Autonomy & Domestic Dogs

How much autonomy does your dog have?  Willie’s work with sheep is  what motivates me to ask this question. As I mentioned earlier, Willie and I attended a sheepdog clinic 2 weeks ago with Patrick Shannahan, and the big take away for us was that, too often, Willie looks to me to tell him what to do while working sheep. It’s not that he doesn’t know what to do himself, he’s just in the habit of being dependent upon me to tell him before he takes action on his own. This was not a complete surprise to me, but I didn’t realize what a significant issue it was until I worked with Patrick.

I think I know why this has happened: First, Willie is a naturally biddable dog and dependent dog. I chose him over his 7-week old brother because Willie seemed to care deeply about where I was and what I was doing, while his sibling was busy independently exploring the universe. In spite of a long list of serious problems that developed in Willie’s youth (projectile diarrhea, a ridiculous level of sound sensitivity, a pathological fear of unfamiliar dogs and an extreme problem with impulse control) Willie has always been an especially responsive dog.

Here’s a recipe for a dog unwilling to act independently: Mix 1) Willie’s personality with 2) 14 months of recovery from a shoulder injury in which one is a virtual prisoner. After his injury in early February, we tried complete leash rest for all of Feb and March. When that clearly wasn’t enough, we decided on the surgery, but Jim’s sister was dying of ovarian cancer, so we put the surgery off until May. After the surgery he basically lived in his crate for 1-2 months, and then gradually was allowed to do carefully structured physical therapy, all under my control, until January of the next year. Gradually after that he was allowed limited amounts of free time, but basically we are talking a about a dog who lost all autonomy whatsoever for a significant period of his life, an inevitable response to his recovery. Don’t get me wrong, he got lots of mental exercise: I spent over 2 hours a day with him on PT (which he saw as games) and any trick he was allowed to do, but the fact is that he went from a dog who was outside off leash for hours a day to a dog whose every movement was controlled and monitored. He came out of it thrilled to be able to play with his toys again (14 months after the injury) and get his life back, but lost a lot of confidence working sheep.

My job with sheepdog Willie right now is to let him make a lot of decisions on his own. I’m providing feedback (“Yup, that’s right,” or “Nope, that was not the right decision.”) or just letting the work speak for itself. Willie has enough experience to know when things are going well, so often I’m just shutting up. (Never the easiest job for a dog trainer, right?) I can’t tell you how this is going to translate onto a trial field next year, but we are having the most fun I think we have ever had working together. It’s wonderful, just wonderful.

I’m relaying this story to you because I think the issue of autonomy is highly relevant to companion dogs everywhere. 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. Author Ted Kerasote talks about this as well as anyone in his book Merle’s Door, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. (And FYI, he has a new book coming out in February, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest For Longer Lived Dogs. It is beautifully written, extremely thought-provoking and summarizes five years of kick ass research. Here’s part of what I wrote about it for the back cover: “…one of the most important books written about dogs in a decade.” I’ll write a real review of it long before it is released.)

There 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.

I’d love to hear more ideas from you about how to give dogs more autonomy, especially ones who can’t safely run free in their home neighborhoods, or anywhere else for that matter. I expect a lot of dogs and owners too will profit from hearing your ideas.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm. I’ve recently heard from three of the people who adopted the kittens who were born on the farm this summer. All kittens are doing wonderfully. One kitten is best friends with the family dog, and cuddles up with him every night. One kitten is a fireball, and her owners adopted a second kitten to give the older resident cat a break! All the kittens seem healthy and happy, and it makes me happier than I can say that of the 12 feral kittens born in my and my neighbor’s barns, all 12 are in good homes, well taken care of and will be spayed or neutered to prevent more feral cats roaming the woods. Speaking of, it’s time for kitten Polly to get spayed too. Time flies.

And, oh yeah, one more piece of news: After twelve wonderful years of being each others best friend, Jim and I are getting married tonight. I’m thinking you’ll forgive me for taking the night off and staying off line…?  Happy Dance.



Here’s Willie this morning, driving the sheep away from me. His job here is to keep them going in a straight line.








Notice how the sheep are beginning to drift to the right. Rather than telling Willie to counter that, I stayed quiet and let him take care of it. You can see him already starting to shift to his right too.






The sheep are still drifting right, but Willie is continuing to counter.








Voila. Sheep moved back into the correct position. Willie did it all on his own, and I managed to keep my mouth shut. Will miracles never cease?












  1. Sylvie says

    oups! also thank you for sharing your thoughts! Willie sure went through a lot, and you, also of course, bravo for all the work, love and patience. You are reminding me of using that patiente with my wonderfull goofy Thalie who is a mixed bouvier bernois and german sheppard or rott, we dont know she is a rescue dog, who will be 2 years old nex week! Thalie is so , so full of love and insecuritys. Therefore having a hard time making the decision to relax, and make good decisions!
    I am afraid I do not have new ideas, i take from you and everybody else, like for this instance, you are talking about nose games, I know of one that we play sort of hide and seek, and she looooves that, so I am thinking of doing more of this to try to settle her down a little, and then have more and nicer more dances together in total harmony. Thank you so much! Again congrats on your wedding!

  2. Maggie says

    Have read Karasote’s Merle’s Door 3 times now and deeply love it,,it has had that deep positive affect on my relationship with my dogs that you have,,

    You are wonderful and have a happy wonderful marriage!

  3. Susan Bassett says

    What a great blog entry!
    Congratulations on your marriage!
    Very happy about the kittens!
    And absolutley agree about autonomy!

  4. says

    First off, congrats! Nothing quite like marrying your best friend.

    My little beagle mix, Calvin, loves to hear the cue “go sniff.” He knows this cue means a) he did something really good and b) he gets to take the lead. Lucy, my pug, has a similar cue “go play”. The difference was a mistake resulting from the favorite activity of each dog. I also often ask them if they are ready before getting out of the truck or going in or out of a business. It’s funny that this post comes up, as I am often criticized by other trainers for giving my dogs so much choice. “They are dogs. You tell them what to do. Who’s walking whom?” I often hear…but really, if I wanted a robot, I would have got one. And what’s the fun in that?

  5. says

    What sweet news! Congratulations on your wedding!

    My dogs (Cardigan Corgis) are very good at indictating they want some autonomy on their walks. If the path we are following forks and I go left, but they really want to go right, they lower their heads in sort of a border collie stare position and plant their feet while shifting their sights in the direction they want. When I say “Oh, you want to go that way?”, they immediately get perky/happy and head in the desired direction. Of course, it usually happens that only one of them wants to go that direction and so then I have to choose whose direction wins…..I try not to pick favorites 😉

  6. Megan S-L says

    “Marriage is a great institution! But who wants to be in an institution?” -Auntie Mame, played by Rosalind Russell in 1958

    I’ve thought about dog autonomy some. I have a smart, high-energy mutt who is my companion and the mascot of my specialty retail store. I try to split our R&R time between leashed walks in town (good for mental discipline) and off-leash ramblings in the country, either in the countryside around our house or hiking/swimming in the mountains.

    I try to give her every opportunity to set our agenda (within reason, since she can’t drive and is a terrible navigator.) In every way possible, I try to set our relationship up as a partnership where we both have responsibilities to the other but neither of us rules the other.

  7. Laura says

    Congratulations Trisha and Jim! My two labs have a lot of autonomy on our walks in the woods. It’s what I love about sharing with dogs, just watching them be dogs and enjoy life.

  8. mungobrick says

    Congratulations!! Have a wonderful wedding!!!

    I had to smile at the thought of dogs who are kept confined until hunting season – not that it’s at all amusing, but here I am with a dog who won’t go anywhere BECAUSE it is hunting season, therefore she’s decided all outside areas are dangerous. She would normally have lots of autonomy – two off-leash walks a day. She still asks to go for walks but then won’t get out of the car. Her own choice, but is this autonomy? She’s still hoping we’ll take her to the magic place where there are no noises, I just wish I could figure out where that is!!


  9. says


    I really struggle with providing this for my dogs. One of them is a socially savvy beagle-mix and has play time off leash with friends, goes to work with me occasionally, gets to go to other people’s house and yards, go to agility class and trials, and generally, I think, leads a pretty fulfilled life.

    My other dog is a reactive border collie-pitbull living in our 950 sq. ft. apartment in Cambridge, MA with no yard. I can’t take her to the woods off leash in the summer because I don’t trust that we won’t run into other dogs. In the winter, I often risk it, but in reality, with two kids under two, even our winter trips have been vastly curtailed because of the time involved in driving to the woods and back. We’ve done loads of training and most people don’t realize she’s still crazy on the inside, but I do not trust her off leash around dogs. She does run with me, gets bones to chew, hangs out with the family, and generally seems quite content- but I would argue that she has nearly zero choices in her life. I think it’s a serious quality of life issue, but I really haven’t been able to figure out how to safely allow her more access to freedom and choices.

