Editor’s note: In part 1 of this series, Sylvie makes the case for giving our dogs more freedom for a happier, healthier and more harmonious life. In this second installment, Sylvie provides practical suggestions on how to give our dogs more freedom from coercion and fear. In part 3 she discusses freedom at home and outdoors.
Previously I wrote about how giving your dog more personal freedom not only improves their happiness but is also a good strategy to prevent behaviour problems. Sounds all pretty good, but how do you do this? How, exactly, can you give your dog more freedom without losing control?
Freedom from Coercion: How Much Control Do We Need?
Personally, the idea to have control over another individual always sounded a little sinister to me, but let’s consider what controlling our dogs actually means and how much control we really need. Laws and regulations usually require us to have our dogs leashed in most public areas and that we have effective control over our dogs when they are off leash. If you have, like me, ever wondered what the law defines as effective control, check out why a dog owner in my Australian neighbourhood was flabbergasted when he copped a heavy fine. Maybe it’s not surprising after all that we seem a little obsessed with controlling our dogs.
Laws aside, what other reasons could there be that we need to limit our dog’s freedom? I’d say the safety and comfort of other family members is the number one reason. Be it the puppy who bites and jumps, the adult who pulls on-leash like a cart horse, or the senior who growls at the kids, it affects our lives. There is no doubt that a few adjustments are needed for harmonious cohabitation of dog and human. But why would the dog be the only one who has to change, especially since it’s us who had the glorious idea to move in together in the first place? Why do they have to give up so much and we so little? A dog being confined to a mat like a pot plant in their own home? What’s that all about? And why can the dog not be in front on a walk? Why is the dog on a short, tight leash instead of free to sniff the ground and walk comfortably? Why is the social dog not allowed to play with their own kind? Why can’t they be on the couch or on your bed? Why does a dog have to be forcefully restrained to be examined or groomed or petted by strangers?
Sometimes, there are valid reasons to restrict a dog’s freedom, but there is a difference if you walk out the door first because the neighbour’s cat frequently sleeps on your door mat or because you believe you are teaching your dog who’s in charge by doing so. The cat is a valid reason, the other is a myth.
Apart from dog training myths, of which there are many, our own fears are often the reason for being doggy helicopter parents. If you have fears about what may happen to your dog or what your dog may do if you give them more freedom, consider what your dog is missing out on and how much happier they could be. Consider that you can rid yourself of your fears with management, training and behaviour modification, or simply by getting factual information. The same approach also works for making your dog fear-free.
Freedom from Fear: Take the Scary Stuff out of Your Dog’s Life
This is the big one. Living with fear and anxiety is the antithesis to feeling in control of one’s life and it is far too common in our companion dogs. This is not because dogs are routinely being abused or neglected by their families and then suffer further trauma by going through the shelter system. Most dogs who find themselves homeless are victims of wrong expectations and circumstances, not malevolence. The reasons so many dogs live with anxiety, shelter dogs or not, are that common causes are not widely understood, preventative and remedial measures are not taken, and the more subtle signs of fear and anxiety in dogs simply fall under the radar. Here is what you can do to give your dog freedom from fear and its constraints on your dog’s life.
1. Socialisation is Your Dog’s Passport and Should be a Birth Right
Shortly after I moved to Australia, I lived in a share house, with the owner’s dog stuck in a barren, narrow run bordering my window. The dog hadn’t been out of that place for years. Of course the animal lover in me had to change this, but seconds after I had given the dog his freedom at a nearby park we were both sprinting: He, straight back to his prison and I, trying to stop a terrified dog from getting run over. Clearly, I didn’t understand what fear and anxiety could do to a dog back then.
This was an extreme case of keeping a dog isolated from the world. Many more dogs miss out in a seemingly less dramatic way, for example by not being socialised as puppies, never being walked further than the next block or never getting off the leash. However, the result can be just as devastating. You fear what you don’t know and for a dog with an impoverished life this means almost everything.
Fear buster number one is to let your dog experience the world and to socialise them extensively between about 8 to 14 weeks of age. And, don’t stop there. Social skills with humans, dogs and other animals and confidence amid the hustling and bustling of human society, is best achieved and maintained with regular enjoyable exposure. Let your dog have fun!
Although a love for humans is the best insurance for a dog not to find themselves homeless, don’t forget to allow your dog off-leash time with their own kind. Dog-dog play is one of the most exhilarating, endorphin-producing, tiring and educational activities and all dogs should be given the opportunity. Learn about the signs of good dog-dog play and free yourself from assumptions and opinions which spoil the dogs’ joy. If your dog is not a player, no drama. But let them make the decision.
