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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authorname

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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  • Elina Sistonen

    Dreadful! First, dogs are no humans (kids) and therefore they do not know which choice is good for them... In the "nature" they do not have the choice either what they eat... Kids would eat fries and chocolate if you leave them the choice. Offering choices makes fussy eaters and definitely harms the digestive system which is NOT created for quick changes. Second, letting them roam freely in your garden creates territorial barkers. Then we have to send for Victoria to get this reversed again... Third, boundaries and routines make pooch's life secure; nothing else! Of course you can let them toys out to choose or let them choose where they sleep as long as it is ok. with you. Otherwise: no, no, no!!

  • Debby

    I am sorry that you feel that way but the evidence does not support your opinion on this. As clearly stated in the article, choices with reason are completely far better for your dog's emotional health than not having a say in how they live their life. Please do your dog a favor and read the research and better yet, simply ask your dog!

  • Pat Singer

    I see your point, Debby, but I get what Elina is saying. I don't think your article promotes just setting the dogs free to do their own thing with no guidance from the human. We have 3 dogs. One very old retired border collie, a 6 year old border collie and a 9 month old ACD. If I allowed them to choose their beds, the younger border collie would take the old guys bed in a heart beat. As a matter of fact, he tries it every night. So I order him off the old guy's bed so Finn, the old guy, can hobble over and lie down. It is his bed and his routine is to sleep there. He is comfortable with that. Niko, the younger guy, then goes to his bed and settles down. Sometimes he goes into his open crate and spends the night there. So, in this case, I do not let them make the choice. Finn, in his old age, is not able to take on the younger dog. So I have his back and take control. In our house they have the choice to be inside or outside usually, unless my preference and needs override theirs. Common sense prevails. I appreciate your article, Debby. It is important for dogs to be free to make choices. Dogs that only ever are under command lose so much personality. In fact, it is harmful to them as they lose their ability to react to danger.

  • Regina Phalange

    My Akita picks 90% of the route we take when we walk. He has certain places he wants to go and he has many destinations in our area that he like to visit. He knows where the traffic lights are so we can cross busy streets easily. He know his way to his destination and more importantly he knows exactly how to get back home. The map of our neighborhood in his head is better than a 12 year old child. It is good for him to explore at his will during our walks but it's comforting to me that he knows how to get home on his own. This paid off in one frightening incident. I was walking him and my GSD and they got startled by a moron zipping up on the sidewalk on a motorized bicycle. The Akita pulled out of his leash and took off. My GSD was older and didn't walk too fast. In a complete panic I'm trying to get the GSD to pick up the pace and get home so I can get my car and start looking for the Akita. When we finally got back to the house, my Akita was sitting out front with one of the neighbors who spotted him and knew something happened. They sat with him waiting for us to come back while another neighbor went looking for me and the GSD. I have an amazingly smart Akita and wonderful neighbors!

  • Mollie Kidd

    You use the child analogy, which is interesting. Do you offer your children choices? Of course you do! Would you like this magazine or that one? What would you like for dinner tonight? What game do you want to play? If the choices become overwhelmingly bad as a good parent you step in and explain why they can't have chocolate chip ice cream every night. Just the same with dogs.

    I had to struggle for a while to find a question that Mollie would say 'No' to, eventually I did it. It was raining, I said (by the closed door she was looking out of) "Do you want to go out?" For 'yes' she touches my hand. This time she just looked at me as if to say "Are you nuts?! It's raining" and turned around and went and laid on her bed! 🙂

  • Absolutely agree, but then it depends on the human... what kind of leader are they? Do they lead from being the dominant autocratic bully or do they take time to understand the feelings of others around before making an executive decision. I have had a rescue dog, which was an adult so I missed the puppy training stage. We had to learn to get used to each other. He has a choice if he prefers one type of food to another. I do know mothers who simply put the food in front of children and tell them to eat. It also produces uncertain children who grow up to do the same thing. Dr Becker, from mercola.com likens the brain development of a dog to the cognitive maturity of a two year old child. If we can't be nice to our dog then why the heck do we have them in our lives? Something to drag around? Something in our lives to dominate? It says more about the person than the dog. There we go, there are different approaches to child rearing and to treating dogs. It seems that we are the ones that have the choice, and the responsibility in how we exercise choice.