    I would love it if people posted ideas to this blog- I could really use them! Thanks for writing about this, Trish, and congratulations again!

  10. Merciel says


    I would love some ideas for how to give my dogs more autonomy. We live in the middle of a major city and our condo has no yard, so apart from hikes on the weekends and visits to the dog park (which is a nice park, but also a very small one), they don’t get much off-leash exercise at all. They do get to play around a bit in dog sports, but mainly we do Rally Obedience, and while that fosters great communication and cooperation, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for either dog or handler to run wild on the course!

  11. says

    First of all, congrats on your wedding! I hope it will be utterly lovely! You guys deserve it!

    As for the question…I’ve thought a lot about dogs and freedom/autonomy. Funny, but I started thinking about that a lot after I read one of your articles in the Tales of Two Species book you put together. When I got Dahlia she was about 2 years old and it became apparent pretty quickly that she had never been allowed to think for herself and that her early life was probably controlled. She did NOTHING without basically asking for permission first, not even getting up on the couch (she would come and rest her head on the couch and stare at you until you told her “Ok get up!”). When I started agility training she would hesitate before each jump and stare at me until I told her it was ok to go. I still remember one person, who had had her dog from puppy age asking me “Why is she like that?”

    So I’ve worked hard at allowing her to have SOME sort of freedom. On walks in the neighborhood (leashed), she gets to choose the direction of the walk. I follow her until I feel like we’re getting TOO far away and then we turn back. On off leash walks where it’s safe, I send her off into the woods to explore (she never gets far away and recalls immediately). In agility class, I sit back and let HER make decisions and reward her for the ones I want. I stopped trying to lure her into positions or to do things and let her make the wrong decision and would then run her back and reward when she made the right one (it’s yer choice games). I started doing small shaping games to get her to do simple things, all by HER choice and not mine.

    And her confidence has increased so much. She’s still polite and just a NICE dog, but she also is willing to try new things and I love to see that!

  12. Frances says

    Congratulations to you and to Jim – may you have a wonderful day, and an even more wonderful life together in the years to come.

    Autonomy – this is something I actually worry about a bit. My dogs do get two off leash walks most days, and also get time to roam around the small estate where I live. I try to listen to them when they need to go out, I occasionally feed them early if they are obviously ravenous, and there are lots and lots of toys, comfy places to sleep, chews and other stuff available for them to take or leave. But I am aware that both of them would sometimes like to make decisions for themselves that don’t fit with the ones I make for them. Why go out in the pouring rain to pee, when there is a perfectly good mat in the bathroom? What is the point of going for a walk in wind and heavy rain – although we would rarely leave the house if we only went out in fine weather. Why stick to the surfaced path, when the muddy track down to the farm is so much more interesting? Why be in the house at all on the rare days when the sun shines, and we could spend all the hours from dawn to dusk out roaming the fields by the river, looking for rabbits and squirrels? Why not eat all the chicken today, even if there is enough there to last a week if it is put away in the freezer? Why can’t we go to Agility after all the boring set up has been done, and just do the fun bits, then come home without waiting around to help put stuff away?

    But mine are toy dogs, living in a world largely designed by humans. I would love to give them even more freedom, but just as with small children, it is a matter of balancing risks and benefits, and of good manners, responsibility, and other things that don’t necessarily come naturally to dogs. But I would love to hear ideas on how I can give them greater choice within these constraints!

  13. Kat says

    Congratulations! I celebrated 24 years with my best friend on Tuesday. Here’s wishing you and Jim many many more happy years together!

    We try to give Ranger a lot of autonomy but he’s my “grown up” he gets more choices because he’s proven himself reliable, responsible, and intelligent. He will often choose who he wants to take him for a walk. And he’ll reject offers of a walk if he isn’t in the mood. He chooses as often as not which route to take on a walk and will decide which neighborhood friends he wants to visit, human or canine. Finna is our seriously damaged dog and has much less autonomy. But even with her we try to give her chances to choose; we just have to be careful that when she has a choice the choices are all good ones. For example, Finna can choose to play fetch running through the bushes, inside the dog enclosure or where she rolls the ball down the little slope to me and I toss it back to her. She tells me which one she wants to play by where she takes the ball. One of the reasons I love the trainer we’re working with for Finna is that she’s committed to helping us help Finna learn to make good choices.

  14. Shalea says

    First and foremost, congratulations!

    I am also fairly concerned about the issue of autonomy. I have a greyhound (a breed which is known for not being terribly dependent), but as Gryphon is blind I feel I am very limited as to the amount of autonomy I give him.

    I try to give him the opportunity to take the lead when we go for a walk, even if we’re just stepping out into the yard — I try not to rush him too much on sniffing things, and I let him double back or cross the street at will (as long as there’s not an obvious danger).

    But I don’t have an area where 1) I feel I can safely let him off lead, and 2) he feels comfortable off lead. He’s confident, but I can tell he feels vulnerable outside without a human obviously connected to him.

  15. Carolyn M M says

    So happy for you both! Congratulations and may you have a long and wonderful life together!

  16. Gordon Edwards says

    All the best to you and Jim. How wonderful. My “best friend” and I are approaching our 14th year. Between you and me, I hope we take this same step, too.

    Again, congrats and best wishes.

  17. says


    Since getting into sheepdog trialing a few years ago (also a student of Patrick’s, among others), I’ve learned just how much we patronize our dogs in not giving them more stature in our relationships, in not expecting them to be all that they can be. It seems like it’s not just the big things, like working sheep, though that is easy because their instinct drives them, it’s a built-in reward and confidence builder…as much as little things. Subtle things – like having your dog with you working in the yard, off leash when he/she can be.

    Another trainer/handler friend of mine said that he starts his dogs on sheep with a 70/30 partnership, giving them more as they prove ready until it’s closer to 50/50 or better, in some cases.

    My dogs are better dogs now that I understand how much they are capable of being responsible for good and bad decisions. How much I understand that THEY understand.

    That said, I’m a complete border collie snob and think other dogs are basically cats.

  18. Sanni says

    Congratulations :)

    This autonomy thing is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I know almost nothing about dogs or training them, I just happen to have a very independent furry friend. I live with my boyfriend and our dog came to live with us when he was 7,5 weeks old. When we took him outside to play off leash for the first time on the day after his arrival, he just started to run off, without even looking back and he wanted to explore everything. He wasn’t at all shy or didn’t seem to need our support. When we went to puppy meetings, other people’s puppies usually stayed close to their owners at first, and when they got a bit scared they ran as fast as they could behind their owners legs. Not our explorer, he just went everywhere and checked out everything on his own.

    Many people gave us advise that when teaching recall it’s good to go hiding so that your puppy gets scared and comes searching for you, and after that he doesn’t want to wonder off too far. Well, not our puppy. I tried several times to go hiding, but he didn’t care at all. He didn’t panick even a little, he just did what he wanted and he always seemed to know that he could find me if he wanted to. He is and was even then very good with his nose, so let’s say he was in the middle of a field and I ran somewhere in the woods to hide 50-100 meters away (a safe area so even if I was far away he couldn’t get hurt or cause trouble). He just continued digging, or sniffing or what ever he was doing and eventually after long time slowly walked towards my direction. Not even necessarily straight to me, but somewhere a bit closer, then he looked at me or the place where I was hiding and continued doing his own stuff.

    He usually gets to decide where we walk, which path we take and how long he wants to sniff something. After all, I take him out so that he could have fun, I wouldn’t go out for a walk as often if it wasn’t for him. He knows how to ask politely if he wants go a different way than I, but often he just walks in front of me and shows the way. If he doesn’t get to choose the paths at all, or I choose something like 9 out of 10, he starts to look depressed and sad. As soon as I let him choose, he is back to his happy self again. He seems to have a very strong need to get to make his own decisions, and I have to admit, he usually makes pretty good ones. When we are inside he can of course choose when to play with us or alone, when to play with our cat and where to eat his treat. He has his favourite spots for treat eating and sometimes he runs between them with the treat in his mouth before he chooses where to eat it this time. He can also choose his sleeping place pretty freely, as long as he leaves enough space for us to sleap in the bed (he can sleep with us, on his own bed, on the sofa, on the floor or in the balcony).

    People often tell me that they can’t let their dog decide how fast or slow to walk, or where to walk. They say that they’d never get anywhere because their dog would just sniff one spot for hours. Our dog is an intact male, and our walks are usually neither slow nor short. I often end up jogging with him because he wants go so fast, though he sometimes wants to sniff something a bit longer. Sometimes it takes few seconds, sometimes minutes and it used feel like a long time to wait but not anymore. I think he doesn’t get stuck with the scents because he knows that he can sniff them if he wants to, so he doesn’t have to try to stop me or slow me down on every scent he can detect in hope for sniffing at least something before I’d drag him away (I often see people desperately pulling and dragging their dogs forward and the dogs just pulls back and try to sniff). I usuallu use a 5-meter-leash so he has more freedom to do his thing. As long as he’s not pulling or causing any trouble, he can do pretty much what he wants during our walks.

