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Why choices are so important for our dogs

When looking at some pet dogs' lives, we see that their humans determine just about everything: when and what they eat, when they have to be alone and when they have company, when and where they go for a walk or do other activities, which other dogs they can and can’t interact with; they are usually not even free to choose when and where they get to pee and poo. After all, a dog is completely dependent on his or her human for all of those things. But how does this affect our dogs? Control over their lives When taking away choices, we take away any control dogs have over their lives as well as the possibility to fulfil their own needs. This is true for many, if not all areas in a dog’s life, such as sleep, nutrition and activity. Certainly, a dog placed in a crate will not chew up her human’s belongings, but she also won’t be able to get up and lie down somewhere cooler when she gets too warm (or the other way around), to stretch her legs for a minute when she no longer feels like lying down or to investigate that noise she heard in the kitchen. A dog who is forced to walk at heel makes for an easy walking buddy for his human, but he misses out on the joy of exploring his environment and sniffing all the interesting things in his path. He won't be able to create distance from a neighbourhood dog he is not so sure about either, nor does he have enough space to communicate with us or the other dog through body language. Lack of choice Being able to make choices gives a dog self-confidence and a feeling of self-reliance. If they have no choices at all, they don’t have the possibility to avoid or relieve stress. Studies have shown this can lead to depression and learned helplessness. A dog in this state has ‘shut down’ and no longer makes any attempt to improve his situation. He loses interest or pleasure in everyday activities. Another possible outcome is a dog who is very frustrated about the lack of choice and who may become reactive or aggressive as a consequence. Either way, he will be stressed and experience the negative consequences of stress on the immune system, digestion, ability to learn and general health.

Your turn to pick

While it might seem convenient to some people to micro-manage their dog, it doesn't always make for a nice and mutually beneficial relationship. It is easy to give dogs choices, even within the boundaries of the daily compromise of our two species living together. Ask your dog: do you want to chew on a pig's ear or a piece of beef skin? Or maybe a cow hoof? Take your pick. Do we take a left or a right turn at the next crossing? Or would you like to go back home? Take all the time you need to sniff that tree. Want to sleep in the dog bed, on the floor or on the couch? In the living room, the kitchen or the bedroom? Not only is it important to offer dogs as many choices as possible, it is equally important to recognise the choices they are already making. If, for example, a dog chooses to change direction, speeds up or slows down during the walk, his human should be aware of the circumstances that led to this choice and allow for it. Maybe he wanted to avoid something? Does he want to pee over there? He may have slowed down to appease an approaching dog or human, or because he is tired at the end of the walk. Our dogs need room to do all of those things. To chose or not to chose Naturally, dogs can’t always ‘get their way’, because sometimes there are important reasons against certain choices. One of those possible reasons is safety. A dog can’t jump out of the car unless his human has first made sure that there are no cars coming. Another reason might be household rules - it is polite to wait until the food bowl is on the ground instead of knocking it out of the human’s hand to get to the food more quickly. Sometimes, the dog’s choice may be inappropriate. For example, while my dog would much prefer to eat his meaty bone on the living room carpet, his (washable!) dog blanket or the tiled kitchen floor are much more hygienic options. In such situations, it is important to communicate to a dog what we would like them to do instead of just telling them ‘no’. If a dog is already stressed, it can sometimes be necessary to help him make choices. Stress has such an impact on the mind and on the capability to make decisions that a stressed dog may not make good decisions. In that case, we must help to gently guide them towards better ones. Freedom of choice A dog who makes his own choices is a happier and more self-confident dog. Giving them as much freedom of choice as possible isn’t just great for the dog; it’s also a lovely way for the human to get to know the dog better. We can find out what they really like or how they choose to behave in a certain situation and the relationship will grow stronger for it.

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