Let Your Dog Think

I’m baffled sometimes by the fact that we don’t let our dogs “think.”  If it rings true that whatever our dogs are allowed to practice that that is what they will get good at, why don’t we let them practice “thinking!” It is a concept that I always try and instill in my students, but I was prompted to write about this topic last month when an incident happened with one of my clients where someone else took away her dog’s right to “think.”

The situation happened during a testing evaluation where the dog was being tested on 10 different skills.  My student was taking this test for fun, to see what behaviors her 8 month old dog still needed work on.  During the test, which took place outside at a park, some squirrels ran by chasing each other right in front of the adolescent dog.  The dog naturally thought “oh, what fun, I want to chase too!” and she got out to the end of her leash trying to go after them.  She pulled her owner a couple steps off her balance, but once the owner realized what was happening she grounded herself with her feet planted firmly into the ground and waited.  What was she waiting for?  She was waiting for her dog to think to “check in” with her, as she has taught her to do.  Unfortunately, in that very brief moment of waiting, the evaluator’s assistant came running over and interrupted the dog’s “think time” by grabbing the leash from the owner and yanking the dog back so hard by the leash and collar that the dog fell to the ground.

There are a lot of other learning points we could discuss about the story above, but I want to focus on the “think” part.  When this owner came to me for training with her dog, she had very little connection with her at first.  Meaning, she had taught the puppy a lot of obedience behaviors, but the relationship was not as strong as it could have been and the puppy hardly had to think at all because she was prompted to do everything the owner asked of her and she never had a choice.  What the evaluator’s assistant mentioned above did NOT know was that in six months of rebuilding the connection the dog had with the owner and allowing the dog to “think” about her choices and reinforcing the ones that the owner wanted to build on, she had helped transform the relationship with her dog and gave her dog the ability to use her well honed brain to think through her choices in life.  Deciding to chase squirrels?  For an 8 month old adolescent dog, absolutely a viable choice…..but in this situation the dog knew her options were limited by the six foot leash and had she been given a moment to “think” about the situation, the owner was confident that the choice the dog would have made would have been to check back in with her owner, as her owner had taught her to do.  What I would have asked the assistant had I been there was what would have been wrong with giving the dog more than 3 seconds to think about her options given that no one here was in danger….these were squirrels after all, who at this point were already halfway up a tree!

Another personal example I can give with one of my own dogs right now is in the context of the new K9 Fun Nose Work activity I am doing.  As he searches through boxes looking for a food scent, sometimes he gets frustrated and stares at me as if to say “come on Mom, help me out here!”  In that moment, I am so tempted to help him out in some way, to show him what he needs to do.  However, it is clearly instructed in this sport to let your dog “think!”  In this context it is all about letting your dog think to use his nose constructively, but the principle is still the same….let them work it out and do not be too quick to jump in and intervene.

How often do we take away our dog’s right to think when we don’t need to?  How is it that we don’t trust the scientific evidence and research that has been done citing the intelligence of a dog’s brain and cognitive function?  We do not have to look very far to see that it is true.  At the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s conference in Atlanta this year, there was a whole day devoted to canine cognition study by some of the experts in our field.  Dr. Patricia McConnell has a great blog summary about some of the research that I would encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out on her website.

Bottom line…..let your dog think!  And to help them, let’s be patient and get rid of our incessant need to micro manage or make every decision for them.  Let them use that well honed organ called the brain!

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Positively Expert: Cathy Bruce, CPDT

Cathy Bruce is a VSPDT and a CPDT and the owner of Canine Country Academy, LLC in Lawrenceville, GA. After a successful career as a Broadway singer/actress, she decided to pursue her love of dogs. As a dog trainer, she strives to educate owners on how to better communicate with their dogs using only positive methods.


18 thoughts on “Let Your Dog Think

  1. Susan Cooper

    Great article! At the training center I work at, we start right out with PK teaching Owners to let their puppies think. That's the hard part! The puppies work it out much faster. lol.
    This is also great advice for parents too! 😉

  2. Betty O

    I agree with this completely. Who has the right to say that a dog cannot "think" or "reason"? No one. My dog has a habit of bringing her toys out of my bedroom, which is her "home", and into the living room to play with me, or my mom, and we have trained her to pick up her toys and take them back to the room. One day, it was one of her knotted ropes, you know the kind with a knot on either end and one in the center. This rope is a bit long, and I told her to pick it up and bring it to her room. Well, in the hallway, there's one spot which is a little narrow due to a linen closet my mom has placed there, and the rope, being too long, stopped my dog from getting by. She dropped it and looked at me. I told her, "pick it up and take it to the room." When she realized I wasn't going to help her, and she couldn't get it past that spot by moving forward, she dropped the rope, walked over it, and instead of pushing the rope thru nose first, she picked it up from the other side and pulled it through, and was able to get it into the bedroom THAT way. I was completely impressed. She was faced with a problem, asked for help, and when I wouldn't do it for her, she figured out a different approach and got the job done. So if anyone ever says dogs don't think or can't reason, they are COMPLETELY wrong.

