Someone once asked me, “What does it mean to give dogs a choice? Why should they choose where to sleep, go and play? “I am often reminded that the idea of giving dogs a choice is dangerously close to anthropomorphism. But I argue differently. All animals – those who live in the wild and those who spend their days with humans – make choices every day. Some of these decisions cost them their lives; others help them survive. In both cases, the results are at least partially determined by the animal.
Imagine someone else controlling all of your decisions, even the smallest. Over time, you will feel insignificant and fearful. It is the same with dogs. It could be said that when compared to a dog’s brain, the human brain is far better able to make informed and contextual decisions. However, this does not mean that a dog cannot make a decision or choose between different options. While the decision may not be rational in our view, it is a decision.
Dr. Susan Friedman, a professor of psychology at Utah State University, uses applied behavioral analysis – the study of how behaviors change or are influenced by the environment, and how learning occurs – with pets. She believes that, like humans, when dogs are in control or know about the outcome of an event (i.e., freedom of choice), they are less likely to become aggressive or have behavioral problems. Skittish dogs build trust and independent dogs channel their energy through the decision-making process. For any animal, feeling like they have a choice is less stressful than being forced into one position or another.
I recently saw people in a dog park encourage their dogs to befriend other dogs. The dogs have not been given the freedom to choose who to meet; Instead, their owners decided who was best for them. This created a potentially serious problem: a dog that did not want to “play” with the dog it had chosen could report this lack of interest in the form of a growl and bite and then be classified as aggressive. In reality, the problem lies in misinterpreted communication and a lack of freedom of choice.
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Most animals, including dogs, make decisions that we can see as rational. My mother’s six year old Irish setter, Duke, has a choice of two kennels, one with a comfortable bed and the other with more space. He chooses more space during the day and prefers the comfortable bed at night. Fifi, a three-month-old Golden Retriever, has the option of retreating to a quiet, “safe” place when her surroundings are overwhelming. Her “quiet place” is hers only and helps her calm down in the chaotic excitement that often surrounds puppies.
Decisions don’t always have to be important; They can be so simple that the dog can decide whether or not to be petted. A dog approaching guests alone will feel less anxious or defensive than they will when guests walk into their room to greet them. Bella, a four month old Cocker Spaniel, patiently waits with her owner in the family’s garage. When her owner’s four teenage friends walk in to meet her, Bella scurries under a car. It is then brought out, carried around and played with. During this experience, she is extremely concerned because she did not have the choice of sniffing her owner’s friends and deciding whether or not to be petted.
The context in which choices are offered is certainly relevant. There are times when due to risks to dog safety – traffic, environmental hazards, other animals, or people who may not want to interact with them or who may react in a threatening manner – it is absolutely impossible to make a decision. In these cases we need to make decisions on their behalf.
However, there are many low risk situations where our dogs can safely make decisions: which toys to play with, which direction to walk, which tree to pee on, how long to sniff the grass, and so on. These small decisions go a long way towards strengthening an existing relationship and building lasting bonds with our dogs. Dogs who feel confident because they have some control over their actions and their surroundings will become less nervous, anxious, or stressed out. When dogs are less anxious, the possibility of undesirable “aggressive” behavior is greatly reduced.
Take the time to think about how you can give your dog freedom of choice. Identify five things that will help your dog make decisions on a daily basis. Then, instead of telling your dog to do something, let your dog influence certain results. Although it may take patience on your part, dog selection will result in a less stressed, emotionally healthier dog and build a relationship of mutual respect and friendship.