Living with dogs

Puppies or Puppets? ‘The How!’

Dog walking

Last week I wrote about giving our dogs more control over their everyday lives and allowing them to make choices of their own.

This week I move on from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’.

I received a good question on last week’s blog regarding how you can allow a puppy to have more choices whilst also trying to teach boundaries. The same can be applied to adult dogs who already have boundaries because you need to continue to maintain those boundaries for the dog’s whole life.

Whilst I absolutely believe in giving dogs choices and allowing them to feel more in control of their lives, I’m not talking about allowing them to dictate how you live your life. I’m not suggesting that your dog decide when you do everything from when to go for a walk, when to eat and when they (and subsequently you) will go to bed, but there are many ways you can give your puppy or adult dog some choices to empower them.

Positive Reinforcement

Oftentimes people (with the dog’s best interests at heart) guess at what is rewarding for their dog but don’t always get it right. We can ask the dog which treats they prefer in different situations!  Remember that they will have different preferences in different places.

In your chosen training setting, take a selection of treats and offer them one at a time to your dog. Judging by the speed and enthusiasm with which he takes the treat, rate his preference.
You don’t have to use his first choice, of course – rate them in order of preference and then you know which ones are best to use for more difficult tasks with the favourite being the highest paying. His preferences may change depending on where he is, what the weather’s like and just what he fancies on that day so you can never do this too often!


Just as with treats, you can ask your dog which toy they would rather play with! Hold out two toys equidistant to your dog – don’t wiggle either one, remain entirely impartial and only look at your dog, not at either toy. Dogs can take cues from every little bit of our body language so if we look at one of them, hold one a little higher or closer, or wiggle it, it could influence your dog’s choice. Your dog will make a choice of which toy to go for and then you know which to play with (of course he may well change his mind and go get another part way through!). You can do this at the pet store too when you’re not sure which toy to buy for your dog – ask him!


I touched on this last week. Your dog will have distinct preferences when it comes to petting. Of course, it pays to get him used to all different ways of being touched, but when it’s time to just enjoy your time together, or if someone else wants to pet him, it’s essential that it’s done in his favourite way, if he wants it.

You will be able to tell how your dog prefers to be touched. One of mine backs off when touched over the top of her head due to having ear problems, but she loves being petted under her chin, another one loves his ears to be touched and one of them will offer her bum for petting! So take note of how your dog prefers to be touched and if people ask to pet him you can advise how to do so.

When people ask to pet your dog, don’t instantly say yes, check with the dog. Ask the person to remain at a short distance from your dog and put their hands out, palms out towards the dog. If your dog approaches, then that’s a ‘yes! You can fuss me’ if he backs away, paws at you for reassurance, or just doesn’t approach, then it’s a ‘no’ – it’s that simple. If your dog has said no that should be the end of the conversation, no means no. If the person really wants to interact with the dog, hand them a tit bit and ask them to throw it to the floor in front of the dog, your dog may choose to approach after that, but that’s up to him. If he doesn’t, you move along.

Some dogs will approach but then become unsure. Any time your dog backs off during petting, accept that he’s had enough and take him out of the situation. I don’t mind shaking hands with someone new, but I wouldn’t want to stand shaking their hand for a full five minutes!

Let sleeping dogs lie – where they want

I have three dogs but five sleeping places (not including the beds in the garden or the doormat which is a favourite in hot weather!). This way my dogs can always have some selection of where to sleep. If I had more space there would likely be more to choose from but there’s only so much you can fit in a small space!
Provide different bedding types in different places so that your dog can select which he would rather sleep on, sometimes one of the indoor beds here gets dragged outside in nice weather because it’s comfier than the beds in the garden but in the wrong place!

My dogs know that ‘bed’ means any one of the sleeping spaces I provide in the room we’re in, not that it means any particular one so I don’t point to any particular bed, I tell them to find a bed and they can select which they would rather be on. They are also able to switch through the night if they want and this is particularly important for my old girl who gets uncomfortable and needs a change of position – she goes between a basket and a large orthopaedic mattress.


Not only can you occasionally allow your dog to lead the way, but you can take into consideration what sort of equipment your dog prefers as well.

Try walking your dog on different types of walking gear, different harnesses and collars, different length leads etc and see which he seems more comfortable with. Some dogs will even run away from some types of harness or collar when it comes out of the drawer and then, assuming he’s not just getting excited and running to the door, you can tell it’s not what he likes to use.

I know what you’re thinking! You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a whole pet shop to see which he prefers, but if you see signs that he’s not keen, try something new and see if he prefers it. You can often pick up second hand harnesses etc. from swap and sales sites for cheap or free so give those a try.

When allowing your dog to lead the way, you can still insist on polite lead walking, using a roughly 2m long lead, set off with your dog and at the first junction, stop and wait, see if your dog looks or leans in a certain direction (or simply sets off!) walk with him while ever the lead is loose (keep the lead long enough that your dog has space but not long enough to get in the way of people or allow him into the road), if your dog reaches the end of the lead, gently stop and allow him to come to a stop without yanking him, as soon as your dog relaxes the lead again, you can set off in his chosen direction.

You may find, as I have, that the more you do this, the more your dog checks in with you to see where you want to go! If this happens and your dog isn’t making a move to choose, try leaning your weight in one direction and then in the other, see which your dog seems keener on and you can head off. You can also take this opportunity to choose the way this time! Take it in turns to choose which route you take each time you come to a junction so it becomes a team effort.

I don’t do this all the time, I need my dogs to be ok with following my lead when necessary without getting frustrated, so remember to lead the way on some walks and allow him to make more choices on other walks.


Dogs, unsurprisingly, prefer different types of grooming equipment. I prefer some hair brushes to others just as dogs do. As long as it does the job ok, it’s nice for your dog to have that choice rather than you.

Your dog will likely make it very clear if there’s one he dislikes – does he back away or try to bite it? Does he spin around or seem nervous? Then put it down and try another – of course some dogs just don’t like being brushed at all but it helps to be using the least offensive tool.


Some dogs will appear to dislike eating from a bowl when actually it’s just too narrow and deep. You can try different types of bowls to see if he is happier with a certain shape or material, or just ditch the bowl altogether – see if he would rather eat from a food dispensing toy or scattered across the floor – this has the benefit of mental stimulation as well.


As you can see, asking for your dog’s preferences and giving him some more control over what happens to him doesn’t mean allowing him to run your life! It doesn’t stop him from learning boundaries, but you will often find your dog more compliant to your requests because he will trust you more and he knows that he can get out of that situation again if he needs to.

Get in touch!

These are just several of the things you can allow your dog to have a say in. Can you think of other things your dog may have a preference of and how you could ask for it? Add it in the comments below.
If you haven’t tried this before but you give it a go, please do comment with an update of how it goes! Alternatively, send us a video of your preference testing to [email protected] and we’ll share it on our social media!


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