between a dog and her person will increase the oxytocin level of both, leading to the development and strengthening of an emotional bond. You could say that we domesticated wolves to become dogs and dogs domesticated humans to become dog people.
There are a lot of ways you can bond with your dog, even if she seems to have chosen another member of your household to bond tightly to, but the real secret is time and attention. You need to spend time with a dog, and pay attention to her, in order to truly connect. Your dog loves the sound of your voice, but she pays much more attention to your actions. To that end, if you want your dog to truly bond with you, then you need to make sure that you are actively interacting with her. Play with her, go for walks, groom her, and make sure to work on training every day. This will not only help your dog trust you but also it will help you understand your dog’s personality. The side effect of all this time together is that you and your dog will come to understand and appreciate each other, all while having fun!
Other Solutions and Considerations
Words like “imprint” and “bonding” sound pretty permanent. However, dogs are extremely flexible, and with some time and patience, they can bond with another family. What this means is that a dog who is rescued or rehomed can learn to bond with another family. You have to be prepared to meet the emotional needs of the dog. Try to find out as much as you can about the dog's past so that you are not inadvertently triggering the dog. If you’re in the position of being a rescuer or foster for a dog, just provide plenty of time and attention to your new dog, no matter her age. In most cases, time, attention, and patience will build the bond.