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The greatest gift we can give a dog is choice.

Updated: Jan 2

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Dogs lack what humans treasure most dearly: autonomy.  They do not get to decide what to eat, when to eat, who they live with, where they live, when they receive exercise, who they get the chance to befriend, when they get to visit friends, seeking mates, and sexual activity. These are all both needs and normal species-specific behaviors for a dog. Feeling insecure about their access to the necessary things in life can result in stress and problem behaviors, including resource-guarding and stereotypic behavior. Good two-way communication is the key to any healthy relationship, and it is no different with our dogs. We can teach them ways to influence outcomes in life, communicate choice, and then take into account the communicative feedback we receive from them. Our dogs must be willing partners to maintain positive relationships based on trust.  Isn't that what we really want with our dogs?

Marking good behaviors and using positive rewards is not enough because that is one-way communication. We have to learn to effectively read our dogs communication to understand their needs...and then act on that communication.  As is life, some things have to be done that they would rather not have to do (vaccines, medications, grooming, bloodwork), but I always ask myself, "How have I prepared my dog for those moments to teach him expectations and mitigate stress as best as possible?". Is it possible to take a break after trimming nails on one paw and do another paw later? Should we create a training plan based on their feedback to help prepare them for a comfortable and cooperative experience, e.g. desensitization or counter-conditioning? Could we make changes such as that mentioned with the nail trim to mitigate stress?

Teaching a way to ask for things can go a long way to helping a dog feel security about his access to resources and opportunities. How is your dog able to ask that he wants to go for a walk? Or to play with you? For food? To do a special activity like agility or scentwork? Do we acknowledge and fulfill the communicated needs or do things only happen exclusively when we feel they should happen? There should be some compromise, or their circumstances are not much different than someone in Cell Block 125 at the local prison. That is not something most of us like to think about.

Sometimes what we may want to do may or may not be what our dog would choose to do...if he had the choice. When I am looking to do an activity together, I question what my dog is getting out of the activity, such as food, mental stimulation, exercise, species- or breed-specific motor patterns, or bonding. Does the activity help fulfill the spectrum of needs being met? How does it benefit him and/or our relationship?  This is especially important for anyone looking to title a dog in an activity, whether it be tricks, agility, obedience, or nosework. Things can easily be taken to an extreme as we pursue goals, during which our dogs may no longer enjoy what they are doing and do not have any choice in the matter. It has become about us. This is even worse if the dog is feeling ill or is injured, yet we may not actively be looking for communication that a dog is ready to partake in an activity. Instead, we sometimes assume that because WE want to do it and it is an activity that seems fun, our dogs MUST also be ready and willing participants. This just isn't the case. Over time, these dogs may have decreased enjoyment in the activity and decreased levels of performance. Giving a dog choice builds truer and better teamwork.

We must foster a relationship and a training environment where our dogs can signal that that they would like to stop an activity. We must consider how much social pressure we are applying either purposefully or inadvertently that may be affecting their ability to communicate "no". Anyone with an agility dog or a ball-crazy dog can likely cite an example of an injured dog continuing to engage in the activity while masking pain.  Masking of pain can be both a natural behavior of self-preservation, but it is also something we may socially pressure without realizing it. We must explore what options we are giving our dogs in any scenario we present.  I do not want to create a relationship of distrust, nor do I want my dogs to believe that they are helpless.  Ignoring communication from our dogs is a dangerous thing.  They can quickly learn that the are helpless to avoid negative outcomes.  Am I looking for these signals?  This can be a trained behavior, such as the bucket game, although for the most part, I prefer to look at dogs' natural body language cues. Working with a dog is an on-going conversation.

Through these on-going conversations with our dogs, we can ensure that Bramble's Five Freedoms of Animals are met:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst,

  2. Freedom from Discomfort,

  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease, and the

  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior.

  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Sometimes, we ignore a dog's communication of fear and distress because it is inconvenient and we think the dog will get over it. This is most noticeable in veterinary visits and occasionally in the show dog world. In both of these activities, the expectation is that dogs will stand still and accept invasive handling by a stranger. It is possible to train these behaviors positively in a way that builds trust and self-confidence. In the case of some show dogs, untrained dogs may be forced to stand still and forcibly accept handling through the choking restraint of a necklace-thin slip-lead. The dog's expressions of fear and discomfort are ignored until he eventually gives up trying to escape. Treats may be offered, but that does not make this positive. A dog learns in these situations that he has no control over his circumstances. He learns through repeated experiences of this that he is helpless. Obviously, not all show dogs are trained this way, but this is still a common means of "training", and one which I witnessed in a so-called conformation "class". We may also create learned helplessness at veterinary visits when dogs are routinely taken into the back away from their owners at every visit to quickly administer veterinary care through rapid restraint techniques. A way to avoid learned helplessness is to instead of attempt to make dogs comfortable with the experience so they will be more accepting of such handling in the long-term.

These are not the only situations where we may create learned helplessness. Remaining in a noisy or crowded place while the dog cowers and hides as we socialize with friends, putting a nervous dog in a busy dog park or in a room full of boisterous children, holding a very fearful small dog so people can pet him, or taking a long walk in the heat/cold while ignoring signs of stress...these are all examples of missed communication. I think we have all done something like this before. Any time that we routinely ignore a dog's communication expressing discomfort signals to them that they have no control over their circumstances in life, and that they are NOT entitled to freedom from fear and discomfort. This can be unsettling to an animal, even when we do not realize we are doing it. It breaks their trust with us. This is called learned helplessness.

For those who are still skeptical about a dog telling them "no"....

A dog saying "no" is not necessarily a lazy dog, but could be a stressed dog, a dog who is in pain, or a dog who does not find the activity worthwhile.  Communication is a two-way street.  We can better adapt training scenarios to individual dogs to increase the rate of success if we understand what our dogs are communicating to us.  When a dog does not want to engage, we have choices to make.  We can take a break from the activity.  We could force the dog to engage (probably not a good idea unless absolutely necessary).  We can step back and explore WHY a dog does not want to engage.  What does this tell us about his health and emotional state?  We can change the environment to make our dogs more comfortable.  We can change what we are asking of our dogs to make the task more easily achievable.  We can change what a dog gets out of performing the activity. We open up greater possibilities of success in our teamwork activities and an enriched relationship when we give equal weight to our dogs' communication.


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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