Our dogs have little choice in their lives in today’s world. We control what and when they eat, when they play, when and where they can go to the bathroom and where they sleep. We expect them to politely walk on a leash without exploring the rich and fascinating world around them, and want them to lie quietly on the ground for most of the day. Compare this with how dogs used to live: running around the farm, chasing squirrels at will, eating and rolling in deer droppings, chewing on sticks, digging in the mud, swimming in the pond, following the tractor …
Well-known behaviorist and professor of psychology at Utah State University, Dr. Susan Friedman, says, “The power to control one’s results is essential to the health of behavior.”
There’s a good chance that poor dog selection is at least partially responsible for the stress we see in many of our canine companions these days and some of the behavioral issues that result. Imagine how stressed you would be if your life were as tightly controlled as your dog’s!
You can introduce your dogs to choices by learning a keyword “you choose”:
1. Choose a very high and very low value treatment.
2. Show your dog a good quality treat and name it: meat, beef, chicken, high, etc. Let him eat it. Repeat several times.
3. Show your dog the substandard treat and name it: Kibble, Milkbone, Low, etc. Let him eat it. Repeat several times.
4. Now tell him “wait”, say your high quality name, put the high quality treat in a bowl and show it to him in one hand. Then, name your high quality treat and place it in another bowl. and show it to him in your other hand. Place both bowls on the floor at your feet at the same time, about six inches apart. If necessary, repeat “Wait” so that he doesn’t eat it. (If your dog is not showing good “wait” behavior, either have someone hold his collar or leash, or teach him to “wait”.
5. Now say “You choose!” “Choose one!” (or whatever you’d like your “Choice” keyword to be) and invite him to choose a bowl. While he is eating this treat, quickly take the other bowl so he does not eat that treat either.
6. Repeat several times, randomly high / low value on the other sides until it is clear he realizes he can choose his preference. (You might be surprised to discover what you think is more valuable to him – maybe not!)
Pay attention to “page preference”
If your dog always Eats the treat from the bowl on the same side regardless of which treat it contains. Your dog has a strong “side preference” – like being left-handed or right-handed. You can overcome this by putting your high quality treatment on its non-preferred side and low-quality treatment on its preferred side far move to the side and do a lot of repetitions, very gradually bringing the treatment closer and closer to the preferred side. If he continues to select the high value treatment even if the low value treatment is near, switch them back at random.
After your dog understands the concept of choice, you can apply it in different situations. Take it near your back door and say, “Do you want to go out? You choose! ”If he gets happy and walks to the door, he says“ Yes! ”And you can open the door and say“ Okay, go! ”And let him out (assuming your yard is fenced!) If you remain calm or otherwise indicate that he is not upset about the prospect of going out, you can say “Anyway” and close the door to keep him around the house.
Maybe you go for a walk and the path divides. Stop, let him sit at the fork in the road and say, “You choose!” and let him choose which way to go. Offer him two toys and say “You choose!” so he can choose which toy he wants to play with. Think seriously about how you can help him make decisions and incorporate as many into his world as you can. Dr. Friedman reminds us that the better he can control his own results, the healthier he is.
Top photo: Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images
Continue reading: Whole Dog Journal, Pro-Choice, November 2016