Choices. Our lives revolve around making choices every day. Coffee or juice? Bring a lunch or go out to eat with co-workers? Sit outside in the fresh air or stay inside and read a book? Go out to see a movie or binge Netflix on the couch? Making choices makes us happy, enriches our lives, and provides us freedom.
Now imagine that you are no longer allowed to make your own choices and instead, someone else will make all your choices for you from now on. You get the same meal for all your meals. Your first meal will be at 7:00 am and your second at 6:00 pm. You can use the bathroom at 7:30 am, 5:30 pm, 8:00 pm, and 10:00 pm. You can go for a walk, but it must be on a predetermined route that can only take you 15 minutes. The only dessert you can ever have are a handful of M&Ms. You can read one book, but it's the same book that you've had for years.
Sounds pretty awful, right? Most of our dogs live this everyday and they think so too. Our dogs stare at the same four walls unless we let them outside. We choose their meals, when they can potty, what toys they can have, and whether they get exercise. Some of our dogs have a pretty boring life. Let's be honest, on some busy days it is easy to switch into autopilot and skip giving your dog choices... I'm guilty too! But don't worry, it's never too late to spruce up your dog's life and give them choices!
How do I offer my dog a choice?
Providing your dog with choices will enrich your dog's life by fighting off boredom and helping to develop self-reliance. Contemporary research into free choice, although limited, indicates that providing choice can help your dog become more independent and generally live a happier life (McConnell 2016; Duranton & Horowitz 2018).
What are some choices that you can start giving your dog? Try out some of these to help you start coming up with more ideas:
When you are giving your dog a treat, hold out couple chews or treats and let your dog choose which one they want. I often use this trick when crating my dogs when leaving the house.
Let your dog try out multiple types of beds to give them the comfiest spot. Molly Mutt beds, cots, toddler beds, their own couch...letting your dog choose their resting spot gives them the most restful and comfortable sleep. I've noticed my oldest dog, Max, gravitates toward cots when his arthritis is acting up. As a bonus, when Max chooses to rest on cots, I get insight into how his body is doing from a medical side.
When it is time to feed your dog, try putting out a couple food puzzles, let your dog choose one, and put food in the puzzle they choose.
Let your dog choose which direction you go on a walk by stopping at intersections and asking them which way. This is one of the most enriching choices we can give our dogs and they love having this choice!
When your dog is carrying around a tug toy and walks by you, hold out your hand and ask if they want to play or tug. Sometimes we think our dog wants to tug when they just want to carry the toy. If the dog doesn't want us to play tug, and we grab the toy often enough, we can cause a dog to play keep away or begin guarding the toy to prevent us from taking it. Giving them the choice can help prevent resource guarding!
Let your dog choose whether they want to interact with someone by letting your dog approach the person instead of the person approaching them. Everyone can relate to the distant relative that pinches our cheek so why make your dog endure a forced interaction? Seriously, this is a great way to help dogs who might be fearful of strangers build positive associations with people.
Let your dog choose whether they want to keep playing with their friends or take a break. We all have that one friend who has enough energy to party all weekend and we need to sneak away to take a break and a nap. (If you don't know who I'm talking about, it's probably you. You're probably that friend.) Be a pal and give your dog a break during play with other dogs. Then give them the choice to go back and play more or take a nap. As your dog gets older, they may opt for the nap more often than not because we all need our beauty sleep to hang with those puppies again tomorrow!
When introducing your dog to a new environment or object, let your dog choose how quickly or slowly they want to investigate the newness. A lot of times we shove something in our dog's face or drag them into a new place. Instead, take a step back and watch how your dog becomes curious about what's new and begins to explore. Celebrate the joy they feel for being brave and seeing something new!
Learn about consent tests and empower your dog to participate in activities, such as grooming, so they don't feel helpless or forced. This article from the Cognitive Canine is a great resource to learn more about consent tests: https://thecognitivecanine.com/blog/matters-of-consent/
Teach your dog speech buttons and let them start to tell you what they need and want. They can have buttons for all kinds of things! Outside, play, potty, "mom" or "dad", or even help for when they need your thumbs to get that toy that magically got stuck under the couch for the millionth time. You can learn all about teaching your dog speech buttons here: https://fluent.pet/. Fair warning: this turned out to be an expensive endeavor at my house because it's addicting and I now need... All... The... Buttons.
Once you start trying out some of these ideas, hopefully it will spark even more choices you can think of to give your dog. You'll start finding fun ways to enrich your dog's life and build a stronger relationship that you didn't realize was possible. Empowering your dog with choices will help them become more confident and create a willing partner for all of your shenanigans. Now, get out there and give your dog some choices!
McConnell P. (2016). How to Build Resilience in Dogs.
Duranton, C., & Horowitz, A. (2018). Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.