Dine or perform? Do you go to the gym or do you go for a run? We make many daily decisions without much thought. But what about our dogs? We decide what they eat, where they sleep, if they have a garden and when they are let out. We decide when they play (and usually with whom) and even when and where they do their business. All of these restrictions can make for unhappy dogs. But by giving our dogs more choices, we improve how they feel, and often better behavior follows.
Dogs face the daily challenges of living in a people-centered world, so it’s up to us to help them get along. We can support our dogs by giving them choices and opportunities.
Applied ethologist Kim Brophey says, “Few modern dogs were evolutionarily, naturally prepared for the life of a ‘domestic dog’. The autonomy and instincts, the choices and actions for which dogs have historically evolved, are in most cases not only no longer valued, but are even considered ‘problem behavior’.”
Take, for example, the terrier’s need to hunt or the Border Collie’s need to herd. When the terrier digs up the yard or the Border Collie bites children’s heels, it is labeled a “bad” dog as problem behavior. But dogs need outlets for their energy and time just to be dogs.
Kim encourages us to: “Let them destroy their own belongings for the thrill of it; let them chew sticks and pinecones without popping in their mouths. We can let them spend as many hours as they want in the fenced backyard, enjoying the elements.” unsupervised; take them for long walks in the woods on a 30 foot leash in the middle of nowhere and let them be in the moment long enough, away from human madness to remember in their bones who they are.
Let your dog solve the problem
Choice empowers our dogs, encourages resilience and autonomy, and helps build confidence and independence. It increases their ability to make good choices without direction; a practical skill that keeps us from micromanaging their behavior. Dogs are good at solving problems on their own if we let them.
Certified dog behavior consultant Laura Donaldson advocates going one step further by giving dogs freedom of choice, which is steroid choice. Laura says, “I define agency as dogs that learn that they can influence their environment by using their behavior. They don’t just respond to human ‘commands’ about what to do and when. First and foremost, give them time and space to so that they can solve problems and make good decisions.”
Easy ways to give choice
Giving dogs choices means providing at least two good options that are healthy, safe and do not reinforce unwanted behaviors. Here are some easy ways to get started:
- Let your dog follow his nose and choose the route during walks.
- Give him several comfortable sleeping places instead of just one.
- Let him choose his own toys.
- If he doesn’t feel a certain training session, stop for the day.
- Let your dog choose to be petted or not: If he runs away, don’t force it. If he wants more, you’ll know.
- Not all dogs want to be social butterflies. So instead of letting him hang out with guests, let him chill under the table if he wants to, or give him a special quiet space.
- Have him go the other way if a strange or unfamiliar dog approaches on walks. Don’t force it.
By respecting dogs’ decisions, we help prevent problems such as learned helplessness where our dogs feel they have no control over their environment and flooding which happens when a dog is forced to experience something they find scary. Both make for unhappy dogs.
Certified Dog Behavior Consultant Allie Bender explains, “Some maladaptive behaviors are exacerbated or even caused by a lack of choice and/or control. When we give our dogs the opportunity and skills to make better choices, we open the door to working with them, rather than fighting them, to solve behavioral problems.” It’s a win-win situation: when dogs have more control over their lives, we see less unwanted behavior.
Check in with your dog
In any situation, check your dog’s body language. If he doesn’t want to do something, give him the freedom to opt out. Never underestimate your dog’s attempts to communicate with you that he is not comfortable.
Reading a dog’s body language is a big thing, but here are a few tips about specific body parts:
The head should be erect and confident; averted is avoidance or reverence, and a lowered head signals fear or submission.
Relaxed ears can be forward or back; Pinned back can mean submission or fear, while pinned forward indicates excitement (can be friendly or not).
Eyes should be soft and may even be squint; averted eyes can mean fear or submission; and while eye contact is good, staring hard can be a sign of trouble.
The body should be loose, upright and confident; tense or lowered postures can mean that a dog is scared, anxious, or even aggressive.
Ideally, the tail should be carried low to medium, with a relaxed and friendly wag; tail carried high indicates excitement (may be playing or aggressive) and tucked up indicates fear or submission.
By observing our dogs’ decision-making processes, we have a daily opportunity to learn about their preferences, personalities, wants and needs so that we can help them live their best lives. A solid combination of training life skills, meeting their physical, emotional and mental needs, and providing choices helps our dogs feel better. And when they feel better, they behave better.
Simple Toy Preference Test
This can be done often and is very useful for creating a toy ladder (order of relevance to your dog) to reinforce desired behaviors:
- Collect three to five new toys. Go for variety! Dogs see blue and yellow best, so choose those colors if possible.
- Where your dog can’t see you, place the toys on the floor a few feet apart.
- Invite your dog to explore the toy, making a mental note of which toy he targets first, second, and so on.
- Stay out of the way! This is a fun, independent activity and you don’t want to skew the results by your proximity to him or certain toys with your body language or verbal cues.
Check that body language
Not sure exactly how your dog is feeling? Here are some great resources about dog body language:
For more information, check out its sister publication Whole Dog Journal articles on body language at: whole-dog-journal.com/category/behavior/body-language/.