Even the most well cared for dogs can live relatively constrained lifestyles. They are generally told when to eat, where to walk, when they can go outside, and who they can interact with. We frequently discourage barking, get embarrassed if they try to hump, and don’t like them digging up our flower patches or chasing a squirrel. When you really think about it, our four-legged friends often don’t get the opportunity to just act like a dog enough!
Of course, some of the constraints we place on our dogs are for their safety and well-being. Complying with leash laws and ensuring appropriate interactions with their species and ours, for example, are important. Also, every dog is an individual. Some dogs will appreciate having more choices than others or different types of choices, depending on their natural drives.
However, there are many simple opportunities for us as dog owners to offer them more freedom and control over their choices. By doing so, our dogs are likely to be happier and more relaxed.
Irith Bloom, owner of The Sophisticated Dog, has been training animals since the 1980s. She is on the board of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and is Chair Emeritus of the Education Committee of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT).
“Control is necessary for the well-being of all animals (including humans). Too little control can make an animal feel helpless,” she explains. “Decades of research teaches us that helplessness is stressful, while control is empowering and beneficial,” Bloom continues. “In fact, an animal who has more choice and control in general can handle even extremely stressful situations better!”
Outlined below are just some of the simple ways we can help empower our dogs in their everyday lives.
Freedom Around the Home and Yard
There are lots of simple ways to offer your dog choices in their home environment, including multiple sleeping places, den spots to retreat to for a feeling of security, and food and toy options.
Puzzle feeders are popular for providing additional enrichment. You could fill two and let your dog decide which one they would prefer to use. Having a selection of different toys that you rotate also offers variety and keeps things fresh and interesting for your dog.
If your yard is secure and the weather is good, why not allow your dog the chance to move between the house and the backyard more often? If you don’t want them to dig up your prized flowers, you could try offering them a designated sandpit as an appropriate alternative spot.
Let Your Dog Take The Lead
Obviously, off-leash outdoor exercise allows your dog to explore more freely. However, when this isn’t possible, changing up your on-leash routine is one of the easiest and most effective ways of offering more autonomy.
Many owners make the mistake of thinking that clocking up the kilometers is always the best form of exercise for their dog, and we’ve all likely been guilty of pulling them away from sniffing a lamp post or a particularly interesting patch of grass. This often results in a fast-paced, at-heel walk on a short leash. However, as Bloom explains, “dogs need both physical and mental exercise to feel satisfied. Brisk walks provide physical exercise only. Dogs get a lot more out of walks when they can go at their own pace and sniff to their hearts’ content.”
Consider letting them choose where you go on your walk too. “If your dog wants to speed up (within reason), walk faster! If they want to slow down and sniff, give them ample time to do so. When you reach a street corner, let your dog choose whether to turn left or right.”
In this scenario, it is up to you to keep the leash loose and, if it is safe to do so, you might want to consider using a long-line attached to a harness to give your dog more room to explore.
Choices When Playing
You don’t have to stick with the expected options when it comes to play either. Take fetch, for example; it doesn’t have to be a constant throw and retrieve exercise (which isn’t always good for arousal levels or joints either).
“Many dogs like to play fetch, but after retrieving the toy a few times, some dogs lie down and settle in to chew on the toy for a while,” says Bloom. “Instead of forcing the dog to give up the toy so you can keep playing fetch, let them chew on it until they let you know (usually by pushing the toy at you or dropping it at your feet) that they’re ready to play fetch again,” she suggests.
Why not let your dog choose which fetch toy they play with from a few options too? That could be a squeaky ball, one with a particular scent or texture, or even a disc. You could also try other games like tug-of-war or hide and seek to engage their nose more and see if they have a preference.
Training Without Force
Offering your dog more freedom doesn’t mean that training and boundaries aren’t needed. Opting to train using positive, force-free methods rather than punishment-based techniques is not only kinder and less likely to cause your dog to become stressed or aggressive, but it also gives your dog more opportunities to make their own choices.
Asking your dog for a sit and rewarding them when they choose to do it, for example, is a much better option than forcing their back end into the position.
As well as the techniques you adopt, you can do other simple things during training sessions. “You can simply offer your dog two different treats (one in each hand) and then give them whichever they picked,” suggests Bloom.
Recognize What Your Dog Does and Doesn’t Enjoy
Allowing more choice is vitally important when it comes to discomfort, fear, and anxiety in dogs. Forcing your dog into a situation will heighten their stress levels, which is when aggressive behavior can surface. This is why understanding more about basic dog behavior is so valuable.
“It’s hard to honor your dog’s choices if you don’t understand what they want, “ explains Bloom. “Dogs communicate mostly through body language, so we need to take the time to learn what canine body language signals mean,” she says. So, if you notice that your dog is licking their lips, yawning, and has their tail tucked between their legs around a child, that is a sign that you should give them the choice of having more space and not force an interaction.
As Bloom explains, “the number one thing is to give your dog the choice to disengage. In other words, let your dog say, “No, thank you. I’d like a break right now”.”
“For example, during petting, stop touching your dog every few seconds, move your hands away, and give your dog the opportunity to walk away,” Bloom recommends. “If your dog sticks around but stays at a short distance from you, they may want to be near you but not necessarily touching you. If the dog leans on you or nudges your hand, they probably want more petting. If the dog walks away, though, they’re telling you they want a break. Respect that and let the dog leave!”