  • Allyson Willhard

    This is a great article. I'm really glad we are encouraging our dogs to make choices that will make both of our lives far more fun. And it's a great way of learning more about your relationship with your dog.

    I want to clarify with those who disagree that I think you are confusing "letting your dog make choices" for "letting your dog be a spoiled brat." Those concepts are two very different things, but I can see how they can be mixed up. The main thing to remember is that choices always have consequences, and it's important to make sure that any living thing you care for understands that. If there are dogs that are able learn to count (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm), then consequences can also be learned.

    By giving your dogs choices, you are not automatically giving them free reign to misbehave. It's important to have boundaries when they make choices because that's how we humans live. Your child could still choose the chocolate over the apple, but it doesn't stop them from getting a tummy ache or you from saying "no." Likewise, your dog could choose to jump in a standing pond, but as long as you have voice control or a leash you can always say "no." That's a consequence to a choice as well as a boundary.

    On the flip side, if your dog wants to take a much more interesting route or if your dog wants steamed broccoli instead of chicken that day(Yes, I have met a dog that loves carrots and salad. They exist!), you can respect either of those two choices.

    I also want you to keep in mind that giving your dog choices does not take away your authority, nor does it mean your dog is going to run your life. They literally can't, and I will never understand people who don't get why. Believe me, letting your dog choose to walk right instead of left or feeding fish with the food instead of green beans with the food will not instantly turn them into the "top dog". This kind of thinking is what articles like these try to question. They force us to think about whether the methods we use on pets come from a place of being afraid of losing authority, or if we really are thinking about what's best for our pets.

    I also like articles like these because they also make me think about my relationships with people. We do have parents who do not let their kids make choices, firmly believing that the children cannot make their own decisions or that something really bad will happen if they do. And you know what happens to those kids? Some of them can't make basic decisions. They start prioritizing other people's opinions over having confidence in their own. (Speaking from my own personal experience) Some of them resent their parents and so they act out (https://www.psychologies.co.uk/family/let-your-child-make-mistakes.html), or some of them cut off contact with their parents altogether.

    Obviously, unlike people, dogs don't always run away because their owners make them miserable, but I make this analogy because how we treat our pets strongly connects to how we treat other people. Just think about it. Google terms like "Social Dominance Theory" (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm), and see if you can find similarities in the Dominance Theory on humans and the Dominance Theory on dogs.

    I hope by stating this, I can give those of you who are skeptical of this article some insight as to why authors like Debby are forcing us to rethink dog training. We are attempting to make ourselves better dog owners/parents, by giving our dogs more choices, not reject responsibility for them.

    I also realize that I could elaborate on these comments, but seeing as how this is a discussion forum and I have to walk my dog, I'll have to leave everything as is.

  • Allyson Willhard

    This is a great article. I'm really glad we are encouraging our dogs to make choices that will make both of our lives far more fun. And it's a great way of learning more about your relationship with your dog.

    I want to clarify with those who disagree that I think you are confusing "letting your dog make choices" for "letting your dog be a spoiled brat." Those concepts are two very different things, but I can see how they can be mixed up. The main thing to remember is that choices always have consequences, and it's important to make sure that any living thing you care for understands that. If there are dogs that are able learn to count (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm), then consequences can also be learned.

    By giving your dogs choices, you are not automatically giving them free reign to misbehave. It's important to have boundaries when they make choices because that's how we humans live. Your child could still choose the chocolate over the apple, but it doesn't stop them from getting a tummy ache or you from saying "no." Likewise, your dog could choose to jump in a standing pond, but as long as you have voice control or a leash you can always say "no." That's a consequence to a choice as well as a boundary.

    On the flip side, if your dog wants to take a much more interesting route or if your dog wants steamed broccoli instead of chicken that day(Yes, I have met a dog that loves carrots and salad. They exist!), you can respect either of those two choices.

