Holly’s qualifications include:
- Certified Pet Food Nutrition Specialist
- Assisting pet parents with holistic health and nutrition for 16+ years in her pet food stores: Tail Blazers Copperfield and Tail Blazers Legacy
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Why choice is so important for mental health.
- How to tell if you dog is ok to be touched.
- How you can make your dog more comfortable when children are around.
- What makes a fearful dog’s fears worse.
- Why you shouldn’t punish growling.
- Why your dog might not be interested in training.
- What my favourite feeding surface is.
- 7 ways to give your pup freedom of choice.
This post includes affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything, but it gives me a small kick-back to help pay for my podcast and blog.
Chances are you’ve never really thought about how many choices you make in one day. And, if you’re lucky, you’ve never had to consider what it might be like to start having your choices taken away from you.
What would it be like to live a life where everything you do is determined by someone else?
When you get up, when you go to the bathroom, when and what you eat, when you can go outside or socialize with friends.
Having choices in life is so important because it gives you confidence, autonomy and a sense of control, and we can only assume that the same would be true for our canine companions. When you don’t have control, you feel helpless and don’t handle stressful situations well.
Most pup parents can probably count on one hand the amount of times in a day they allow their dog to make a decision for themselves. The fact is that we make almost all of our dog’s choices for them.
In some ways, this is a good thing! Our dogs may choose to run into traffic, or over-eat to the point where they make themselves sick. Dogs are like kids; they don’t always make the best decisions, and they need us around to advocate for their health and safety.
That being said, there are many, small ways we can allow our dogs to make choices, without causing them any harm.
All of the choices I’ll be chatting with you about today will enhance your dog’s quality of life and make your dog happier. Some things are fun enhancements, while others are ethically non-negotiable. We’ll start with the must-have choices.
1. The Choice to Leave to a Safe Space
In our desire to push activities on our dogs that we THINK they’ll like, usually because some or even most dogs do, we often take away our dog’s choice to participate in the activity.
I can think of a perfect example that I see on a daily basis and that’s bringing your dog to a pet store. Most dogs happily bound through the door to come and claim their tasty treats from us, but that’s not the case with all dogs.
For some dogs, the tune changes if there is another dog in the store, or a large male human with a hat on. Some actively pull their way to the front door to leave (thankfully this is rare), and others hide behind their person’s legs and can be gently coaxed out for a treat.
In our store, our team knows how to read dog body language, and we know how to interact (or more importantly, NOT interact) with the dog accordingly, but most people don’t see the signs of stress and don’t give the dog the space he needs.
As your dog’s advocate, you know your dog best, and it’s up to you to know when limits are met and when it’s time to leave and go to a safe space.
When your dog is on a leash, they can’t physically leave without your help. Trust me when I say, if you learn to read and respect the signs your dog is giving you, your dog’s trust in you will grow exponentially. Your relationship with them will flourish. Alternatively, if your dog learns you won’t protect him in a scary situation, he’ll learn he can’t depend on you to feel safe and he’ll be left to defend himself.
Sometimes we’ll have shy or nervous dogs visit us frequently, so we can help the dog become more comfortable and confident. This would be during slower times of the day when the dog won’t become too overwhelmed.
When the dog comes in, we leave the them and their human to explore without our interference and only interact with the dog when he’s given us consent. Most often that means him approaching us for a treat.
Keeping these interactions controllable, as much as is possible, and keeping them short is of the utmost importance. Letting the dog leave on a happy note is the goal rather than pushing them until they NEED to leave.
Another important situation when your dog must be given the choice to leave to a safe space is when children are around. If your dog is stressed or nervous around children, allowing them refuge is not only important for your dog, but it’s important for the safety of the child.
Dogs may also become nervous around guests in general, or other animals. Some may just grow tired of their presence and need a break. A great example of this is when a young dog or puppy might wear out or get on the very last nerve of an adult or older dog.