  19. ABandMM says

    Congratulations to you and Jim on your wedding. Will Willie be the ring bearer and Tootsie the flower girl :)?

    My dog is leashed walked (city living, and she is a hound mix that would leave me for the faintest scent of a stray cat or other critter) and when we are out for a leisurely walk I do try as much as possible to let her set the pace and do some sniffing.

    I read Merle’s Door and was torn… glad that Merle had the opportunity to freely roam around the town and country, jealous that he had a dog that he knew would return, and scared that Merle would meet a horrible end (hit by a car, injured in the woods, etc.). I’m not sure how to find the right balance between giving the dog choice/freedom v. keeping them safe in a, at times, scary world.

  20. Barb Stanek says

    About autonomy for our dogs, I often think about this subject. And I try to give my three frequent opportunities to amuse themselves by themselves, to explore the acre that is fenced by themselves, and to just hang out by themselves. (I’m fortunate that they all get along!)

    I love to train and compete with an animal, and I do conformation, obedience, agility, water work, nosework, and tracking. I train all of them, and compete in some with varying degrees of success.

    What has blown my socks off and made me think of dogs making their own decisions is the training that we’re doing in tracking and nosework. The dog is in charge in both sports. The person is not making the calls. This in itself is an adjustment for me.

    But the other real insight came Monday night at Nosework class. We were doing introductory work to finding the target scent on a vehicle. The instructor was clear to us and the dogs, encouraging the dogs to watch her place the target on the vehicle to ensure total success.

    What was facinating was the dogs seemed not to care one whit what the instructor SHOWED them. They totally searched for the target with their noses! They even walked past the target (which was in plain sight), followed their noses past to where the scent faded (presumably), turned around and followed the scent back to the target! Amazing! I knew that dogs use their noses. I didn’t know that they use them to the exclusion of their eyesight, as it appeared they were doing that night.

    I had to stop and think about that. If I were trying to find my purse, I would look for it, not smell for it. As a human, I just don’t often “smell things out”! It might look to my dogs that I use my eyes to the exclusion of my nose!

    It made me think about obedience exercises or water work exercises where we direct the dogs to visually to “mark” an object. While I can “see” (pun unexpected) the value in pointing the dog in the right direction, I really wonder if on a long retrieve the dog isn’t using his/her nose to find the object, and we just think that they’re looking at it.

    I’m so glad that I got the dogs involved in these dog-driven activities. I am learning tons!

  21. Debbie Schoene says

    Awesome news, Trisha! My very best to you & Jim! May you continue to enjoy a wonderful life together, filled with love and laughter….and animals! :-)

    When talking performance competition, I think there is a delicate balance betw. wanting your dog to think/act independantly yet check in with you for some direction. In my sport of field trialing Spaniels, it is the kiss of death if a dog gives up on a retreive-eg. looks to the handler for help or comes back in if he can’t find the (dead)bird. However, we WANT the dog to “give up” and take direction once WE determine we need to help him find the retrieve. So the challenge in training is to teach the dog that he’d better keep looking, even unsuccessfully, until such time he hears a command from his handler. I imagine it can be very confusing as in “you helped me last time, what’s different about this retrieve?”.

  22. Sue says

    Congratulations to you and Jim.

    I’ve been thinking about this lately and I’ve been wondering if I could ever get my dog to the point where I’d be comfortable letting him off leash. I see how much he enjoys the freedom of being off leash at a dog park and I’d love to be able to take him to more interesting places to walk off leash, but having seen him put his nose to the ground and take off, I’m not sure I’d ever feel safe doing it, regardless of how much we work on recalls.

    Even simple things like leaving him free to stay out and poke around our fenced yard in the city as long as he likes are hard since there are coyotes in the area and there have been stories of small dogs being stolen in the news. I can make his life interesting in so many ways, but something as simple as giving him the ability to make his own decisions (at least outdoors), seems so hard.

    I’m looking forward to hearing suggestions from others that we can put into practice.

  23. Alaska says

    I don’t think there has been much discussion so far of how to train so the dog has more autonomy during the training process (other than your herding example). Certainly some things we train require us to be very clear to the dog about the exact criteria we are looking for (e.g. all four paws must be on the ground). But I have been doing a lot of body awareness work recently, where the dog learns to get on and off of things that are at weird angles, or wobble, or whatever. The criteria are fairly loose, so you can let the dog work out how to do it. You train a generic cue that means “get on this thing” and then point to different things, increasing the challenge as their balance and core strength improve. People who watch are forever asking me why I don’t show the dog how to do something, or, worse yet, manipulate the dog into position. I tell them that’s not the goal. The whole point is for me to choose an appropriate challenge (very important) and then give the dog a chance to figure things out for itself. Hey, who doesn’t want a thinking dog?

    It is unbelievably fun too. I got turned on to this approach by Susan Garrett, who says she will have a body awareness DVD coming out soon. In the meantime, I am having a great time playing with “dog parkour”, which was invented by a crazy young guy in Ukraine whose own DVD has just become available for download (, or you can just search youtube for “dog parkour”. Another great resource is nicknozzy’s youtube channel – he too seeks out interesting things in his environment for the dog to clamber up, over, or across, and gives the dog the freedom to figure out how.

  24. Beth with the Corgis says

    Congratulations on your wedding!

    Taryn, I am very familiar with the Corgi foot-planting/looking longingly in another direction! It must be a Corgi trait. One of my Pems does this all. the. time. The other does it less frequently; she is more inclined to plant feet if she doesn’t want to leave an area at all.

  25. celia says

    There is a thing I do to compensate somewhat for the restrictions my female dog has , being out and about with her slightly dog averse brother. Beth gets to choose our route , she opts to wait for Barney to catch up, he is older than she and slow. She also advance warns me if other dogs are approaching and either meets them avoids them or returns to me if she is wary. I give her these options because she chooses well and because it helps me to know what is ahead and how to prepare and respond. today for example she encountered 2 boisterous dogs, met them politely , then suggested an alternate route. I feel we are partners in managing our barney and his foibles, and she relishes the role.

  26. Rich Kosh says

    Jolie has her own doggie door, leading into the fenced in back yard, so that she gets to decide when she gets to go outside rather than having to wait on me. I remember having to raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom as a child in school and didn’t like it. I doubt that our dogs like it any better.

    I don’t crate her and have given her the choice of where to sleep at night. Her choice has always been to sleep next to me in bed, and I’m OK with that.

    On walks, we usually spend the first and last parts of the walk going at my pace with her on a standard leash. The middle of the walk is done with a retractable leash where she gets to decide the pace, stop and sniff when she wants, and pick the specific path. There are times when she finds something that she wants to sniff for an extended time and I have to remind myself that walks are supposed to be fun for her. Unless it is very cold or rainy, I’m pretty good about letting her set the pace. This is nowhere near the freedom enjoyed by Merle, but it’s the best I can offer.

    Like others have mentioned, I also hide treats for her to find by using her nose. This gives her the opportunity to use her Golden Retriever gifts and (I hope) enriches her life. We are fortunate to live close to a winery that allows dogs. We make a weekly trip to the tasting room where she is permitted to roam free and interact with new people. This gives her an opportunity to interact with new people each week. The winery staff also likes to hide treats for her, so she gets to show off in front of a crowd, which she seems to enjoy. I get a glass of wine and she gets doggie treats and a lot of social interaction–a win win situation.

  27. liz says

    I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 12 years together- big Congratulations to Trisha and Jim!

    If there are any parallels in human and dog relationships:
    may you all be blessed with the delicate balance of leading and following,
    recognizing the needs of others and graciously considering them against your own,
    knowing when to find the middle ground,
    knowing when to play and when to be serious,
    and allowing the time and space to be in appreciation of one another, in whatever form it takes.

  28. Mireille says

    congratulations on you marriage!

