Choices: Do You Offer Them to Your Dog?

FB_IMG_1453940402853_resizedAs a society, humans revel in their ability to make choices. We make them every day, many times a day. Cream or sugar or both? Hot or iced? Shower or bath? Do you want fries with that? Walk this path or hike that trail? TV or book? Cable or Netflix? We decide what time we arise and what time we bed down. We decide what we do for a living and how much time we waste online. We decide whether to be active or whether to chill out on the couch. We decide whether to clean the house or have fun. I could go on and on about how many choices we humans enjoy. The list is literally endless.

Yet we expect most other species to do our bidding as we see fit, when we see fit. This is especially prevalent with the human/canine relationship. Dogs, as a general rule, are very forgiving. They accept what we dish out. But shouldn’t they get some say over what their worlds consist of?

The world of dog training has made leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, but still the choices that are offered to dogs are few compared to what we humans enjoy. Shaping as part of a positive training routine is obviously about choices but not necessarily about choices as part of a dog’s daily life.

Does your ability to choose how you spend your day help you feel less stressed? The same thought process applies to your dog. Of course, routines are comforting to dogs. Don’t misunderstand my point. Dogs relish the safety that a routine provides such as knowing the general time frame that they get fed, etc. These are the basic tenets of a hierarchy of needs. There are however, an abundance of opportunities to provide choices within the routines that are necessary for daily life.

You choose what you want to eat at each meal. Why not start offering this as an option for your dog? Obviously, that would involve getting your dog used to several types of kibble if that is what you feed. I have always been an advocate for dietary variety for dogs anyway. Eating the same food, day in and day out at every meal can only be called boring at best. Variety provides the digestive system with a far quicker recovery from the occasional digestive upset. I recently started offering my dogs a choice of two different proteins to choose from for their evening meal. Kenzo was the first one to make a choice. He showed a clear preference for one protein over the other and that choice determined his meal.

I have long given my dogs choices over which direction we walk when there are multiple path options, even the choice to not follow the actual path. I find that most frequently their choice is not to follow an obvious path but to follow a smell. As long as the choice of where to walk is not placing us in danger, I respect their choices. It makes for a more interesting walk and a more varied terrain. I get to see the world through their eyes.

Another area that you might offer a choice is where to sleep. An abundance of safe and comfortable areas to sleep on so that all dogs who live together have choices provides enough variety that everyone should be happy. My own dogs have the choice of somewhere in the neighborhood of five assorted dog beds upstairs spread between to adjoining bedrooms. They can also choose to sleep on my bed with me or have the guest bed all to themselves or share it with each other.

I try very hard to vary their choices of brain activities as well as what treats they can choose from. It’s obvious that some treats are more favored than others and it’s their palate so I respect that choice.

One of the primary areas that many dogs get choices about is whether they want to go inside or outside, if they have a secure way to be out by themselves. My own dogs will tell me when they prefer more time outside. Most frequently that is morning so regardless of the weather, I take my coffee outside so that we can all appreciate waking up to enjoy another day. They will tell me when they are ready to come in. In turn, they respect that if I need to go back in before they are ready to come in, I will be sure to quickly return to check on them.

Experiment with how you can offer your dogs more choices. Choose a word or phrase that you want to mean that you are offering a choice and then indicate with whatever the choice is, what you are offering. My own term is “What do YOU wanna do?” I say this with emphases on the YOU. With a walk, I will point in either direction that is obvious and say my cue phrase. I then look to be led and I verbally reward their choice. With food choices, the method is obvious. I offer two choices and they get the one more obviously preferred. Body language offerings when choices are involved will be quickly understood when you have a good relationship with your dog. I point and they get it. Try it!
Choices in our lives provide us with a feeling of security and control. No living beings should feel helpless over their lives. See how offering your dogs choices can improve their happiness. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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