Providing a safe space in the home that only your pet can access, and allowing them the choice to go there when they feel the need, is essential. If your dog is used to and enjoys being in their crate, that’s one option. A room in the home that’s off limits to children, guests or other pets is another option.
It is important to note that the choice to leave is especially important with fearful dogs. My dog Grizz, for example, is a very fearful dog. He’s got noise phobias like thunder, fireworks and even the beep of the fridge door being left open, or the sound of the house settling scares him.
Grizz rarely settles when he’s been triggered by a noise he’s afraid of, and often seeks shelter in his crate, our walk-in shower, the closet or the basement. For whatever reason, he must feel more comfortable doing this, than sitting by my side. It’s taken me time to just accept that, and let him be.
If Grizz is forced to stay in a situation I deem more comforting for him, his agitation visibly increases. Forcing interactions with fearful dogs can make their fears worse. They must be given the choice to walk away to a safe space.
Of course, you know I love my disclaimers, the choice is always within reason. Grizz hiding in the basement vs sitting on the bed with me does not affect his safety. Allowing him to flee the yard into traffic because that’s his choice, obviously is not ok. A little common sense goes a long way here.
2. The Choice to Walk Away from Touch or Petting
I sometimes wonder how humans and dogs get along so well, when humans can’t resist their primate urges to grab, hug and touch, and very often dogs would rather NOT be touched at all.
I am definitely NOT of the school that you should never hug or touch your dog. Dogs can enjoy touch in the right situations. I think the easiest way for people to understand the difference between good and bad touch is to think of themselves!
A hand on a shoulder or a hug from someone you know and love is quite pleasant and comforting. Now, if they embrace you for a very long time, it can become annoying or uncomfortable. Now imagine that person is a stranger that puts their arm around your waist in a grocery store for no apparent reason. Or, let’s say that same stranger puts their arm around your waist in a private setting. Touch can go from nice, to annoying, to scary REALLY fast.
With dogs, you can offer scratches or petting and then stop and see what your dog does. Do they walk away? Let them! Do they wiggle in closer? Give them more scratches! Do they walk a few steps away, but don’t leave? Maybe they want your company, but they’re done with the physical contact.
Taking small pauses and giving your dog a chance to respond is a good way to gauge consent. Since kids are unable to gauge the situation, it’s up to the adult humans to do this for them. Again, this is not only for the comfort and safety of your dog, but for the comfort and safety of the child.
A quick note on growling… Oftentimes when a dog growls, humans are quick to anger and they punish the dog. Growling in most cases is simply the dog’s way of saying, “listen, I gave you several signs that I don’t like this (usually we miss them all), I am asking you again nicely, will you please stop?” If you start to punish the growl, your dog will learn to no longer give this early warning and may jump to a snap or a bite next time. If your dog’s growling is concerning you, please seek help from a rewards-based dog trainer to assess your situation before things go too far.
I know some of you are thinking, “Well, sometimes my dog needs to be touched. What am I supposed to do?” And, you’re not wrong. A vet visit is a perfect example. Or, maybe you need to trim your dog’s nails.
It’s up to YOU to learn how to motivate your dog to be ok with touch, and become accustomed to these activities.
Cooperative care is something you can work on in advance of these situations. Maybe your dog will never learn to love nail trims, but they CAN learn that nail trims always result in lots of treats and praise and therefore they can be tolerated or have a positive association.
Maybe the parking at your favourite restaurant sucks, but the food, the atmosphere and the service is SO worth it so you give that crappy parking lot a pass!
Of course there are alway exceptions too. In the case of an emergency, your dog may be injured and growling and snapping, but in order to get them to safety you’ll need to restrain them and carry them.
Perhaps it could be argued that your dog may be more likely to trust you in these emergency situations if you’ve earned it through the many, daily interactions you have together.
3. The Choice to Train or Not to Train
Training should be FUN for your dog! If training is fun, and motivating your dog will more than likely stay until something gets frustrating or becomes too hard. In these cases, your dog should be given the opportunity to walk away. Then you can reassess and see if you can try again by maybe stepping back a little, or trying a new way to teach your dog.