    I usually do not have my dogs off leash. Not a good idea with high prey drive dogs in a crowded country, two Siberian huskies in the Netherlands. I work with 5 m leashes so they can sniff, they do not get to determine the pace we walk at. I can’t run that fast ;-). When they run in front of the scooter, they do get the chance to basically set their own pace, although not their own route. I do get the longing glances sometimes though. When in the hpuse, they can lie around where they like (cooking involves the sport of dog jumping for me) and they can choose to come and cuddle or not. Being an independent breed known for their ability to make their own choices, we tried to discourage independence. As a dog trainer put it, Sibes have an inborn need to explore large area’s. Well, then the only solution is to go explore with them. A couple of weeks ago we rented a friend hpuse with 50 hectares of land (basically, an old French farmhouse on it’s own hill). Gradually we let the dogs more and more off leash, they loved running around but never went far from us. There was an enclosed area round the swimming pool but Spot figured out he could jump the fence. One day I was taking sunset picture and there I heard him come bounding up to me. He needed to see what I was doing. This is a dog that can pull you in two whenever he sees a rabbit in the field, at five months couldn’t care whether we hid from him and here he had a whole hill to explore, with rabbits, dear etc and he chooses to come to me. Made me feel very happy.
    It might be true that if I let him make more choices he will not run away, but I would not bet on it when he sees something running. So I feel have I have to curb his freedom of choice.
    I read Merle’s door and I loved it. At the time we still had pr previous siberian, King Chenak. With him it was essential to respect the fact that he had an opinion, that he could object to whatever we wanted him to do but well, yes, he still had to do it most of the time. But we had to leave him his dignity when we insisted he listened. You know, I hate the word commands. Mostly I ask my dogs to do something, mostly they do that and if not I usually think they have a pretty good reason not to. I might still insist, or I might ‘give in’ depending on the situation and what the request was. Like the other night I askes Shadow for a down in a class with to many other dogs. I clearly overasked (long story) so I did not insist.


  29. Margaret McLaughlin says

    Interesting that you chose to write about autonomy on the day you get married…..
    I have a very ‘clingy’ dog, Lia, whom I actually chose over her littermate because the other pup was not interested in interacting with me. We were a moderately successful obedience/agility team until we were out of the ring for 2 years (my medical issues, not hers), & on our return to the ring this fall she could not go 6 feet away from me to a UKC pause table–or rather, she ran to the table & jumped up, turned, realized how far back I was hanging, & returned to me. 4 times. She can do all the Utility exercises, but many of them need to be done at a distance of 30 feet from the handler, & she wants to do them on my toes. It’s very frustrating, & I am probably going to retire her, & concentrate on my puppy.
    Nina is also a mama’s girl, & was selected for me by her breeder because she was the in-your-face, pick-me-UP puppy of the litter.
    What I am hoping will make the difference is the training. Both dogs are clicker-trained, but Lia was trained primarily with luring (where I initiate every action), & she does tend to sit politely at my side & wait for me to tell her what to do. Nina has been free-shaped from the get-go, & is all about initiating new behaviors to see what pays off. I love watching her when I put a new object in her environment & she works out what she needs to do with it in order earn reinforcement.
    The big difference in the training method IS her autonomy–she can do anything she wants, including self-reinforcing things like sniffing, rolling, & barking at the neighbor dog, but I only pay up for what I want. It does help to have good treats! Still, after an unfortunate experience at a beginning agility class–an instructor who thought classical counter-conditioning was the way to go with the noise of the teeter, not the best idea with a sound-sensitive dog–I was able to free-shape a teeter in an unfenced side yard in 10 minutes. ENTIRELY her choice.
    It’s fun.

  30. Elizabeth2 says

    Warmest congratulations to you both and best wishes for many many years of married love. (photos, please?)

  31. Mireille says

    One thing I have to add, I do set the basc rules in the house ;-). No fighting, respect of personal spaces and no nicking food. Self control is a necessity. Within those rules, a lot is optional 😉


  32. Karen says

    I have always found this an interesting topic, and have felt strongly that dogs should be allowed to be dogs…. I often feel having 2 dogs helps, as on walks they look to each other for where to go and what to sniff. On most of our walks the dogs are free to roam in front of us and explore at their leisure. At home when the weather is nice they can hang where they choose, inside, under a bush, sunbath. Sometimes they choose to engage and play a game with us by bringing a toy. There are also multiple options, such as were to sleep, want a belly rub or not.

    On the flip side both my dogs are expected to have really good manners, and both know how to play agility even though only one competes. When we are working together I expect focus on me, but when we are done your choice.

    Trainers that advocate that your sports dogs should not play together when you get a puppy as the dog will not focus on you really bother me. Likewise that dogs should not have independent play and all games should come from humans seems very controlling.

    One of my greatest joys is watching my dogs play together and running together when we hike, just being dogs. I love to compete and I love to train, but first and foremost I want them to be happy “dogs”

  33. Julie says


    My dogs would probably say that one of their favorite autonomous times is deciding which dog bed in the sunny window or which forbidden couch to sleep on when we are at work.

  34. Jennifer says

    Congratulations to you and Jim, what delightful happy news!

    After spending loads of training time on self control games, I’m happy that she has full run of my house. She’s a typical velcro Aussie, and she’s always been one to check back on walks and hikes. Now that we’re doing agility it can hamper things, so I’ve been learning how to support her being able to focus away from me and just trust that she can go for it.
    One of our best experiences was going to Glen Highland farm this summer and letting her off leash for three solid days – we went wherever she wanted to go 90% of the time. It was bliss and it was amazing to see her so happy to just do what she wanted to do.

    Glad to hear all the kittens ended up in such wonderful homes!

  35. Parallel says

    I always feel a little strange commenting because I don’t have a dog at the moment, but so much of what you write strikes a cord despite my regrettably dogless state.

    I do believe autonomy is something my cats value highly….Jonas far more so than Robin. That may seem obvious, since most cat owners would agree that trying to control a cat in the same manner one does a dog is often unwise. I do sometimes gloat that I’m so much bigger than Jonas, thus granting me the ability to cart him off for naptime cuddles whenever I please.

    But with Jonas it isn’t just about making his own choices…it’s about choosing his own challenges. He gets very frustrated when he isn’t allowed to figure out his own way around an obstacle or his own path to a goal. Because he’s blind, it can be very tempting to swoop in and ‘rescue’ him if he’s struggling to jump down from a table or working hard to reach a treat that got pushed under a counter. I’ve gotten very good at resisting this temptation, but my mother simply can’t bring himself to leave the poor cat alone. You can see the frustration and dare I say disgust in his body language when this happens, and he’ll sometimes walk away from the treat if he wasn’t allowed to ‘earn’ it by working things out for himself.

    I’ve mentioned before that I think animals do experience something like pride when they solve a puzzle or beat a challenge. I just can’t convince my mother that Jonas is very capable of figuring stuff out, and he doesn’t always need or WANT a helping hand.

  36. susan says

    Firstly, congrats on your wedding.

    I have always believed that dogs should be allowed freedom to explore ( within safety guidelines). All of my dogs have had opportunities to do what dogs do. There is no heel and walk at my side or behind me.

    Having a dog agressive dog now (strange dogs) has made this challenging as we can’t just walk out the door and walk down a city street as its just too stressful for both of us. She is SO intelligent that I have always said, if she didn’t want to be here – she’d have left through the backyard gate long ago because she can’t be contained and can figure her way out of anything. If there is a squirrel or rabbit in the backyard, and she sees it, she CAN open the backdoor to get out and chase it. I put up a fence to keep her out of the mud, and I felt as if I was in a cartoon because as soon as I had it up, and gathering my tools, I turned around and she was already on the wrong side.

    Interestingly enough, she is my shadow in the house, I get up, she gets up and follows – you know the routine. She is behaved, follows rules, doesn’t destroy things.

    I feel guilty because she could be so much more if she didn’t have the other dog thing going on.

    What I do to give her a chance to do “dog things” outside the confines of the yard is load us both in the car, and we go find somewhere just outside the city limits, she goes on a 16ft lead (a horse lunge line with a swivel) and she is allowed to roam and run, follow scents. There is no heel or walk behind me…she doesn’t take my arm out of its socket. She is allowed to be a dog and I love watching her do so.

  37. Susan G says

    Congratulations! Wonderful news!

    I was very aware of the lack of autonomy last night as we struggled through Halloween. :( Tonight at around the same time, Oscar started to get all worked up again. I explained Halloween was over, and no kids were coming. We are considering a move to rural Vermont, and this will change the autonomy picture just a bit! We have visited numerous times, and it is amazing to see the difference in his demeanor: the excitement but calm. I often think about how much we demand our dogs to fit into our worlds, where they would have been a lot happier doing xyz or living in ____.

