Do I Have a Choice?
Imagine you rent a room with a new family. Life is pretty good, you have regular food, shelter and a comfy place to sleep, however there are strict conditions. You have to eat every day at the same time and eat the same boring meal every day. You are forced to wear clothing that is uncomfortable and restrictive. You can only leave the house when they tell you and even then, you are tethered to their side. You see places you would like to go but you are not permitted to go there. You see others that you would like to meet but you are not permitted to interact. Even worse you are forced to meet those that you really don’t like. Every day it’s the same dull routine. Would you choose this life?
We make choices every day. We do it without even thinking about it. What we wear, what we eat, where we go out, what we do in our spare time and who we spend time with. Now imagine those choices are removed, how would you feel? Its not too hard to imagine, since the COVID 19 restrictions and judging by the public’s responses to such limitations, they do not like their freedom of choice being removed. Now consider what choices your dog has.
We choose what they eat, where they sleep, where they go, what they wear, who they meet, what treats they get, the list goes on. Surely, we should be making our dogs choices for them, right? Choice doesn’t necessarily mean allowing a dog to do what he wants because that would be chaos and could put your dog in harms way, however, you should be giving your dog choices where possible. Why? Having choices is empowering and it builds resilience. It’s easy to understand this when we consider the consequences of removing a dog’s choices.
Many dogs are reactive because they are inadvertently forced to confront the things they fear, with no form of escape. In reality, if the dog is frightened, what would he choose to do if he was off lead? He would likely run in the opposite direction and put as much distance between him and the things he fears. Even if he appears aggressive, this is likely communication that he needs space. So how would giving the dog choice, help this situation? Well, I’m not suggesting that you let your dog off lead and see what happens. However, if we know our dog is afraid of something, we can change direction and increase distance, rather than insisting we walk in that direction. It’s easy to do, we just have to relinquish our choice of direction. Increasing the distance is empowering. Why?
Well reactive behaviour is usually displayed to increase distance, which works, as the thing they fear usually moves away, thereby reinforcing the behaviour. If we increase the distance before they are reactive, they will feel safe and will have the choice of moving away without needing to display negative behaviour. By giving him other options, we are encouraging positive choices. Remove those choices and a dog may feel he has no other choice than to react negatively.
When it comes to food, we tend to choose convenience over nutritional wellbeing. Some dogs have the same kibble in their bowl every day. Would you be bored of this? Some dogs get to the point where they refuse to eat and some owners will just wait them out until they are hungry enough to comply. However, could you not see this as a sign that your dog wants a change? If you want your dog to have a happy life, you could add fresh foods into the diet or change the dog food occasionally to provide variety. Could you also ditch the bowl? In the wild, wolves spend majority of their energy hunting and foraging, and this provides mental stimulation. Although dogs are not wolves, they still have similar instincts and behavioural needs. Why not sprinkle their food outside on the grass or use licky mats and enrichment toys to switch things up? I promise your dog will love you for it.
Do you feel the need to dress your dog? With some breeds, coats and jumpers are necessary in cold weather but do we ensure what they wear is comfortable? The same could be said about the harness or collar you use. Is it restrictive? Does your dog run off when we try to put it on? If you force the harness on, then you have just removed a choice. Now I know what you are thinking, I need to walk my dog and he’s got a perfectly good harness that fits perfectly. In that case, it’s your dog that’s not comfortable in the harness, rather than the harness being uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter why but changing how they feel does. Therefore, you need to change how they feel about the harness with positive reinforcement. Its far more empowering for your dog to choose to wear the harness because he has a positive association with it, rather than chasing him and forcing him to wear it.
Now obviously, your dog can’t choose to leave the house, but you can consider what time of day your dog likes to walk. If your dog is afraid of dogs and they are taken to a dog park on a Saturday will they be empowered? Or if they are afraid of children, should you take them out after school is finished, when its more likely children will be nearby? Considering when is the most comfortable time to go out, gives your dog choice and sets them up to make positive choices. You may have an idea of where you want to walk but is the walk for you or the dog?
If it’s for you, leave the dog and have your walk. Then go on a walk for your dog. Let them choose the direction they want to go for a change. Let them sniff what they want. A 30-minute walk involving choices and enrichment is far more stimulating and mentally tiring than a 1 hour walk of rushing and pulling your dog along.
Now you can’t allow your dog to meet everyone they want to meet. At the same time, you shouldn’t force your dog to interact with everyone. Let’s be honest, we don’t like everyone, and we choose who we socialize with and spend as little time as possible with people we don’t like, but do our dogs get that choice? If they walk with a group of dogs or go to doggy daycare, are they comfortable being with other dogs? How about people?
Unbeknown to many, dogs do give consent on whether they want to be touched but they are rarely given the choice. In our society, we take consent very seriously, but many feel it’s okay to touch a dog without permission from you or the dog, which often results in a bite. Some dogs would soak up the attention from any stranger, but other dogs struggle with being touched by a stranger, particularly when the person sticks their hand in the dogs face. Dogs do not have to be growling and showing their teeth to be uncomfortable with being touched. Some dogs may just freeze, lower their head and tense up.
Ever seen a dog tied to a post outside the shop? How does the dog look? People tend to pity it and go up to fuss it. Even though they have the best intentions, what is wrong with this picture? The dog has no choices. They are tied up and can’t escape and strange people are standing over them and putting their hands in their face, which is very threatening. Having no choices is very disempowering and can result in fear and helplessness. It is unfair to put them in such a helpless position.
We may inadvertently trap our dogs into situations that remove all choice but to fight. This may occur when we give them medication, when we groom them, when we walk them or when we take them to the vets. If we force them to do something we know they hate or fear, then we can expect to see negative behaviour in response and if we punish them, the next time will be even worse. Dogs in these situations, feel they have no choice but to bite and usually its their funeral, even though they felt genuinely threatened.
Removing a dog’s choice is disempowering. What does this really mean? A definition of the word states that it is “the forcible denial by one or more persons in a position of power over the rights and choices of another person or group”. We do have a position of power over our dogs but that doesn’t mean we should abuse it and rule them like overlords. Dogs are intelligent sentient beings that are members of our family. We would never force our family members to do something that causes them fear or discomfort. Instead we would help them and work with them to overcome that fear or discomfort.
Our dogs need the same kindness and empathy. So, the next time your dog doesn’t want to do something or is responding negatively, rather than punishing them, consider why they feel this way and what you can do to help. What choices could you give them that would help them feel better in the situation? What choices can you give them that will enrich their lives?
Allowing your dog to make choices doesn’t mean he will make bad ones. When dogs make choices we perceive as bad, its usually because they didn’t have any choices in the first place.
Remember that the empowerment of your dog is not the disempowerment of you.