2. Avoid Being the Source of Scary Stuff
From the day you get your dog and bring them home, you will have a profound influence on what they learn to fear. The worst case scenario would be that they learn to fear you. You, of all people, need to be a haven of safety for the dog, a source of fun and companionship, a beacon of light. But, before we get too carried away with your significance in your dog’s life, let’s have a look at what so often happens instead.
A dog joins his new human family and is showered with love and attention for the first couple of days. After that the dog is largely expected to know and adhere to the rules and etiquettes for the modern family dog. It’s not like there’s a manual or anything, but we assume they figure it out regardless. Rule violations frequently result in gruff remarks from the humans, preferably “no!” or “ah-ah!”, often accompanied by some form of posturing or even physical assault. The dog, suitably confused, learns to avoid their strange humans in contexts that have previously led to aggressive displays by said humans. Lesson learned: Humans just can’t be trusted.
There’s your source of anxiety right there: Unpredictable and seemingly random hostility from family members and no way to escape. Add to that the liberties we take with our dogs, the physical manipulations we subject them to on a daily basis in order to control their movements or make them do things—keep them on a short tight leash on walks, push them into a sit whenever we think they should, or immobilise them to have their nails clipped—and I think you can see how easily your dog may feel anything but in control of their own life.
It is impossible to predict how bad a dog will be affected by our ingrained habit of dishing out verbal and physical harassments and “corrections” and our sense of entitlement to have total control over their bodies, but it is a rare dog who gets away unscathed. The logical course of action is that we stop being such bullies.
Be a source of good things for your dog (tasty food, play, companionship, outdoor adventures) and you will be the shining light in your dog’s life. Here’s your challenge for the week: Put a dollar into a jar every time you catch yourself growling “no” and “ah-ah!” at your dog. Then use the money to pay for a positive reinforcement dog trainer or book and liberate yourself and your dog from negativity.
3. Identify the Scary Stuff and Remove It
Preventing fear from developing in the first place is great, but what if your dog is already showing signs of fear and anxiety?
You’re not alone. As I mentioned above, fear and anxiety are widespread among dogs, from isolated fear triggers to general anxiety. First of all, identify the sources of your dog’s fears and remove them as best as you can. This can mean not leaving your dog alone (if they suffer separation anxiety), limiting who visits your home (if your dog doesn’t like strangers or certain people), not taking your dog for walks in busy neighbourhoods (if your dog barks, growls and lunges on leash), finding a new vet, groomer, walker or sitter, if they cause your dog nightmares and, of course, not being the harbinger of scary stuff yourself. Next, make your dog feel better, so they—and you—can have a better life. Sometimes this journey is easier when you can share it, so check out the Fearful Dogs community for support.
If you decide to search the internet for tips on how to make your dog better, put your virtual gum boots on and get ready to wade through the muck. The suggestions you find there range from the cure-it-all mantra that your dog will miraculously become calm and well-behaved, if you could only be less of a wuss and a proper alpha leader for crying out loud, to claims that a concoction of flower petals and sweet smelling oils combined with swaddling or touching your dog’s body while playing relaxing music is going to make all your dog’s troubles dissipate into thin air. At least the aromatherapy, massage and music usually do no harm and may even aid the road to recovery—unless it prevents you from getting to the root of the problem in the first place—but the “alpha cure” is a dangerous myth.
Something else that you may have fished out of the internet bog is desensitisation & counter-conditioning (DS/CC). This is indeed the proven protocol to deal with fears, phobias and anxieties. It sometimes comes disguised under a different name or important sounding acronym, giving the impression of being a newly developed method, but DS/CC is as old as the atomic bomb (fortunately without the fallout). Whatever is added to the protocol to make it more effective or just sexier, DS/CC needs to be at the core of it. If you seek professional help, which is usually a good idea, make sure your dog trainer/behaviourist is clear on this.
Before you arm yourself with a professional consultant, a behaviour modification plan and a ton of patience and wade through the protocol though, go see your vet, or go straight to a veterinary behaviourist, to rule out physiological or neurological problems and to possibly get medication on board. Yes, meds can often be of great help, not usually as a solution on their own, but as a facilitator to get the DS/CC protocol started or to speed it up. It’s about getting your dog out of panic state as quickly as possible.