  38. LunaGrace says

    So much to add in so many places …………. I LOVE the independent breeds who think/act for themelves, and have performance titles on multiple Siberian Huskies (after being told they were ‘impossible’ to train!), the scent hunting hound (Karelian Bear Dog) as well as hunting & field titles on retrievers and dabbled in sheep herding with a BC. But the breeds and individuals who have a huge Sense of Self steal my heart every time. I think encouraging autonomy develops self-confidence and is a perpetual motion wheel. I’ve encouraged Yogi to “figure it out” when there are things that stump him. Initially on his Novice Nosework on the road to Search & Rescue certification when the tracks were (what he thought) too long or too hard. I discovered that he is a ‘pouter’ and wanted to quit when the going got tough, would literally whine to me “but this is HARD and I can’t do it” sniffle sniffle. And it would be my job to coach/encourage him to ‘look again’ (with your nose), sometimes walking the direction the person/object was hidden or looking behind the tree or rock where The Lost was located, sometimes telling him “You can do it! Try again!” or “did you look over here? how ’bout over here?” so that he didn’t always think that I would bail him out of a jam. Sometimes just standing there, quietly (you’re right, it’s THE hardest thing to do in training!) with the long leash over my head and letting him cast until he hit the track again himself. And, in the training, always making sure that he succeeded until he’s just about sure he could walk on water if he was asked to do so. This has also pushed his Frustration Point back further so that he can stick with the task for longer periods and track further over tougher terrain.

    To Barb S – Interestingly, my dog didn’t start using his nose as his primary ‘finding it’ tool when he was a puppy. I had to discourage him from LOOKING with his eyes for me when I’d hide and then call him and teach him that his nose was a more powerful and reliable tool. 7 years later, his ‘find it’ tool of first choice now IS his nose. When playing nose games, tho’, finding people is infinitely more rewarding than treats and toys. Especially when they praise AND reward! Try standing quietly IN FRONT of a tree trunk while he searches for you, that really demonstrates their looking with the nose instead of the eyes.

    Although I have an Embarassment of Riches in living in a place where I have 2 dozen endless and safe off-leash walks within 10 miles of my house (come to the Black Hills of South Dakota where you can walk for MILES with unleashed dogs and not run into another person OR dog – and very quiet too), I tell my dog to ‘figure it out’ (like ‘Alaska’) when we are in the house too. I started asking him to do this by putting a very desireable toy/treat under an empty cardboard box while he watched and asking him to ‘figure it out if you want it’ and then progressed to putting Prizes in the closet with the bi-fold doors or in the bedroom with the door that didn’t quite close properly against the doorjamb and telling him ‘figure it out’. And then always celebrating when he succeeds, even if he needs a little help to get there. His latest “figure it out’ has been when I let him out the front door in the morning and tell him, “you go pee and then come right back and get a treat” while I NEARLY close the storm and inside doors. He has to use his nose to fling one door open and then push the other door to get back in the house to receive his Prize. And, of course, he’s just as pleased as punch with himself for being so clever.

    His autonomy is far-reaching because of the freedoms he has when we hike. I seldom put him on the retractable leash and then only for safety purposes, the reset of the time he is allowed to tree squirrels and mouse-dive to his heart’s content, keeping his own pace and exploring interesting territory as he wishes. BUT we also have ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ — the house, the sofa, the bed, and the food on the table and counter top is Mine; I never ask to share his kennel pen, his sling bed, his chewbone or his food dish; yet the car is ‘ours’ even tho’ the license plate holder proclaims that it is ‘owned by a Karelian Bear Dog’. We go places in it that we both enjoy.

    To mungo – Here is a way to begin allowing your dog(s) off-leash while ensuring they will return. I taught my Siberian Huskies to do this and that is THE breed that, more than anything, cannot resist RUNNING! (YOU know Mireille!) First, drive to Wyoming…….. or find an Endless Field – harvested cornfield, wild open meadow, mowed wheatfield ……. and drive back as far as you can away from other roads and occupied buildings. Stop the car, open the door, and grit your teeth while you wave good-by to your dog who is now receeding in the far distance, flying down the road and through the field, stretching and reaching, galloping for all he is worth. Then, after 10 or 15 minutes, get the water dish and container out and OBVIOUSLY pour water into the dish from a height of 3 feet, NOISILY open a candy bar or beef jerky wrapper and have yourself a LIP SMACKING snack while you wait by the side of the car. Drink from the water container and say “Ahhhhh!” too. When your dog dog thinks “Hey, I AM thirsty” and comes in for a drink, praise and reward, let her drink and snack, put her back in the car, drive away, and say, “Wasn’t that FUN?!?!?!?” Only once have I had a dog that stood 30 feet away from the car, nose to the ground, looking ‘out the top of his eyes’ at me, playing the ‘Catch Me’ game, refusing to come in. So, I dumped out the water dish, put everything back in the car, and drove off. Goodbye! I only had to drive 40 feet before the dog was on my bumper WANTING to get in the car, “WAIT! Don’t LEAVE me!!!!” That’s how I worked up the courage to allow my dogs the freedom (and danger) of being off-leash. You do have to weigh the pros and cons, but my trick is to always have my dogs thinking that only I know where to find more fun than anyone else. Which they might miss out on if they don’t come with me!

    Congratualtions, Liz! May your Lives be full of Love and your Love be full of Life!

  39. LunaGrace says

    Sorry – meant “Trish”. Friend of mine, Liz, married recently for the first time @ 40 yrs of age, must have her on the brain as her brother toasted the happy couple with ” and we thought this day was never gonna come!” :)

  40. Parallel says

    Oh…congratulations by the way!! Why do I have a vision of Willie herding some sheep dressed as flower girls down the aisle?

  41. Annie R says

    Ah, Trisha, how sweet that you’re marrying your sweetheart! Let us see at least one picture afterward, please?
    It’s always so heartening to know mid-life folks who, after going through all the travails that life sends most of us by the age of 50 or so, still want to tie the knot! Gives me a rush of faith in love and life. Have a wonderful wedding!

  42. Meredith says


    I have to say that I grew up with a dog who had zero autonomy. Partly because he was a large ill-mannered boy who hadn’t earned it, and partly because we didn’t know better (sad but true excuse). After growing up myself, and realizing that he deserved better, I’m happy to report that my dogs do enjoy a better lifestyle than he was able to. My current pups, though still constrained by normal things like doors and my schedule, are fabulous off leash and get to enjoy that benefit as often as my schedule allows (not nearly as often as I’d like!!). I have to say that although it took years for me to get there, I finally see and understand the benefit of dogs being dogs and following their own brains and making their own choices. After building such a solid bond and foundation of good behaviors, 99% of the time my dogs will make the right choice on their own. They’re doing what I wanted, not because I asked for it, but because it’s what we both want – staying close by while hiking and trail running = more trail running and off-leash time!! I love seeing my dogs think and make the right choice. The bond between a person and a dog is an amazing thing….

  43. jackied says

    Congratulations! Hope it all went swimmingly.

    My happy dog Lucy gets a lot of autonomy on walks – basically she goes off doing spanielly things and as long as she checks in with me every minute or two I’m fine with that. She wears a bell so I know roughly where she is.

    My fearful dog Twix gets very little autonomy. We can’t let him off lead safely. What he would really like to choose is (a) never go out of the house unless Lucy is going too – but she needs long walks in places that are too busy for him (b) never let anyone else come into the house, or if they did come in, to make very certain they would never want to come back!

    I do give him short, quiet on-lead walks where he gets to wander where he wants to and I just follow him (as long as it’s not through a hedge.) He also loves shaping games.

  44. LaDonna says

    That made me laugh. Autonomy, Willie, kittens——-oh by the way I’m getting married tonight.
    Congratulations! Lucky Jim, and I am guessing lucky you too. I wish you both a happy marriage and long life together.

  45. Nicola says

    Congratulations! I hope both of you are very happy for a very long time

    One of the instructors in a dog training course I did came from a zoo environment, and she was very big on letting dogs (and other animals) have the opportunity to make their own choices, usually small ones, every day. So we were told to have at least two water bowls, multiple places to sleep, etc for our dogs. My dogs have a dog door, and 95%of the time have free access to the back yard. I also take them on one off leash walk a day.

    Or did, until one of my dogs was restricted to the house due to anxiety issues. Restricting his freedom for mental health issues, rather than physical health issues, has been a huge challenge for me – I didn’t realise how much I enjoyed watching him run all over, sniffing, rolling and generally having a good time, until we couldn’t do it. I am starting nose games with him to give him something new to learn, as at the moment he stresses when trying operant conditioning/clicker training. I am very interested in new ideas for giving him the opportunity for making choices, as I feel this may help his confidence.

    I attended the APDTA conference last weekend, and Dr Sophia Yin’s Learn to Earn, essentially a NILIF program, had me quite concerned about the lack of autonomy the new dog (pup or older dog) experiences in its first weeks. I am fine with making sure the dog can’t learn bad habits, but there has to be a happy medium between absolute control of every moment and freedom to behave badly. Has anyone tried this? Or how do others balance the need for forming good habits with the need for autonomy?

  46. Lisa W says

    Congratulations, and happy day.

    I like that your post is on autonomy on the day you are getting married.

    Like Willie, one of our dogs is going through serious restriction although hers is due to a partial CCL tear. Like Willie, she is a dog with issues, and these 7+ months of physical confinement have been hard on her. She is now allowed more freedom in the house and some gentle gaming, and more outings but is on leash whenever we are outside in the yard or on walks. It has taken its toll on all of us. Thanks to a great village of integrated vets, behaviorists, PT, and hard work on all our parts, she is doing much, much better — physically and mentally.