  3. Cindy

    Very good points. Dogs are able to think things through, if as owners we give them the time to think. I love to see my guys when the "light bulb goes off" and they are able to solve the problems

  4. Kit Champagne

    Years ago my husband and used to do a lot of backcountry dog sledding. If we had not allowed our dogs to think, we'd have died several times over. Once, we started out late on a trail back to our truck which we had parked in a place that was unfamiliar to the dogs. Everything started off fine but soon it started to snow, the wind picked up and it got dark. The last bit was 3 miles was across a frozen lake. We trusted our dogs to get us back to the right spot and they did. Yes to thinking dogs and thank you for your wonderful article!

  5. Paula Nowak

    If given the time it is really amazing to watch a dog think. I think some owners need to almost be given "permission" to let their dogs think since that doesn't seem to be the norm in society today. The dog that gets to think and make choices is the dog I want to be hanging out with.

  6. Laurie Troy

    Great Article. Don't think I care for the evaluator's assistant or the evaluator for allowing this. Perhaps the evaluator didn't care for it and expressed it in private. I hope. The more I train and the more I read and research I know that yanking and jerking won't work positively. Time and patience.

  7. Hertzi

    Human beings do make choices based on emotions, feelings, past experience and also thinking. Thinking is what make us human beings build this world and also give us the ability to destroy. The choice between evil and good, which we invented, using thinking. We invented and gave names to everything in this world. When it comes to dogs I do have to disagree with the assumption that they think like we do. Dogs do make up their mind and do act by making choices based on instincts and conditioned behavior ,my chihuahua is dancing right now, she learned that when she dances she gets even more attention, doing it enough times made her know it is a fun thing to do. they do what they do from a quiet place, from a place I feel we all should discover where thoughts do not exist. Dogs are in constant state of happiness and their love is without conditions and limits. When we think we judge we give names to everything around us and we also are capable of hating based on stereotypes and fixed ideas, we gave name to "love" they live it without analyzing what it is. I agree with the concept that dogs should get the freedom to decide upon their life lessons, based on good education and that dogs do analyze situations and make up their mind to take action, but from this to suggest dogs think the way we do, is a bit to much to blame them for.

  8. Lisa Fekete

    I like this approach...I definately don't need to micro manage! I know thinking dogs would be far more happy than those that have no need to think!

  9. Linda Michaels

    I so agree Cathy. I often remind my clients-- and myself--to give the dog a few seconds to figure it out and make the correct choice so we can reward her/him. They often do figure it out....even though I could have sworn there was a blank look on that fur-face and empty looking eyes, He, He. Fortunately, they can read my facial expressions better than I can read theirs. Patience in training pays off!

    So sorry I missed the conference but I hope to meet you here in San Diego in APDT 2011.

    Linda Michaels, MA Psych
    Fellow Victoria Blogger

  10. Shirley Nebel

    I will soon be a new dog owner of a Cavachon. I'm like a sponge trying to absorb all the information I can about all the things I need to do for my new puppy. It didn't dawn on me to let them think through problems and allow them to solve it. I've actually seen pigs do problem solving, but never a dog. I love the information Cathy has given and the story in Betty O's blog. It's great to have articles like this for us new Moms. I tape all of Victoria's shows and write down all the information in a journal. I've also just purchased her book, "It's Me Or The Dog" and I can't wait to get it. I'm really enjoying reading all I can. Keep the articles coming 🙂

  11. Mary Woodward

    Excellent article! I have been thinking more & more lately about treating my dogs more as "grown ups" with some rights of their own. Can't budge on safety stuff, but trying to let them have more say in what goes on in their worlds.

  12. Susie

    This has put into context my families own problem.
    My son and daughter-in-law have two puppies, Blaze a Rottie x Mastif and Shadow a German Shepard.
    Both dogs are fantastic of the lead, they don't chase anything, they roam around, sniff, make friends with other dogs, children etc and ALLWAYS come back when called, they are four and five months old.
    They are not terrible on the lead, but, no, walking at heal with a slack lead has not been mastered yet.
    Clearly off the lead these two are thinking for themselves, knowing that if they listen to voice and watch for hand signals that there is a reward coming their way.
    On the lead we have all fallen into the trap of thinking for the dogs. Constantly checking the lead back with a firm word of comand instead of a reward for walking at heel.
    I am now looking forward puting this into practice, puppy pulls, stop walking, give puppy time to think and come back to heel, reward thinking and contiue walking. So simple, Thankyou.

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