Editor’s note: This is part 3 of a 3-part series. In part 1, Sylvie makes the case for giving our dogs more freedom for a happier, healthier and more harmonious life. In part 2, she provides practical suggestions on how to give our dogs more freedom from coercion and fear.
Make Your Dog Feel at Home in Your Home
Have you ever stayed at someone’s place and felt a little “out of place”? You know, the relatives that try a little too hard to entertain you or the ones that have very different habits? Home is where you can be yourself and relax. It’s a safe haven. Sure, family members have their differences but you all know each other and hopefully give each other space. Your dog needs the same feeling of safety, comfort and space as everyone else at home.
1. Ensure Your Dog Feels Safe
I have already addressed the need to take the fear out of your dog’s life in part 2 of this series. In the home, this means that everyone treats the dog with the same respect they show other family members. Posting videos of your four year old riding your dog like a horse may be an innocent mistake, but these days you can expect that the dog-loving internet community—in particular the self-righteous and recently converted—will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Maybe you really didn’t see how uncomfortable or even frightened your dog was when kiddo jumped up and down on his back. If you didn’t see it because you weren’t watching, that would count as a parental supervision mistake akin to leaving your toddler alone at the poolside. Phew, I’m sure you won’t be doing that again! If you didn’t see it because you didn’t think there was a problem, remind yourself—and your child—that your dog is not a lifeless plush toy and get to know your dog’s distress language so you can be your dog’s champion as well as your child’s.
Of course being hands-on and even rough with your dog during play is fine as long as you are both having fun. In other contexts though, with any attempt to physically coerce your dog, for example to move them off the couch, push them into a position or drag them outside, you put your dog on the defensive. There is a much better solution: Teach your dog behaviours which allow you to ask them for voluntary cooperation. You don’t need to shove your dog off the couch, if they have learned that targeting your outstretched hand on cue has paid off in the past. No need to force your dog to hold still for grooming procedures, if you have taught them a) that being raked, poked and squeezed means lots of tasty treats and b) they can walk away at any time, if they’ve had enough. If you have practised walking on a leash with your dog while giving frequent reinforcements, then clipping a leash on to get your dog to move is a pleasant experience for everyone.
Allowing your dog to have a say when it comes to your daily interactions with them will drastically reduce any risk of fearful behaviour in your dog and the related fallout.
2. Give Your Dog Choices and the Freedom to Move Around
Would you feel at home in your own home, if you couldn’t move about freely? There are of course reasons to at least temporarily restrict your dog to a certain area, for example while house- and chew-training a puppy, separating dogs from kids when you’re not watching, managing a behavioural problem or juggling a temperamental multi-dog household. However, having the freedom to choose where to place one’s own body is a rather basic need. Your dog may choose to hang out with you, lie on the cool bathroom floor when they are hot, or snuggle on the couch with the cat. And why not? If you have personal preferences that aren’t quite compatible with your dog’s habits and ideas of comfort—let’s say you hate dog hair on the couch—no worries. Just give your dog a cosy bed near the couch, so they don’t feel excluded, and reward them heavily for choosing this as a preferred resting place (while either blocking access to the couch, at least for a while and certainly when you are not watching, or hand-targeting your dog off the couch immediately every time they go on). Or why not put a blanket on part of the couch?
If your dog chews things they shouldn’t, remove those things from their reach and reinforce them for chewing on their own toys (which you provide plenty of and rotate frequently). If the dog is destructive because they have separation anxiety, help them with their anxiety rather than focus on the symptoms.
If your dog stares at you with googly eyes or makes it clear in even more uncertain terms that they would really like to share your dinner, don’t give in to their pestering, give them their own meal to chew on during meal times and maybe use temporary barriers until you have established a routine. There’s a solution for almost everything. Ask your friendly dog trainer or behaviourist, if you get stuck.
To solve the clash between a possible need for confinement and the dog’s freedom to choose, reward your dog heavily for voluntarily going to a certain place, such as a mat, bed or crate. Sprinkle food or place food puzzle toys in the area, so the dog associates the area with good things. Before you know it, your dog will hang out there more often; the dog chooses to be in that place. If you do this before you put a possible barrier between you and the dog’s now favourite place, you have made confinement a lot more pleasurable.