    She came to us more or less feral. She has general anxiety about the world, so decision making other than flight was/is hard for her. She does not seek autonomy at this point. She seeks security, love, and someone who has her back (and knees).

    I know we will regain some things we have lost over the last many months and improve on others, and will add autonomy to the list. After so much careful management, it will be good to eventually not know where she is for a few minutes! I guess I also crave some autonomy :)

  47. Laura says

    Congratulations to both of you. I just went yesterday and picked out an engagement ring with my best friend. He’s now hiding it from me, and isn’t telling me when he will propose, but the ring is gorgious and we’re both excited.
    anyway, I am just going to start tossing random thoughts about this topic out there and see what you all think. I think dogs look to us more because, one, we teach it and two, we built them that way. According to research, wolves are much more indipendent and you can’t “ask” them to do anything, but you can ask a dog and they’ll look to you for help. In my own relationship with my dogs, I didn’t realize how much freedom and choice they really did have, especially in our working relationship. Yes, I ask Seamus to go forward, riht, left ect, but he makes the decision to guide me around something, to move me away from trafic if he needs to. He makes the decision on whether or not to walk around an obstical on the right or the left side and I must allow him this freedom, because, I can’t see well enough to make those decisions and if I could I wouldn’t need him. Our relationship is interdependent. I take care of him and he takes care of me. He also has choices in the house. He can pick his toys at random to play with. I let him simply jump on the couch when he wants to sleep up there and sometimes I feed him early if he’s asking for it. I believe, we have to have balance in our relationships with our dogs, just as we do with people. I ask him to meet my needs, and I do my best to meet his and I obviously know that no one here is advocating that dogs just have the run of the place.

  48. Peter says


    I really liked Liz’s comment:
    If there are any parallels in human and dog relationships:
    may you all be blessed with the delicate balance of leading and following,
    recognizing the needs of others and graciously considering them against your own,
    knowing when to find the middle ground,
    knowing when to play and when to be serious,
    and allowing the time and space to be in appreciation of one another, in whatever form it takes.

    There is not a day that goes by that I don’t do my best to live this with Peaches, a Lha/Cocker. It took a while to develop and I haven’t used a leash for more than a year. Even in an urban downtown environment, we can go anywhere with confidence and safety. I believe that we each do our best to accept each other and get along. To me, it’s clearly obvious that there are times when deferring to the needs of the other are what’s needed at the time- and that’s what is granted. She accepts my judgement in negotiating the city streets and I accept hers in the park where she can “go play”. I do think it’s more than if she stays by me her reward is to hunt squirrels. All along the way she makes choices; she doesn’t have to walk with me. She could bolt at any time and I could never catch her. She chooses to do what she does. Although her typical “default” behavior is to sit while we’re waiting for the light to change, she doesn’t if the sidewalk is wet or snowy. Makes perfect sense to me. While she usually sits in an elevator, she won’t if there’s too many people, in her perception, in the car. She doesn’t have to bypass the cat or that piece of donut in the street, she chooses to.
    I’m convinced that her willingess to “take direction” is, at least in part, dependent upon my willingness to do the same. There are times when either one of us is essentially asking “You want me to do WHAT- are you crazy??” and those situations need to get figured out. Somehow we do. It’s like “I can be sensitive to your needs if you can be sensitive to mine”, even when each of us has no sense of appreciation for what the other finds valuable. Is this freedom and autonomy? It’s the best I can come up with in the context of a relationship.
    As a volunteer at a shelter, I encounter a lot of dogs and often wonder if the relationship that Peaches and I have could be developed with any dog. I don’t know. I’m guessing that it could be the same… only different. What I do know is that I’m very grateful to have Peaches in my life.

  49. Alaska says

    Autonomy vs. NILIF. Autonomy vs. restricting access to reinforcement for undesired behaviors (e.g. cat chasing). Autonomy vs. letting puppies bond more to other dogs in the house than to their human. These are all good questions I hope you’ll address.

    I also thought that “Autonomy,Willie, kittens,….oh, and we’re getting married tonight” was hilarious :)

  50. Wendy says

    My whippets get about an hour of off leash walking a day. And depemding on where we are they wil roam further or closer to me. The older dog stays closer to me than the younger one. I am now trying to get the younger one to seek eyecontact when I yell “check” so we have a meetingpoint for when we need to meet up again. It works more or less. He’ll be gone for 5-10 minutes mostly. I’ve estimated he’ll stray up to about 300 meters away from me.
    I take a border collie on those walks twice a week and the needy “tell me what to do” attitude really got on my nerves. In her defence: she is trained as a hearing dog for the deaf. It took about half a year before she would walk on her own feet. Now (after two years) she’ll run and sniff and explore up to about 30 meters away from me, regularly checking back with me. That is untill one of the whippets sounds the hare/rabbit alarm and they are all off on the chase.

  51. says


    Regarding stock work – there is always the natural vs. mechanical debate, right? I bet it was interesting for you to take the Pat clinic when I feel like normally you work with AM or at least started out there. It is always fun for me to think of the many different paths that lead to building a total stockdog.

    When my Open dog first came to me, she often looked back for instructions or encouragement and of course my natural inclination was to provide it to “help” her out. Good guidance from my mentor (Scott Glen) helped me see when to make sure Lucy was making her own good decisions and when to help her. I still get it wrong sometimes but it has built a vastly more independent dog. There are so many times she can get it done better than I can (eg at 500 yds!) and it is such a good feeling to just LET her. Takes my breath away.

    I think companion dogs deserve autonomy as well, just as stockdogs deserve it on as well as off stock. All my dogs are companions first, working dogs second. I think “personal play” – eg playing with just my body and my dog without a toy/treats/etc is a great way to grant autonomy. The dog gets to initiate the game and dictates how the game will proceed by inviting ME. This is a great exercise for teaching people to see what their dogs want and enjoy.

  52. Ellen Pepin says

    Congratulations are in order for you and Jim. May your future be as happy as the last twelve years.

    Congratulations to you, also, for staying quiet and letting Willie work out problems by himself. We live in a crowded area with lots of people and traffic. My collie can not be let off leash because she chases cars and trucks. When I walk her, I try to let her sniff the things she finds for as long as she wants. It makes for some slow walks, but she is the one who chooses to move on. She also will let me know if she wants to change the route, and I follow her. Another fun way to let her be the boss is when she is working on one of the interactive toys we give her. We get toys that can be filled with food, and she has to figure out how to get at the food. Some of them are tough, and I would love to help her, but I don’t. It can be frustrating to watch, but I want her to use her brain. One puzzle required her to move pegs to get at the food. The instructions said not to use that part of the puzzle the first time. I paid no attention to that and filled those holes also. It took her about 30 seconds to figure it out.
    I have to read more of the posts to see more ways to challenge her mind.

  53. says

    Congratulations! Many, many years of happiness to you and Jim!!!

    I could not agree more with the comments about Nose Work. Talk about autonomy! We have no way of keeping up with our dogs when it comes to relying on our sense of smell. And we often discourage sniffing while out on walks, etc. Nose Work is such a great outlet. One of my favorite training classes was when my skittish and reactive Shepherd mix Sophie pulled the leash right out of my hand to rush into the training center for a huge pile of boxes covering up a hide! I may not compete with her, but she just passed her ORT for birch, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

    One of our Confidence Building dogs just completed our first Nose Work class, and she was a superstar! It’s great to watch dogs in classes like Confidence Building and Reactive Dog as they build bonds with their owners and learn that they can trust and rely on them. But it’s that much more rewarding to watch them take the next step to rely on themselves in an activity where we really aren’t much help and we have to learn to read and trust them!

  54. Rose C says

    I find dog parks are a great place so our dogs can play, run, and sniff around as they desire. I only prompt my dogs to stop if they are picking something off the ground or pulling something off the mud pit. With regards to what ‘play tricks’ I teach my 2 dogs, I let them guide me with what they seem to like. One dog likes jumping through the suspended tire and the other doesn’t care for it. The other dog is more intent on retrieving the tennis ball and had tried to catch it mid-air a few times so last week, I taught her the ‘catch it’ trick as I bounce the ball in front of her and she catches it mid-air. She totally loves our new game! She has also been searching intently and sniffing audibly for the tennis ball that ends up among the tall grasses so I might sign her up for some ‘noseworks’ game. I’d say we should try to be sensitive and pay attention to what our dogs are telling us and try to nurture and develop their individual inclinations towards specific activities. I know my dogs will never make it to competition level but it will certainly make them happy and content.

  55. says

    Many congratulations and wishes for years of happiness for you and Jim. I’m moving into my 12th year with my own best friend, and I can still say I’m excited for all the time we will have together. I hope you and Jim also have that excitement and that it doesn’t fade for you.