4. Teach Your Dog with Fun Not Force
The methods you use to teach your dog or change their behaviour are a huge factor in how safe and in control a dog feels. It is indisputable that force, coercion, threats, or any kind of physical and psychological manipulation carries the risk of making your dog fearful. No matter how harmless you believe a particular “correction” may be, if you had a house mate who bops you under the chin when you greet them, sprays water in your face when you sit on the floor or yells at you when you laugh out loud, you would probably pack your bags pronto and get as far away as possible from that weirdo. From a dog’s perspective, it must seem like we are frequently attacking them for no reason.
Change Your Dog’s Behaviour the Clever Way
You can avoid this entirely by accepting your dog as an equal partner who just happens to be different. Think of a house mate who comes from a cultural background quite different from yours with habits that seem a little alien. Your dog has no idea about your rules or those of your society nor do they care who has what status in your household. So, use your knowledge of dog culture to cleverly get them to do things that make your life easier and avoid being the house mate from hell.
Right now, without further knowledge, you can make changes to your daily interactions with your dog and change their behaviour for the better. Whenever your dog does anything you don’t like walk away. This can mean mentally (completely ignore the dog) or physically (walk out of the room or behind a barrier/gate). Showing the cold shoulder is not the polite way to deal with a house mate but, if it stops you from becoming nasty, then do it.
The opposite and much more pleasant response to your dog’s behaviour is of course to reward the things you do like in your dog. Play with your dog for a few minutes when they perform a death-shake on a toy instead of your undies, give them a piece of sausage when they manage to keep their paws on the floor despite having spotted the cheese cake on the kitchen counter, and praise them when they get ready to take a nap on whatever cosy bed you’d prefer them to be.
Paying attention to what your dog does and handing out goodies requires a bit more mental effort since unwanted or unpleasant behaviour is generally more noticeable than when others do things we have no objections to. But, training yourself to do both—giving the cold shoulder and giving rewards—is the least labour-intensive approach to change your dog’s behaviour and at the same time show them in a non-confrontational way how they can control their environment.
Be a Good Teacher: Motivate, Facilitate, Reward
Going to the next level—teaching your dog specific skills such as sit, stay, walking on leash or coming when called—is optional but can help greatly with giving your dog more freedom. Having good impulse control means your dog is more likely to join you in public and at social events, but it can also help to keep members of the household safe.
Like every good teacher, you first need to motivate your student. What’s in it for them? Tasty food is beyond doubt the number one and most convenient motivator. Play can be an option in some scenarios and for some dogs but don’t believe for one second that your dog is willing to waste many calories in exchange for praise or a pat. Before you ask your dog to do something, ask yourself how hard it is for them. I always ate the meals my grandmother put in front of me, even when I grew older and more health conscious, because I loved her. Having lived through World War II, she belonged to the generation of Germans who cooked every vegetable to death, then revived it with copious amounts of salt and butter. Don’t expect your dog to have abstract thoughts like “I better do this or my human will be disappointed”—only Disney dogs can pull that off. If you want your dog to do the equivalent of eating dead broccoli, you need to come up with a heck of a reward afterwards. My Grandmother’s cakes were always to die for.
Once you have an appropriate motivator in sufficient quantity (e.g. lots of pea-sized pieces of yummy food), follow a step-by-step training plan like you would for a fitness program, a woodturning workshop or a language course. If your dog does something right, they get a piece of food, if they miss the mark, they get nothing. No reason to threaten or “correct” your dog. If your dog is not interested in the training, try another time or revise your strategy. Maybe you need better treats or need to reward more frequently; maybe you need to keep sessions shorter or remove distractions; maybe you need to break the final skill down into more manageable steps, so your dog can succeed.
You can go DIY with a good book or online resources or hire a good trainer to set you on the right track. Of course, you can also outsource the training of your dog, but you still have to learn how to continue and maintain the process. Just like in humans, your dog’s skills will get rusty with a lack of practise, so maintenance is crucial.
With this type of training approach—removing all threats, force and coercion from the process—you not only remove potential sources of fear and anxiety, but elevate your dog to a voluntary participant. How much better must it feel for your dog to be asked rather than told what to do? Finally, they have a choice and having choice is freedom.
Treating your dog like a true friend, not a subordinate, is a major step towards more freedom for dogs and more harmonious living with your dog. Stay tuned for next month’s post where we will look at giving your dog more autonomy at home and when you take them places. The mission to give our dogs the power to make decisions so they can live fear-free, happy lives.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a follow-up post in which Sylvie offers practical information on how to give your dog more freedom.
Sylvie Martin, Anna Yakimova © 123RF.com, Aliaksei Smalenski © 123RF.com, Dmitry Lavruhin/Shutterstock.com, 4 PM production/Shutterstock.com, Luc Brousseau/Shutterstock.com.