    I also want you to keep in mind that giving your dog choices does not take away your authority, nor does it mean your dog is going to run your life. They literally can't, and I will never understand people who don't get why. Believe me, letting your dog choose to walk right instead of left or feeding fish with the food instead of green beans with the food will not instantly turn them into the "top dog". This kind of thinking is what articles like these try to question. They force us to think about whether the methods we use on pets come from a place of being afraid of losing authority, or if we really are thinking about what's best for our pets.

    I also like articles like these because they also make me think about my relationships with people. We do have parents who do not let their kids make choices, firmly believing that the children cannot make their own decisions or that something really bad will happen if they do. And you know what happens to those kids? Some of them can't make basic decisions. They start prioritizing other people's opinions over having confidence in their own. (Speaking from my own personal experience) Some of them resent their parents and so they act out (https://www.psychologies.co.uk/family/let-your-child-make-mistakes.html), or some of them cut off contact with their parents altogether.

    Obviously, unlike people, dogs don't always run away because their owners make them miserable, but I make this analogy because how we treat our pets strongly connects to how we treat other people. Just think about it. Google terms like "Social Dominance Theory" (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090810025241.htm), and see if you can find similarities in the Dominance Theory on humans and the Dominance Theory on dogs.

    I hope by stating this, I can give those of you who are skeptical of this article some insight as to why authors like Debby are forcing us to rethink dog training. We are attempting to make ourselves better dog owners/parents, by giving our dogs more choices, not reject responsibility for them.

  • Janet Pella

    I definitely agree. My Brittany, Poppy, is a hunting dog with serious enjoyment of smells and following her nose. While I don't go off path with her (due to my arthritis), I do let her pick the way we go. She also enjoys choosing which kind of cookie for her treat (even though I think she likes them all a lot). She prefers blueberry and mango frozen yogurt for dessert, but will never turn down strawberry if that's what's on the menu. She forgives me generously, when I am not well enough for her walk, as I understand when she is tiring and wants to go home for her evening meal instead of another couple of blocks. I give her massages, she gives me loving looks and lots of licks. We are two happy old gals!

  • Debby

    My article does no such thing. My article very clearly states that offering choices within the realm of what is appropriate and safe is better for your dog's mental state.

  • asarokk

    When I got my first dog, me and my family did not know much about raising or training a dog. The Internet had barely arrived and when I first got internet access, the internet did not offer so much variable knowledge about dogs and training methods. My country was and still is many decades behind when it comes to human canine relations. Libraries did not have many books on dogs either and if there were specified books on dog training, the methods consisted of award and punishments, misinformed and wrong information about dogs and everything else evil that comes from the domination theory concluded about dogs from captured and enclosed wolf behaviour. Farmers and elders recommending various inhumane training methods to us or form of punishments. We had to do our best to steer through all of it to train our dog that became the center of our family, beloved family member that is still dearly missed to day.

    Thanks to what our first dog taught us and especially what he taught me, and later what I could learn on the Internet, I got my second dog. Besides some excitement and barking, she is perfect. She's perfectly adjusted to different kinds of environment, she's good with all animals (except cats from a bad experience with one - plus she is small at heart), she's good with all people, no aggression at all, she is turning 5 this year and she has never shown her teeth, she's obedient, she's never ruined anything and respects our property and the rules. She has made some rules her self in games she creates - and I offer her choices as to what she wants to play and with what toys she wants to play, if she doesn't want to eat and wants something with it, I offer her choices as to what she wants on her kibbles, she gets raw (dog) food, meat, vegetables, fruits, different types of oils she likes on her food sometimes (everything researched and safe for dogs of course), and dog walks are mostly for her so of course I offer her choices of where she'd like to go, while walking perfectly on leash, rarely ever pulls, and off leash she never goes too far, never out of sight. Although she always wants to come with me, follow me where ever I go, she is perfectly at peace alone at home. No separation anxiety what so ever, and after some experiment I found out she is most comfortable alone at home if she has the whole house to herself.

    All of this was achieved with positive training, rewards and no punishments.

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