    I don’t have much to say on the autonomy thing, because I’m wiped out and headed to bed, but had to drop in and say something about your wonderful news (that you kinda just slipped in at the end there heheh).

  56. Mireille says

    About autonomy; I went scootering with my two siberians this morning, through mud and rain. For the last part of the route home, I can choose between a small up and down path through a little patch of wood or a broad gravel road along the river. Having had enough excitement for the day (new dogs, rabbits, an idiot in a car that nearly hit me) I decided to take the broad path. Easy to see what is comimg. The guys were trotting at a steady pace, I was relaxing and enjoying myself. But… There is a little side path leading down to the river, partly parallell to the road. When we got to the side path, the dogs turned left. I did not see anything coming and usually, when we approach a fork or a crossroads, and I do not say anything, they look back as if to check where I want them to go. Not this time, they were determined that they were NOT doing the boring big path. I was laughing so hard, thinking of this blog, I just gave in. And they were right, there were rabbits and pheasants there! 😉


  57. Beatrice Baker says

    Blessings on your life together with continued love, joy, and laughter. May your lives continue to be rich and rewarding and filled with furry friends.

    And thank you for this amazing blog which has given me and so many others so many insights into human-animal behaviour.


  58. Ann says

    Just came to your site for the first time after enjoying your books and TV appearances for years…and saw your (almost-a-postscript:)) marriage announcement. Much happiness and health together for many, many years to come! Congratulations to you both for finding your life partner. And enjoy a brief blog-break while you celebrate…even us newbies will understand:)

  59. Amy W. says

    Congratulations on your marriage!

    My dog, Axle, wants to smell every bag you bring into the house. He will greet you at the door and make every effort to sniff the bag. Instead of getting upset at him or making him move out of the way, I open the bag, and let him sniff it for a few seconds. All he wants is a few seconds to sniff in order to satify his curiosity, such a simple thing. My husband and I call this package inspection “going through customs.”

  60. Rachael says

    I love the idea of autonomy, but what if he doesn’t make the right choices? I often take my 3 year old, 55lb mixed breed to the beach here on the Outer Banks, and now that the tourist season is over it’s pretty much deserted. I could let him off leash virtually anywhere. But once he sniffs up into the dunes or spots a pelican or sanderling, he takes off barking and it’s very hard to get him to come back.

    I usually use a 20 foot long line and let him drag it if there’s no big distractions. If we encounter one, I pick it up and go back into training mode. We alternate between sniffing/marking freedom and obedience. I always carry a high value reward (hot dogs or his bumper) and try to pick the best recalls or attention, so I feel I’ve done a decent job of preparing him in terms of obedience. I WANT to let him go and let him chase some birds or sniff up a dune, but what if he keeps going and ends up on the highway? Or chases the birds so far he doesn’t hear my recall? This is my controlling nature and I have a mental block when it comes to allowing autonomy. Help!

    Oh, and I hope you have a wonderful wedding! Are the dogs involved? :)

  61. Beth with the Corgis says

    I’ve been thinking of this conversation, but working long hours due to Sandy and hadn’t found the chance to reply.

    One thought is how much more autonomy our house cats have compared to our dogs! Despite never leaving the house, little is expected of them and they make their own decisions about what to do the vast majority of the time. For starters, by nature a house cat has a very small idea of territory and an average-sized house is more than enough for most cats. Then too there is the fact that they have a large amount of vertical territory that the dogs can’t access. Their relative grace and cleanliness also allows us to tolerate things from them we would not from a dog (can’t imagine letting my dog walk on my dresser…). Finally, they insist upon their autonomy. Indeed, it’s part of why we admire them so.

    Dogs (or at least most breeds— hounds are a notable exception, as are the nordic breeds) have been selectively bred to be biddable, and so there is a certain tendency to turn to us. But the fact is that many are allowed precious few opportunities to make their own decisions.

    I also wonder where “autonomy” and “being allowed to do what they were bred to do” cross paths; a retriever who is given strict constraints over where and when to leave boat or blind, which bird to go for first, where to bring it back and whom to give it to is still a happy, fulfilled dog despite that fact that there is very little autonomy there (perhaps which direction to swim around the log). The same dog given the same constraints on when and where to leave a sofa will be bored and unhappy. So there is that thought.

    Finally, I think a lot depends on the dog. Jack is the only dog I’ve ever lived with that I routinely felt guilty about, despite the fact that I do plenty with him. He’s a dog who longs for a job and the jobs he have barely meet his minimum tolerance for mental stimulation. While it may be true that most Corgis have not been bred as farm dogs for many generations, this is a dog who was clearly born to be a farm dog. He loves keeping an eye on his “flock” (us, other dog, cat). He alerts when anything is wrong, enforces house rules, helps remind us of the schedule, guards the perimeter, and any number of other tasks. He makes very good decisions and if we were not in the city he would almost never have to be leashed.

    I think there are small things we can do every day to give our dogs some autonomy. We can let them pick what games we play. We are fortunate that we can walk ours off-leash safely nearby, at least at certain times of year. But even on leash, dogs can be allowed to choose the route some of the time.

    I’m not sure anyone else mentioned this, but honoring a dog’s alert bark is another way to grant them autonomy (by taking their mental abilities seriously). Within reason, I always try to respond to Jack’s warning barks by looking out the window to see what he’s barking at. A simple “Thank you, I see it, it’s ok” stops him barking much better than “enough” (though he also knows that and I use it successfully in some circumstances, if he’s quite sure there’s a threat he won’t stop til I look out). Attention barks also warrant an assessment of the situation, since he may just want to play while I’m occupied, but then again he may be telling me I left a light on downstairs at bedtime (he’s actually done this) or a dirty dish on a counter, or be upset that the cat (a known dog-scratcher) is in his crate and he wants to go in it. If he’s asking for something I can’t provide I just redirect him.

    Madison, on the other hand, is a born follower. She looks to either us or Jack for direction. “What’s Jack rolling in?” “Oh, Jack’s pottying. It’s time to potty!” “What’s Jack sniffing?” She’s such a follower that it took me the better part of a year to condition her to go get a bone to chew on when Jack is playing inside, because his movement bothers her and otherwise she just hounds him, but never thinks of starting a game or choosing a toy on her own. Making decisions seems to worry her a bit and she prefers direction. The lone difference is when we are in the woods and she goes looking for chipmunks and squirrels to tree or put to ground, but for the most part she is a dog who reacts to her world rather than acting upon it with any kind of premeditation. She’s easily distracted by movement or sounds. She seems happiest when she has people or dogs to follow around to help her decide what she should be doing. Moreover, she’ll run or swim herself to shivering exhaustion if you let her and so she is not a dog who you would really want to leave to her own devices.

    So I have two dogs from similar female line who are at opposite ends of the spectrum; one sees himself as the household second-in-command who truly seems to believe (in his limited doggy-brain way) that he is ready to assume the top spot at any minute if the need arises. The other voluntarily puts herself at the bottom of any pecking order and waits for others to decide what we’ll all do, and is then very happy to join in. Both are people-oriented, willing-to-please dogs who are sweet and kind, but the difference in how much autonomy they want or need, and what they would do with that autonomy, are striking.

  62. Kat says

    I’ve been thinking about the question of autonomy for a couple days now. I’m raising my dogs with the same general expectation that I’m raising my kids with; that they won’t be totally dependent on me and will be able to make good decisions for themselves. I’m not a control freak or a micro-manager; frankly it’s hard enough managing myself all the time I don’t need to manage everyone else in my life whether human or animal. I’m happy to help, support, and teach but my goal is independence. Ranger is an independent spirit and has been from day one. I’ve often joked that he’s got no idea what separation anxiety is and as long as we’re within a few continents of each other that’s good enough for him. He gets to make a lot of decisions for himself. Finna is learning to make better decisions but she’s the damaged dog. Still, today outside in the yard she chose to run to the fence, woof a couple of times at the yelling neighbors, and then bring her ball back for more play. Last month even when the neighbors had started yelling she would have been at the fence in a frenzy barking herself hoarse. We do our best to let her have lots of opportunities to make her own choices and decisions where all her choices are good and I think it’s working. On the advice of our trainer we set out to teach Finna to use the treadmill. The results aren’t exactly what I envisioned because she decided different ways to use it. She is exercising her brain and body and it makes me laugh. She invented the different ways of using it, I named them and now we play the treadmill game or sometimes I just turn it on and let her do what she wants with it. Within the limits imposed by her lack of socialization and high reactivity I give her choices.