Too often though, confinement is used as a solution in itself to deal with a behaviour problem rather than a management tool to assist with the solution. The best solution to behaviour problems is always:
- Medical check-up to rule out physiological causes
- Identify and remove sources of fear and anxiety
- Manage the environment to avoid repetition of undesirable behaviours
- Teach desirable behaviours using positive reinforcement
Frequently or permanently putting a dog outside to avoid dealing with behavioural problems in the house is also common but generally a disastrous solution for companion dogs. If you don’t give your dog the chance to learn to live in the family home, they are more likely to become lonely, frustrated and depressed. They may become destructive, try to escape or drive the neighbours crazy with barking. Being stuck alone in a backyard, separated from their family, is a stressful existence which you can avoid entirely by allowing your dog access to the house, or at least part of the house, at all times.
Let your dog choose where they want to place their body. If necessary, make the places where you would like them to spend more time irresistibly attractive with food and toys. But, never forget your dog’s need to feel at home.
3. Respect Your Dog’s Personal Space
Unless your dog has separation anxiety issues, or being stalked makes you nervous, there isn’t anything wrong with your dog following you around the house. If your dog wants to spend some time alone though, respect their need for space and stay out of their way. I’m sure you don’t like to be bothered whenever you need a bit of me time. If you have a lively family with children, it is even more important that your dog has a me space which is off-limits to humans. This can be a dog bed or crate in a corner or under a desk away from busy areas. A place for the dog to retreat to when family life gets a little too overwhelming or the dog just wants to have a nap undisturbed.
Giving your dog a dog-only space is also a great way to teach children respect for animals and safety around dogs. It is never a good idea to approach and touch a dog, if the dog is not inviting the interaction. If the dog is retreating and clearly looking uncomfortable with being approached, this can quickly end in tears. Adult supervision is again needed to ensure young children are behaving responsibly around dogs and leaving the dog alone, if required.
Apart from young children, who can hardly be blamed for acting before thinking, watch out for guests who love dogs. There is a human condition that leads people to be so irresistibly drawn to dogs (or other furry animals) that they find it impossible to keep their hands off them. You might want to place a giant stuffed toy on your couch to redirect and pacify those guests. Other personalities to watch out for are self-proclaimed dog-whisperers, who can be a real problem for your dog, in particular if your dog is sensitive or already has anxiety issues. Maybe just say your dog isn’t feeling well, if you want to avoid offence with visitors who just can’t help themselves.
Being able to choose who to interact with and when, or to seek some quiet me time, is another piece in the personal freedom puzzle.
Take Your Dog Where The Wild Things Are
While you might want to watch a movie, have dinner with friends or share things on social media, your dog’s favourite pastimes are more likely sniffing, chewing, chasing and digging. Your backyard or front lawn will soon have been sniffed and dissected down to the last molecule and, just like reading the same book over and over again, it does get a bit boring after a while. Your dog needs to get away from home and out into the world, including the wild world, on a regular basis to give their senses a good workout and release some much-needed serotonin. Needless to say, this also works wonders for your own happiness.
I am biased when it comes to natural space, I admit it. Even if scientists proved to me that activities in artificial environments provide equivalent physical, mental and emotional benefits as spending time in nature, I’d still believe nothing can replace the real outdoor experience. I know it is often claimed that our pets can live happy lives in confinement—purely indoor cats for example—but when I see a dog, or cat or any other animal, smell the air, sniff under the trees, play with leaves, chase insects and roll in the grass, I see the satisfaction of a core need, a completeness of being, a connection with the elements that I never see in an animal playing with toys indoors.
But where to find wilderness when you live in the city? I once watched an obese English Bulldog return from a walk and drag himself up a steep flight of stairs in an inner city apartment block in Singapore. I cannot imagine what life is like for a dog who is born with breathing difficulties, is trapped in a massive body and has to live in a megacity with far too many cars and people, and maybe being walked around the block once a day in the stifling heat. Maybe it is possible to keep pets in environments like these, if you know where to escape to. It is true that wilderness can be found in the most surprising places, even in urban jungles. Wherever there’s vegetation and wildlife, your dog will love the smells, but to give them a free run you need large off-leash areas.
