Do You Want A Happier, Less Stressed Dog? Here Are 6 Ways You Can Make That Happen By Giving Your Dog More Choice
Dogs need to have choices: we can improve our dogs’ happiness and quality of life by letting them have choice over certain decisions. There are serious health consequences to not being able to make any of your own choices in life.
This doesn’t mean that your dog has to be able to make all the decisions in her life, but it does mean that with a few small changes on our part, our dogs can feel that they have choices and options. This will lead to happier, less stressed dogs. Who wouldn’t want that?!
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HOW TO GIVE A DOG MORE CHOICE
Many dogs are unable to make any choice over their environment – from what to eat, where to go on a walk, what to play with, or where to rest. As humans, we often make decisions for our dogs without even thinking that this simple act could make them unhappy.
Dogs have feelings, they are not simply objects. As such, they have desires, fears and dislikes. Imagine that you could never act on your desires. Studies have shown that when we have have no control over our environment we suffer, both mentally and physically.
In fact, introducing choice to your dog’s life can be very simple. Of course, we can’t let them make all the decisions: we can’t let them choose to run across a road whenever they want, for instance.
Just as with our children, we need to protect our dogs from making poor decisions, but we can give them some autonomy over their lives AND keep them safe.
THE PROBLEM WITH NOT HAVING ANY CHOICE
Not having any control over your life affects your health, both emotionally and physiologically. This can lead to problems ranging from mental health difficulties and unhappiness to digestion and immune system problems. This is true for humans and dogs.
Happier, less stressed dogs live longer.
So, how can we adjust what we do so that our dogs get to have more choice in their lives, and therefore, feel happier and less stressed?
Dogs, just like us, have preferences over being touched. Some dogs can never get enough petting. My beautiful Mino never tired of being touched. If I stopped stroking him, he pushed or pawed me for more. Not all dogs are like Mino though.
It might sound strange, but we need to learn to give our dogs the ability to give their consent for being touched or not.
We wouldn’t go up to a person and just touch them! We tend to think that all dogs will be OK being petted, but they AREN’T all OK.
My other dog, Toxa, is very slow to warm to strangers. She really doesn’t like unknown people stroking her. She isn’t aggressive, but I can see from her body language that she doesn’t enjoy this attention. Sometimes, it’s clear that she doesn’t want me to pet her either: she gets up and goes to lie somewhere else, or she turns her body away from me.
With an unknown dog, we should of course always ask the owner if it’s OK to pet their dog, but after that, we should also be asking the dog!
So how do we do that? Rather than launch in straight away, petting the dog, we can watch for signals from the dog that it’s OK. If we stand near the dog and she backs away, or looks away, she’s not interested.
If she stays where she is, but doesn’t come towards us, we could offer the back of our hand. If she leans or moves away, or looks away, or freezes, or licks her lips, these are all indications that she’s saying no. If on the other hand, she moves towards us, for instance, she’s showing interest.
With your own dog, try waiting for her to come to you, to signal that she wants to be petted. It takes a little practise, and I admit that I sometimes still just launch in for a cuddle with Toxa without checking first that she’s OK with it.
Think of when you hug a kid that you know, maybe your own child or a relative: sometimes they will try to wriggle away or maybe even say ‘Get off!’ when they don’t want to be hugged.
When dogs say ‘no’ we often fail to understand their language.
Giving our dogs choice on a walk is so easy.
If your dog wants to spend more time sniffing a particular post, or tuft of grass, let her! Unless you are short on time, allowing your dog the freedom to sniff is really important for her wellbeing and to satisfy her natural behaviour. See more about why sniffing is good for a dog in this article.
Try letting her choose which way to go when you walk out of your front door. Simple decisions like choosing direction is such an easy freedom for us to give our dogs.
Another simple way we can make sure our dogs have choices is in their food.
Put the food in a couple of different food toys. There are so many fantastic food toys for dogs, from kongs to lickimats, snuffle mats to treat balls or puzzles.
You can do nosework games, offering different treats, one in each hand.
My favourite way to give my dogs freedom at meal times is by using Free Work – it’s like an easy obstacle course. It involves different types of food and different places to go to find it. Again, apart from the dog food, there’s no need to spend any money setting up a simple free work area.
Does your dog ever indicate to you that she wants to play a particular game, or with a certain toy? I know some pet parents that keep all the dog toys in a cupboard, and they decide what their dog will play with.
If this sounds like you, try putting all the toys – or even just a selection – on the floor and let your dog decide what to play with.
My dog’s toy box is an open basket that she can access whenever she wants. All her toys are in it. She often rummages around in it to find something particular to play with. It costs me nothing for her to have this small freedom.
Sometimes she comes to me with a toy and I’m unable to play at that moment, so I tell her ‘not now’ and she goes off on her own with it. She often leaves it at that point, as she likes to play WITH me and the toy, but sometimes she will play on her own.
You can also give your dog more freedom with game playing. Let’s say you have a frisbee, which your dog enjoys playing with for a few minutes. But then she loses interest and picks up a ball. Would you continue to try to play frisbee, or listen to her saying she wants to play ball?
RESTING / SLEEPING
My dog has full run of the house. She can sleep on the sofa, in either of her own beds, and at night, she can sleep on my bed.
She can choose to sleep wherever else she likes. This is important for her as she loves to follow the sun around the house and will lie down in the sunlight wherever it takes her, including in the garden.
Her choice to go out to the garden and rest is currently limited by me being there with her: there have been many dog thefts recently and although I have installed cameras and other features to protect her, my garden doesn’t yet lend itself to her having free access. However, I do make sure that as well as her daily walk, she has free time in the garden too, when I’m there with her.
And here’s a really important point: make sure that your dog’s ‘bed’ is only for her – if small kids are in the house, make sure that your dog’s bed is hers and hers alone. She needs to have a safe space that she can go to freely, to be left in peace and feel secure.
So many bites are caused by dogs feeling unsafe when their personal space is invaded.
You can teach your dog to pause her behaviour, and control her decisions. This allows her to have choice over the outcome and she is then more likely to make good choices that you also want her to make.
Sometimes, without us realising it, it is us, the pet parents, who lead our dogs to make poor choices. For instance, if your dog jumps up at you every time you come home, and you give her attention for doing that (attention could be greeting her warmly OR telling her off), she will continue to jump up at anyone who comes to the door.
If instead, we ask our dogs to sit calmly when we come home, and ONLY THEN do we greet them, they will learn that they have choices – they can jump up and get no love and attention, or they can sit calmly and get what they want (love and attention).
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Let’s say that after 10 minutes of great, fun training work, your dog suddenly begins to show disinterest. We have a choice then: we can insist that we continue to train, even though the dog might be tired or saturated, or, we can accept their choice to finish the training at that point.
By training when your dog is enjoying it, the training will be more effective. We are far more likely to have a well-behaved, happier dog if we respect their choices too.
Sometimes you will need to dictate your dog’s choices, for instance, for her safety. However, there are many occasions when we can include our dogs in some decision making. This could be in: