Giving your dog a choice

How much choice does your dog have? How much choice do you give her, or do you want her to have? While thinking about this, I wonder how much choice Reggie has. But he’s a dog and, much like a small child, choice is not something he gets carte blanche. Conflicted though, I want him to experience, explore, and grow- have the best doggie life he can. What’s a dog owner to do?

Well, maybe there is latitude for choice. Maybe there are things we can do that are within the realm of keeping our dogs safe, trained, and mentally growing. The major areas we can look at are your speech, the house, and the walk.


How do you talk to your dog? When your dog drops the toy because she wants to play do you immediately pick it up and throw it? Or do you ask “Ready?” What are the visual cues that your dog gives you that she has made the choice to continue playing?

When your dog does something wrong, how do you address it? Does “No” fly out of your mouth so frequently it means nothing? When I use my “mom voice” because Reggie has picked up something he shouldn’t have (bad choice) a firm “No” will cause him to drop it immediately.

Your House

How much choice does your dog have in the house? Things like places to sleep, eat, toys. Admittedly, Reggie has very little choice in this category- with the exception of toys. He has an obscene amount of toys. And he does choose different toys to play with depending on his mood, which is very interesting to me.

What would happen if you gave your dog the choice to sleep in two different locations? Or two different places to eat? When doing mind exercises (mental games) in the house does your dog pick the game? Reggie will sometimes “paw” the game he wants. Maybe he thinks there’s a treat inside, but I interpret it as a “yes”.

The Walk

Now this gets fun. There’s a fine line between maintaining that level of discipline that we all want and giving your dog choice. Sniffing and exploring are how dogs learn and discover their surroundings so it’s important to allow this behavior. However, it’s also important to actually walk- the point is exercise, right? When Reggie and I walk by ourselves we walk at a brisk pace and he is right next to me. If he wants to stop and sniff something, I let him. I’m controlling the walk but he has the choice to stop and discover something. For the most part I also let him control the pace. He will walk briskly but in warmer weather and towards the end of a walk he slows. It’s his choice based on physical ability at that point.

When I started reading about this I thought, well duh. These are common sense things. But after I stewed about it for a little while I thought that I would focus more on how I can incorporate choice into Reggie’s life. Letting him have choice for certain things would give him some autonomy and that in and of itself is a sort of mental exercise, training. Remember these are dogs. Their cerebral cortex is not developed to the level of a human and you can’t expect them to make choices and decisions at that level or you will be frustrated at the lack of response. Try some choices and see what responses you get!

Dog conversations: is your dog rude?

Reggie is an “only child” and as consequence really was never socialized. There were never really any other dogs in the neighborhood and he only occasionally met dogs on walks. So in the past year I put him in doggie daycare one day every other week for exercise and socialization.

According to Dog Sense by John Bradshaw, dogs greet each other by sniffing either the head or the rear. Some dogs may circle each other first, seeming to try to decide, before sniffing. The scent markers at the head are actually the ears- an individual specific odor to each dog. At the rear it is likely the anal sacs (as opposed to the male or female glands). These individual scent markers are like an ID to each dog. They give information as to reproductive state, breed, pack, etc. Dogs store all of this information and remember by scent, “that female beagle lives in my neighborhood…”. Females more often than males tend to sniff the head first and then move to the rear, but not always.

So what if your dog doesn’t know that is how dogs greet each other? Truth be told, Reggie really didn’t. He was shy, clingy sometimes. He didn’t know how to play in a group. He was part of a dog play group but he would stand on the outside of the group and kind of prance around like “I want to play!” but never really join in.

I have seen changes in Reggie since the start of daycare. He has more confidence and he is more playful with other dogs. There are many more dogs on the walk nowadays, and he wants to meet every one. However, now when he meets another dog he rushes right up to the other dog and immediately starts sniffing and sometimes starts jumping on the other dog- as if he’s in daycare and ready to play. I’m not happy with this behavior and pondering the thought distinction in Reggie’s head between the types of dog meetings and greetings. Can he tell the difference between meeting a dog on a walk and meeting a dog in daycare? It doesn’t seem like it- he’s not reading the cues, he has more learning to do.

Imagine you are at the mall sitting on a bench with your significant other. Imagine a stranger comes up to you and sits down uncomfortably close to you, and you scoot away. The stranger comes closer, and you scoot farther away and politely tell the stranger to back off. You eventually tell your significant other and they get frustrated with you, grab you by the arm and drag you away saying the whole time, “geez they were just trying to be friendly!”. That’s crazy right? The stranger was invading your space, not respecting your request, and then your significant other chastises you for not allowing the stranger to be friendly with you. This adaption is from this story about dogs. You are your dog in the story, the significant other is you (the dog owner). The stranger is the rude dog that rushes up to your dog while the other owner shouts “don’t worry he’s friendly!”. That doesn’t matter, that dog is rude. And so is that owner for allowing this behavior. Reread this story and put it in human terms. You would never allow this for you, your children, your spouse. Don’t do it for your dog.

Scent is so powerful for a dog- more than we can appreciate- and if a dog is under-socialized then his sense of smell is likely under developed to a degree when it comes to discerning scent markers and pheromones in other dogs. It is possible that the scent markers in dogs can relay information such as how old, hungry, anxious, sick, confident, and- I have personally experienced this- if the other dog may be about to have a seizure. Reggie isn’t good enough yet at picking up on those cues, those scents, from other dogs. He doesn’t always get the message when another dog is telling him ‘I want to meet you, but I don’t want to play.”

What are some ways to overcome this? How can I teach Reggie the difference between daycare and a walk? Dr. Sophia Yin is an acclaimed animal behaviorist and has written a great article about this type of behavior. Over arousal in play that is not controlled will lead to poor impulse control. Hmmm…so is Reggie still learning cues or on the opposite end of the spectrum developing a bad habit? Something to look into.

When I am walking with Reggie, I don’t look at the dog I look at the owner. Are they on the phone? Do they have a retractable leash? Is the dog off leash? How attentive do they appear? Is their dog walking next to them or wandering all over the place and pulling them wherever they please? These are dogs I do not want Reggie to meet. The situation might be fine, and probably will be, but I don’t trust that owner. I am the advocate for my dog and he still has learning to do- I know that. I have to make choices that will be to his learning benefit, not detriment.

So, do you have a rude dog or a polite dog? A dog in training like Reggie? As always, share tips and strategies of your own!