Why Giving Your Dog Choice Matters
September 24th, 2023
By: Niko Brougher KPA-CTP
It wasn’t until I welcomed my husky foster, Bolt into my home that I realized HOW often I was making choices for my dogs without giving them much input. Of course the choices I made for my dogs were always made with their best interest at heart, despite loving and knowing them well I was missing an important opportunity to allow freedom and agency to my dog. Anyone who has experience with huskies or husky-like dogs can attest it is especially important to them that they make their own choices and may even refuse activities that do not interest them. I quickly realized the things I had gotten away with my pit-mix would not fly for Bolt.
Bolt made it very clear what he wanted to do on his walks. If I thought we might turn right, Bolt would stop and refuse to come with me, intent on walking to the left. When it was time to go inside he would sit on the steps sniffing the air refusing to budge toward the house. I made sure to offer all kinds of things for Bolt to chew, but what he really wanted to chew was all the off limit things, like books. It often felt like he was trying to make my life harder, but he really just wanted to be himself freely. I needed to find more ways to give Bolt choices that mattered and were appropriate for him to make.
When I say choice I am referring to the idea that we give our dogs the option to make a choice as often as we reasonably can. Left or right on a walk? Beef Nylabone or Turkey?
So why give our dogs choices in the first place? Freedom. Choice has been identified as a primary or innate reinforcer along with food, water, sleep, etc. Our dogs are subject to a life living by human rules, and often this means that they are forced to conform to our schedules and lives, including when and when they can’t go to the bathroom. Choice gives dogs the opportunity to impact the environment around them. Without choices we accidentally remove freedom from our dogs’ lives. They become captive in our routine of work, family, and the choices we make while caring for them. Even as a trainer I have had days and even weeks where my only goal is to get through the day and offering choice to my dog doesn’t feel like an option or I totally forget to offer things. Lucky for us dogs are VERY forgiving and there are some very simple ways to give our dogs more choice in their daily lives.
Going back to Bolt, a few ways I increased choice for him and ways you can increase choice for your dogs are:
1. Let Them Choose The Walk!
Movement is a big deal! Giving dogs the ability to choose how they move when so often they are attached to us by a 6 foot leash is huge. Imagine you are doing your favorite activity, hiking, crafting, biking, photography, or games and someone is tied to you telling you where to go, what to make or what to do and when you don’t listen they get upset or yank on you to stop. So for Bolt, as long as he wasn’t dragging me to another dog, or into someone’s back yard I let him dictate the route. If he wanted to go left, we did, if he needed to stop and sniff a bush for a couple of minutes, we stopped to sniff. These choices allow dogs to engage more thoroughly with their environment and give them the freedom to do behaviors natural to them instead of having to do what is natural to us.
2. Play Their Game
Play is a wonderful way to connect with your dog, and get their wiggles out. When it comes to play time, give them options. Do they want to play fetch, is it a tug day, wrestle or chase time? Different dogs like different things and sometimes different moods elicit different interests. If you set time aside to play fetch in the yard before you leave for work, before you start to see if they would rather play tug with their rope, or initiate a game of chase by running away from them. How do they respond? Do they engage in the game? Yes, awesome play that for a little while. No, try some fetch! Asking them what they want to do gives you the chance to strengthen your connection and add variety to their lives.
3. Listen When They Say “No Thanks”
Sometimes giving choices looks like altering your plans when your dog isn’t interested. For Bolt this was a big deal in his previous homes he hadn’t been given choice, especially the choice to say no. So I did my best to follow his lead if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to. This could look like you start out for a walk and your dog stops and looks back toward home, instead of dragging them the whole walk, follow them back. At home do some trick training and playtime to get their wiggles out. Or if you start a training session and you ask the dog to do something and they look around like ‘do I have to?’ take a break and come back to it. If you sit down next to your dog to snuggle and they stand up and move away, remember they still love you, they may just need some space and you don’t need to follow them. Respecting a no is such an important way to give your dog choice and will strengthen their trust in you. One fun way to practice listening to your dog is to play the pet and pause game
What happens when choices aren’t an option? There are lots of times where giving your dog choice is not an option. There will be times when they want to walk up to the dog barking behind a fence, they want to keep playing outside but you have to go to work or they don’t want to leave the park but you have to get home. These are times where it is appropriate to make the judgment call to walk somewhere else, to bring them inside, or lure them away. Building a pattern of you responding to their ‘no thanks’ and giving them choice will make the moments where they don’t have much of a choice less of a big deal. You can think of choice as a bank account. The more choices your dog makes the more in the bank account, that way when you make a withdrawal and they don’t get a choice it doesn’t make such a dent in their choice account. Try offering your dog choices during your day to day, you may learn something new about what your dog likes or doesn’t like that you didn’t before.