A journalist asked me once, “What do dogs want?” And I answered that, beside the obvious primal needs of food, water and shelter, dogs want 1) positive social interactions and 2) opportunities to make decisions on their own. Certainly too many dogs still suffer from a lack of social interaction, being tied up in backyards or kenneled by themselves until hunting season begins. But I suspect that many beloved dogs who are surrounded by love and attention suffer from a lack of freedom of choice. Of course, we can’t know for sure, we aren’t dogs, but sometimes it is useful to compare the needs of two different species, especially if they share so much and live together. As humans, being able to make choices about our lives is our most important possession. It is one of the things that we take for granted until we lose it, like water to drink and good health. Only when it is lost do we realize how precious it is. Ask prisoners about their time in confinement and they will tell you that the worst thing about it is having no autonomy. Want ice cream after dinner? Too bad, not being served. Want to stay up a little later one night and read? Sorry, lights out at 10. Most of us haven’t had that experience, but we can remember when we first had some control over our lives as teenagers. and the giddy joy of being free to make decisions on our own about what to do at any given moment in time.
It is certainly true that many companion dogs have little autonomy, and that is not always a bad thing. They go outside when their owners open the door, not having learned yet how to open doors on their own (thank heavens). They are often on leashes, and therefore safe from being hit by car. But they are also unable to make decisions about where to turn, which way to go, and how long to spend on one spot. Their elimination behavior is controlled by us once they are house trained. Granted, gazillions of them pick up one of their numerous toys and decide when it’s play time by dropping it in our laps, and plenty of dogs have got their owners pretty well trained….
But, still, compared to feral or free-ranging dogs in other countries, some of our own companion dogs live relatively constrained lives. Granted, they often get better medical care than most people, organic food and acupuncture, but you could argue that they also lose something in the process.
Patricia McConnell, “Autonomy and Domestic Dogs”
I think about this a lot.
@streetdogmillionaires and I are certainly not the ONLY McConnell fans out there, so I hope that many (all?) of you clicked the citation link and read the whole blog entry.
But if not, I think it is valuable to include a later paragraph on what you can do to give your dog more (safe) autonomy:
are many ways dogs can have more autonomy as companions who can’t
safely run free or work sheep: Some of them are small things, like
asking a dog if he is “Ready” to do something or not. (See discussions
about this in an earlier blog.) Leash walks can be directed by dogs as
often as by their owners. (“Which way do you want to go?”) I think most
important to dogs is to be able to explore the out of doors off leash.
There’s nothing like a long walk in which a dog is allowed to run here,
sniff there, and be free to explore at his or her own pace to make a dog
healthy and happy. Nose games for dogs are great too: dogs get to play
to their strengths and make decisions based on their natural abilities.
I’ve seen many dogs who gained confidence and what only can be called
joie de vivre after playing nose games with their owners.” (McConnell, 2012)
Speaking only for myself, most of the time in Quiche’s life she can’t be off-leash. When there are safe spaces, it is really something to watch her explore on her own. But given that it is not always a safe option… there are other ways to let her think, and choose.
One thing I like to do is let her choose what toys, and games, she wants to use.
“Go get a toy!”
[she brings one over from her toy bucket, and by golly, we play with it – whether it’s a torn to shreds stuffie she wants to tug and murderize, or a kong that she wants plugged up with treats, or a ball for chasing.]
Even if it is the same game we played yesterday, or earlier that day. Even if it is an “indoor” toy and she wants to take it outside.
It is fun, too, to let her pick the directions we walk around the neighborhood or on the trail, and to let her spend as much time as she likes sniffing things. I can look at birds while she sniffs.
She can choose some things!