Imagine you lived a life in which your entire day was dictated by another: when you got up in the morning, what you ate and when; who you interacted with; when you were left alone and for how long; where you slept; when, what and with whom you played; where you went for exercise and activities — even when and where you were allowed to eliminate. In addition, imagine being often “made” to do things you didn’t want to do.
How would you feel?
Like a dog, perhaps.
In America many dogs are completely dependent upon humans. While that is certainly part of the deal with being a domestic animal, dogs’ lives have become dramatically more controlled in recent times, and people’s expectations of their canine companions have increased as well.
Our greater understanding of dogs means we recognize they are more than just pawns of our desires and wishes. They are no longer expected to robotically and unquestioningly comply with each and every demand of ours.
Knowing that dogs are complex, social creatures, we now realize that living with one means having a relationship: It’s not just about us and what we want. That is good in many ways. It means fewer people now use force and intimidation in their dogs’ lives and seek more understanding.
But in today’s age, dogs’ lack of control over any aspect of their lives may be so pronounced that it is detrimental to their mental health.
The world of canine behavior and training continues to progress, and one of the most compelling topics as of late consists of the ideas of consent and choice for our companion animals, which raises the question: Is choice necessary for a canine well-being and happiness?
Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of applied behavior analysis to captive and companion animals, believes so, as do many others in the canine behavior world.
“The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health,” she is quoted saying in “Training a dog to make choices,” an article that appeared in Whole Dog Journal in October 2016. “Research demonstrates that to the greatest extent possible, animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control significant events in their lives. When a lack of control becomes a lifestyle, it may result in aberrant behaviors.”
In an article titled “Back in the black” in the September 2012 issue of Bird Talk magazine, Friedman wrote, “Although it may seem counterintuitive given our cultural fog, research demonstrates that control over consequences is a primary reinforcer, meaning it’s essential to survival like food, water and shelter.”
There are many ways to incorporate more choice, and thus more control, into our dogs’ lives, and some primary ones revolve around consent.
One of them should absolutely go without saying: No dog should have to interact with or be touched by strangers out in the world, nor should dogs be handled in ways they do not enjoy by family members.
A dog should be allowed to say no, especially in regard to interacting with people he doesn’t want to interact with or in ways he is uncomfortable with.
Understanding a dog’s body language is critical to recognizing what “no” looks like. It’s now beginning to be accepted — although there is much room for improvement in this department — that asking for a dog’s consent should be necessary before interacting. Understanding and respecting what the dog says is part of the equation.
For more on that see ”Don’t know that pooch? Ask before petting,” a Good Dog column that ran in the June 12, 2019, News&Guide Peak Pets section.
But there’s more than just giving a dog the choice to say “no” when it comes to being touched or petted.
“Cooperative care,” such as willing participation in brushing, nail trimming and blood draws, is not a completely new idea. Those practices have long been espoused with animals in zoos and other settings.
But employing such methods with companion animals is fairly new. There are a lot of online resources about cooperative care and how to teach our dogs to be more willing and voluntary participants in husbandry tasks. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has a good intro that can be found online at TinyURL.com/cooperativecare.
In one example of what this might look like, trainer Chirag Patel developed a protocol called “the bucket game,” which aims to give dogs a say in what is happening to them during husbandry tasks. You can see that in action, as well as a few of Patel’s other videos, by going to TinyURL.com/thebucketgame.
Obviously, allowing our dogs a choice in every situation isn’t realistic. There are some circumstances in which our foresight requires that we make certain decisions for our dogs to keep them safe or healthy or prevent totally inappropriate choices.
Dogs definitely benefit from clear boundaries and a routine. But it may be that the more choices your dogs are able to make about certain aspects of their daily lives, the less the impact there may be when an encounter requires that their opinion be overruled.
How can you give your dog the option to choose in daily life? A few ideas include where to walk, when and where to stop and sniff, who to greet, what to eat, where to sleep and when to go out.
It may take some getting used to, especially when your dog’s choice is to sniff for 10 minutes or to sleep in the cool hallway instead of in the bedroom with you. But relationships are a two-way street, right?
Fortunately, I would guess that many of our dogs here in Jackson are presented with options to choose more than the general American dog population, but there’s always room for improvement. It does appear that allowing a dog to choose can build confidence, decrease stress, and, yes, even increase happiness. A side benefit: You may get to know your pup a little better, too.
Here’s to a year with a little more freedom of choice for your dog.