If your dog is never a willing participant in training, you have to ask yourself why.
- Are you losing your patience or your temper?
- Are your training techniques punitive rather than rewards-based?
- Are you not communicating effectively?
- Is the task too hard and needs to be broken down into simpler, smaller steps?
- Do your treats suck? Nobody works for free!
- Are there too many distractions?
- Maybe your dog is simply just too tired or doesn’t feel well.
Keep your sessions short – even many 5 min sessions per day to work on skills in different places is lots! Your dog should never be forced to train.
Now that we have all that serious stuff out of the way, let’s talk about some fun ways you can ADD choice into your dog’s daily routine.
4. The Choice of How to Eat at Dinnertime
Your dog may not get to choose what they eat everyday, but you can make eating more interesting for them!
Off topic, but one thing you can do to prevent boredom and keep things exciting is to vary your dog’s meals. Many dry food brands offer rotational diets, and if you feed raw the options are pretty endless. It’s such an easy way to improve your dog’s physical and mental health. Anyway, I digress but I can’t pass up an opportunity to remind people to MIX UP the food!
If you’re like most pup parents you feed your dog from a bowl and always have. That’s ok! But, how about trying to add a few toppers to that bowl, and letting your dog choose what to eat first?
Better yet, feed your dog from a slow feeder, or a platter like a Mine Platter. I especially like platters because you can put raw in one spot, maybe some whole fish in another spot, a puddle of broth in the middle, and maybe throw some pureed veg on there too.
Let your dog sniff the items, and choose the order in which they’d like to eat them. It’s a small choice, but it makes dinnertime more fun for them!
5. The Choice of How to Take Walks
Sometimes walks have a purpose. For instance, you need to get from point A to point B in a hurry. Or, your dog needs to pee and you’re late for work. In these cases, there isn’t much opportunity for choice.
However, if you take your dog on one or two walks a day for their physical and mental health, and I hope that you do, let your dog lead the way on those walks!
Your dog is likely to do a lot of sniffing, and you might not actually get very far in terms of distance. That’s ok! Sniffing can actually tire a dog out as much, if not more, than walking for the same amount of time.
Let your dog decide which direction to go, of course as long as it’s safe and he’s not sniffing the road kill in the middle of the road.
6. The Choice of How to Play
This one is fun and easy! Try filling two of your dog’s favourite enrichment toys with treats and let them pick which one to play with. You can use a puzzle toy, a snuffle mat, a food dispensing ball, or whatever you have on hand!
Many people make the mistake when they are shopping for enrichment toys to assume one puzzle or toy is enough. It’s a great place to start, but again, think about yourself. You might like to paint, read, or play cards. You don’t always entertain yourself the same way.
There are many ways your dog can play without food or enrichment toys too! Maybe they like to chase a ball, or dig, or tug, or chew in the grass. Let your dog choose the activity or activities and you can participate if it’s prudent. For instance, you might not enjoy chewing in the grass, but if you do, have atter – it’s your choice!
7. Choices in the Home and Yard
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but I never assume that we all think the same way!
Give your dog a few different beds in the house; one near a window in the warm sun, one in the basement where it’s cool, and maybe one in the bedroom where it’s private and quiet.
On days when the weather is nice, try propping open a door and let your dog move freely between the house and your secured yard.
Set up a water bowl upstairs, and one on the main floor. Teach your dog to ring a potty bell when they want to, or need to go outside. I always think about how awful it must be to have to pee and no one is listening to your requests to go outside.
The possibilities are endless here. Use your imagination!
As you can see, there’s lots of ways you can provide choices in your dog’s day-to-day activities. I challenge you to try one or more of these today and make an effort to add more and more options as time goes on.
Resources from this Episode:
- PODCAST: Nurturing Your Pup’s Mind With Enrichment With Donia Roorda
- WEBSITE: The Original Mine Pet Platter