What if I told you that tomorrow, I would be the one to decide when you get up – and you are not to get up before or after that, I will then decide when, and what you can have for breakfast. After breakfast, I will tell you to put on your coat and shoes because we’re going out – no, not where you want to go, where I want to go.
Okay, we’re back and now you can relax. But not like that. You have to sit there, not in my chair, in your chair. You can read that newspaper not the one you usually like to read. Oh, but you can’t read that page.
Now, you’re reading my choice of paper, and you’re making the most of it, you’ve found a really good article! But I want your attention now. No, not when you’ve finished reading… NOW. Oi. Listen! Are you listening??
The day will progress very much like this until I tell you what you can have for dinner and when you can have it, and then I send you to bed. You need to get up for the toilet? Tough. I’ve locked you in your bedroom, there’s no en suite. You’ll have to hold it until morning because I’m not unlocking that door – eventually, you’ll learn that shouting to be let out of your bedroom doesn’t work. Hey, you might even learn to go to the toilet before you head to bed in future.
Now imagine this is your life every, single, day.
This is why, when a client with an anxious, stressed little dog recently asked me, ‘but if I let her do that, won’t she think she’s in control?’ I answered ‘Yes!! And that’s great!’
Far too many dogs have zero control over any aspect of their lives. The above scenario is how so many dogs live – and they are the ones who have owners who love them! It would be considered an abusive relationship if it were between two humans (even those relationships people generally consider to be a leader and follower – such as parent and child), yet it’s fine when it’s a dog.
We micromanage dogs so that they fit in with our society, we are even told that if we don’t micromanage our dogs, they will think they have to be the ‘pack leader’ and it’s too stressful for them.
Whilst having too much choice can be very difficult for dogs (especially when not educated on how to make good choices), not having control over your own movements is incredibly stressful, and stress like that on a daily basis can have a massive, negative impact on physical and mental health.
Now consider your dog already has pre-existing anxiety surrounding certain triggers. What sort of impact will it have on them if they are not able to make the decision about how close they get to those triggers?
You could be watching your dog’s body language very carefully and when he/she shows signs of stress, you don’t push them to advance any further, or, as many owners do, you insist they get closer and ‘face their fears’. After all – nothing bad will happen, and they will learn that there’s nothing to be frightened of, right?
Except something bad already did happen – the one person in the world they thought they could trust has just forced them into a situation they were unhappy with – the panic takes over and rational thought is out of the window. Even though that motorbike didn’t hurt them, it was something that made them feel panicked and frightened, and now, on top of that they’ve lost some of their trust in you, too.
Even if you’re watching your dog for stress, your dog has to become stressed before you see it.
This is why I love handing back some of the control to the dog – let the dog decide where he/she goes – you are there for guidance and safety – it’s not ok for the dog to walk into the road to avoid something, but it’s more than fine if the dog decides he/she doesn’t want to go any further. (I will be posting about this in more detail – you don’t have to just stop and never go anywhere because your dog said so!)
Even dogs without any pre-existing anxiety get a lot out of having control handed back to them. And you know, once you start giving back that control, it’s liberating to the person too! I absolutely love watching dogs make decisions based on what I’ve taught them!
When people ask if they can pet my dogs, I tell them to ‘ask the dog’ – if the dog approaches you, you can pet her. I ‘release’ my dog (give her permission to go to say hi if she wants to) and if she doesn’t approach you, then no, she doesn’t want to be petted right now, if she does, then go right ahead. Who am I to say ‘yes you can grope my dog’?? If I was out with a friend and she gave permission for you to come and hug me, I wouldn’t be too impressed!
So, how can we give some control back to our dogs without letting them run amok or putting them, or others in danger?
Well, we can ‘consent test’ as in the example above about allowing people to stroke my dog – you can ask your dog if he/she is ok with it first – hold out a palm to your dog and see if he/she approaches – if they do, and you go to pet them, and they back up, leave them be, if you go to pet them and they lean in – that’s them saying ‘yes please!’. I use consent testing for all sorts including things that my dogs find unpleasant such as ear cleaning and nail trimming!
Or, on the lead, your lead is still there but not to control, simply to keep your dog safe. Here’s an idea, why don’t you let your dog choose the route for today’s walk? Providing he/she isn’t pulling on the lead, follow them! We don’t want to encourage impolite behaviour such as dragging you to where they want to go, but by keeping to your loose lead rules, you can just follow your dog on a loose lead. How much fun would that be for both of you?! Who knows where you would end up (a real adventure!) and I can guarantee most dogs (not all) love to discover they’re taking you on your own joint adventure! You don’t need to do this for every walk of course – but it’s fun to do it when you can.
Keep an eye on upcoming blog updates for more information on how and when we can give our dogs more control, and how we can use choice based teaching to overcome fears/phobias with amazing results!