So much of our pets’ lives are dictated by us. We determine when they have access to outside, food, water, resting areas and games. We decide what food they eat. We restrict our dogs’ movements by attaching a leash to them when we take them out. We determine when, or if, they have play dates and with which dogs. We decide when they get baths or see the vet. When you think about it, very little about a dog’s life is up to them.
As the pet care industry moves steadily toward more humane and cooperative interactions, there is a new buzzword floating around: Choice. Everywhere from vet’s offices to groomers to shelters and rescues to your neighborhood dog trainer, people are talking about Choice and if our pets should be allowed to make choices about their lives.
I often equate the concept of choice to providing the individual a sense of autonomy. According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, autonomy means:
- The quality or state of being self-governing
- Self-directing freedom and … independence.
In relation to our pets, this is about giving them the choice to decide what they’d like to do, and when and where they’d like to do it. In my house, I have a dog door that leads to a securely fenced back yard. My dogs have the autonomy to make choices about when they go out to potty and when they’d like to lounge on the couch. They have the freedom to choose if they want to go outside and sunbathe or sniff the grass or bark at the neighbor mowing the lawn. Similarly, I allow them the freedom to choose if they want to sleep on their own bed, the floor, the couch or my bed.
Probably most pet parents allow at least some of the above types of choice in their pets’ everyday lives. And that’s great. There’s growing research in animal welfare that indicates allowing captive animals to have more choices and control of their environment increases their overall welfare (e.g. Whitham & Wielebnowski, 2013). But what other things might we do to give our pets choices?
One idea that my fellow trainers and I embrace include activities such as ‘sniffari’ walks. A ‘sniffari’ walk is different from your regular walk in that it is focused on allowing your dog to take her time to sniff and explore the environment. You let her decide which way to walk, when to stop for a sniff and how long to stay before moving on. When I do this with my own dogs, I have two rules for them. First, they must still wait at all corners for permission to cross the street (safety first). Second, they are not allowed to approach unfamiliar doors. Other than that, I block off an hour or two (you can do a shorter version if that’s all time will allow) and let them tell me where they want to go. After this kind of walk, they are far more relaxed and ready for a nap than after a power walk of similar duration.
Another idea is providing choices at mealtime. In the picture below you can see a recent dinner I made for my dogs. I used disposable muffin tins with six cups. Each cup had a different option. I set the tin down and allow the dogs to eat in whatever order they wish. If they skip an item altogether, then I’ll know to not include that the next time we do this. This particular dinner included nonfat yogurt, peanut butter drizzled with honey, tortilla chips, venison sausage and their regular kibble. (they liked it all, but the venison was the biggest hit!).
Yes or No
One creative option is to teach your dog two signals – one which means “yes” and one which means “no.” Then you can give your dog options such as “Do you want to go outside?” or “Would you like to cuddle?” With practice and a reinforcement history that the “yes” answer gets the thing you’re offering and the “no” answer means that thing goes away or doesn’t happen, your dog will be set up to tell you precisely what she wants to do.
I hope you’ll try these ideas or come up with other fun and creative ways to give all your pets a few more choices about their daily activities.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.