You may be worried that your dog could run off or not come back to you when called, but this does not have to stand in the way of your dog running and roaming freely wherever it is permitted and safe. First, identify the reasons your dog might get out of reach or abscond. Have you only recently adopted your dog, so they are not quite bonded to you? Does your dog have anxiety problems, for example fear of strangers or noise phobia? Is your dog an obsessive bike chaser? Then start with training or desensitisation & counter-conditioning and practise giving your dog more freedom with either a long leash or inside a fenced park. Apart from that, if you teach your dog only one thing, then coming when called is the one. With this you can give your dog the most essential freedom there is: the freedom to move autonomously outside the home.
If your dog cannot run without restraint because of legal restrictions, because your dog is emotionally, mentally or physically impaired or because your own anxiety that things may go wrong is just too strong, you can always use a long leash to give them more room to explore. Avoid retractable leashes—they are too dangerous—and use a light-weight, fixed length leash instead, e.g. between 5 and 10 metres (or even longer, if you have practised not to end up being tied into a ball of knots with your dog).
If possible, follow your dog when they follow a scent and let them fully engage in the experience. If there really is a need to change direction quickly or move away from something, encourage your dog verbally or with a learned cue (e.g. “let’s go”, “this way”, “look here”). As you can imagine, it’s much more pleasant when someone invites you to check something out rather than having them forcefully drag you there, especially if you are already engaged in an enjoyable activity. If you frequently find yourself pulling your dog by their neck or body, it’s time to make some changes. Start teaching your dog a simple approach behaviour at home such as hand targeting: Reward the dog for approaching (and touching) your outstretched hand on cue. Then practise the same behaviour under some distractions, gradually making it more challenging before you try it outdoors in a high distraction environment. A step-by-step training plan and valuable food rewards are, as usual, the way to success. You don’t need to use a clicker as shown in the hand targeting video, by the way. Just replace it with any other marker, such as “yes”, “good” or “bravo”.
A dog running free in a natural environment is one of the best things to watch. When a dog has only ever been walked on leash or has been confined for a long time, the rediscovery of their freedom can be particularly enthusiastic. I will never forget when my sister took the leash off a rescue dog we had just picked up from the shelter. The dog ran zoomies over an open field until she was exhausted, then she came straight back to us for eagerly anticipated cuddles. I was a teenager then, but that memory returns to me quite often. Not that this is something I recommend. If you simply take the leash off a dog before you have built mutual trust and taught them to come back when called, you may see that dog run free just once! It is sad, however, that many dogs never experience running or roaming freely in their lives. Of course, most of them adapt. Dogs are masters of adapting to whatever we subject them to. But that doesn’t make it right. There really is no need to permanently imprison our dogs, be it with leashes, chains or walls.
Give your dog the freedom to satisfy their natural instincts and let them immerse their senses in the great outdoors and you vastly increase their feeling of autonomy and happiness.
Let Your Dog be Their Own Person
Your dog has as much individual personality as you and I. Knowing your dog is essential to give them a good life. There is no point dragging your dog along to the farmers’ market or the footy match on the weekend, if your dog gets anxious when surrounded by strangers (instead, start to gradually teach your dog that strangers mean good things). And why take the dog to a family event, where she gets tormented by the residential dogs (or did you think they were playing)? Even walking the dog in the neighbourhood may have to be an early morning or late night event, if your dog is reactive on leash (while ideally you work through a protocol to help your dog get better). Maybe you love your 10 km runs on a Sunday morning but maybe your dog hates it? See if you can find something you both love doing and pursue your other passions on your own. Fitting a dog into your life means making compromises, just like you would for any other member of the household. More than anything, your dog needs your time.
There is no arguing that in our social and crowded societies dogs have to follow certain rules, but this doesn’t have to come at the cost of their well-being and happiness. What matters is how your dog feels about life, how much they think they can control their environment and have autonomy to make decisions. They don’t know that we (try to) pull the strings in the background. They don’t understand that they live under a totalitarian regime; and there is no reason we have to behave like dictators. Your dog can find happiness with you and you with them, if you let your dog be who they are. Let them chose their favourite places in your home and give them access to the things they love as much as possible, ease off on restraint and coercion, teach them skills with positive reinforcement, protect them from scary things and allow them to vote with their feet. This is how you make your dog feel in control of their own life and give them more freedom and happiness. And you will both reap the benefits.
Sylvie Martin, Christian Mueller/Shutterstock.com, Graham Oliver © 123RF.com, Dora Zett /Shutterstock.com, skeeze/Pixabay.com.