    There are a lot of ways we can give our dogs opportunities to make their own choices. For a long time we used to play ball for a few minutes with Ranger before his morning walk. After a few minutes of playing ball I’d offer him the ball in one hand and the leash in the other and ask him to choose. He’d nose one hand or the other and that’s what we’d do next, either more ball or going for our walk. Ranger gets to choose whether or not to greet a dog we meet when we’re out and about. He’s rather selective about which little dogs he’s willing to meet. I’m always surprised by the number of people who insist that their small dog wants to meet Ranger despite the fact that their dog is at the end of the leash behind them clearly not approaching my large dog and the ones that expect me to hold Ranger still so they can stick their little dog in his face even though he’s indicated to me that he wants nothing to do with the little dog. I don’t want to speak to everyone I meet, why should my dog be forced to interact with all other dogs. I think even in things as common sense as not forcing him to interact with every other dog he sees I’m granting him autonomy.

    We can give our dogs a measure of autonomy simply by respecting our dogs’ right to be individuals and treating them as partners and not as extensions of ourselves.

  63. Marcia in NorCal says

    So much there to think about/respond to!

    First … happy wedding day. Me & my best friend got married VERY quickly, and 25 years later I’m still convinced it’s the smartest thing I ever did. May you be equally fortunate.

    Second … this is a subject near & dear to my heart. Two subjects, actually, although intertwined: the opportunities that dogs do or do not have to actually THINK, and the fact that trainers (and the people who actually train the dogs, i.e. owner/handlers) talk too darned much! Too often we submerge the owner/handler in detail and theory and anecdote, and then we let them bury their dog in noise that at best is slightly encouraging but mostly meaningless. Your story and pictures of Willie show what can happen if we get ourselves out of the way — and it’s really obvious that you were proud as Punch when your boy figured it out on his own.

    Letting the dogs think, and make their own decisions … I started to be aware of their lack of autonomy after working with my dog for about a year in canine freestyle. She always looked forward to going out to learn, but if it didn’t involve fast movement, she’d bark and bounce. This just wasn’t nearly as much fun as our first sport, agility. I kept her at it for two years, and then finally heard what she was saying, and I realized “Why should I be the one to decide how we have fun?” We control where they go out, and when; we control when and where and even if they play with other dogs, and for how long; we control what they eat, and when; and where they sleep, and when the lights go out. Good grief! We control whether they walk on the right or left, and how fast they get to move. We even control their breeding for biddability. I see many dogs at our local SPCA who’ve had ALL of their ability to make decisions taken away, either by breeding or by the life they’ve lived, and it’s just about the saddest thing I can think of. I am eternally grateful that my first dog was a Border Collie who showed me just how incredible it is to watch a dog think and solve problems with that amazing brain. (Note: for a game that encourages problem-solving, I recommend treibball — with the further note that the dogs that find it most difficult to learn this are the ones that don’t have the confidence to get more than 10 feet away from “mom.” When it works, though … WOW, you can just SEE that brain shift into gear. Almost as good as watching a good herding dog in action!)

    I loved “Merle’s Door” and will look for “Pukka’s Promise.”

  64. says

    Congratulations! I hope you had a wonderful ceremony & celebration :)

    I think, though I may be completely wrong about this, that dog owners in the US have it differently to those of us in the UK. For starters, we don’t have dog parks, any green piece of land is pretty much open-access to all people (although yes, some of us are more responsible than others and don’t take our dogs into fields of livestock, but many aren’t (sadly)).

    For me, there’s a step between my dogs being on leash and being free to run around (when it’s appropriate to do so), and that step involves training and a long-line. Recall is essential, as is some sort of “leave it” or “come away from that” cue cue, and a modicum of self-control is nice too. Depending on where we go, my dogs get a lot of free reign about the direction we take, this path or that, over here or over there, whether off leash or on a long-line.

  65. Beth with the Corgis says

    I want to point out that people, too, vary widely in how much autonomy they want. We are a nation that fancies ourselves rugged individualists. And yet, there are many people, traditionally men but increasingly women, who find corporate jobs with very little autonomy at all, make their way partway up a corporate ladder where they succeed primarily by following rules and schedules that are laid out by others, come home to a house where all the meals, vacations, nights out, etc are planned and structured by someone else, then don’t know what to do with themselves when they retire and find the freedom stressful and depressing.

    Others choke under that kind of rigid structure.

  66. Jane says

    As was said above, I love the offhanded “oh, and I’m getting married” comment at the end of the post. Many congratulations!

    The best source of autonomy my dogs have is their dog door. I get a lot of satisfaction watching them get to choose between in or out, naps on the deck or naps on a cushy dog bed, hot sunshine or air conditioning. There are many days when I’m surprised that they prefer to be out during a cold, windy, or rainy day–as their human, I probably would have kept them inside, against their wishes. And I love that they get to relieve themselves on their schedule, rather than having to wait for a human to come home and open the door for them. It was a bit of work to put the door in, and to make sure I had a solidly fenced yard to keep them safe, but it’s been worth it!

    I volunteer at a shelter, and I will make it my goal while there today to find creative ways to give the dogs there a little autonomy in their otherwise very prisoner-like lives. Thanks for sparking this idea!

  67. Frances says

    We had an absolutely wonderful walk today – the first sunny day in weeks, so I took the dogs to Bowness to walk along the shore of Windermere. It was stunning – snow on the peaks, crystal clear water, leaves just on the turn, and blue, blue skies. The dogs were off leash almost as soon as we left the car, and explored the woods and the shore, paddled a bit, met other dogs and nice people, and generally had a lovely time. Except for several wooden bridges that had been newly covered with chicken wire, that Sophy decided were Not Safe For Papillons. After she crept very unhappily across the first, and stopped dead at the second, I offered to carry her over it, an offer she was very happy to accept. From then on she presented herself to me for lifting as we reached each one. So perhaps part of being autonomous for a dog is having a willing, easily trained human to hand (or paw…).

  68. D says

    OHHH!!!! Trish, what happy news! Best wishes to you and Jim! May you share a lifetime of love and laughter. I am so very very happy for you both. :) shanti.

    Just catching up, obviously late to the game. Such a wonderful post and such thoughtful answers.

    My dogs have had a lot of autonomy in their lives. Certainly some breeds are easier to teach a reliable recall, and my Border Collies are 100%. That allows me to give them the freedom to explore the woods on our walks, knowing they’re just a whistle away. I can go horseback riding for hours, with my dogs safely along, off-leash. But I’ve been fortunate to live in places where this is possible.

    I did obedience and agility with my first dog, and we had so much fun learning together! I started her on sheep late in her life, and she always looked to me for guidance. She was very interested, but didn’t show the same talent she had for other sports. I read a lot, and spoke to more experienced handlers, and many people said that dogs that do agility and/or obedience often look to their handler for guidance rather than acting independently…because they’re trained that way. When I got my next dog (specifically for herding), I may have over-compensated in the opposite direction and allowed him to make too many of his own decisions. While working sheep, my trainer once said to me “He’s not always right, you know!” and all I could say was “maybe not, but he’s right more often that I am!” :) Oh the joys of being a novice handler.

    I remember once talking to a coworker about walking her dog. She said she “hated people who walked their dogs on flexi leashes and let them sniff.” Her dogs had to walk at heel on their evening walk after work. I replied that I “hated it when people DIDN’T allow their dogs on a flexi to sniff.” I said “When I’m practicing for the competition obedience ring, my dog must be perfectly at heel. PERFECTLY at heel. But when my dog is out for her evening constitutional, she gets to sniff all she wants. That is HER TIME! And we’re not practicing for the obedience ring when she’s out for her evening walk. She knows the difference.” Gladly, I can say my coworker listened to my point of view and agreed…and started letting her dog smell the roses on their evening walks.

    To Adria…I hear your frustration. Although I’ve competed successfully in several dog sports with a couple of dogs, I still consider myself very much a novice and really have no true advice to offer, other than the fact that here in the northeast, we are fortunate to have MANY MANY talented trainers and resources with which to work, within a reasonable driving distance. If you haven’t found someone yet who can help with your reactive dog, please keep trying! and best of luck to you.

  69. Shalea says

    After posting my first comment about trying to figure out how to allow my blind greyhound to have a little more autonomy and reading some of other people’s comments on the subject, I thought I would also mention my first greyhound, Larson. Whenever possible, we took him to a fenced field to let him run freely with other retired racers (his favorite thing in all the world), but his second favorite thing was going hiking at one of the local parks. I had to keep him leashed on our hikes, but which path we took at any given point was completely open for discussion and he seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express his opinions on the matter.

  70. Marie says

    After attending a Jack Knox clinic I came away with the same thoughts you have. Here is my conclusion and take away’s from Jack Knox.

    1. Most serious herders do NOT use any type of conditioning when training their dog. Clicker training is a joke to them. A sheep dog needs to think independently and at a distance. Conditioning a dog like we do in reward based training trains them to look to us for direction and work close to us. This is exactly what you don’t want a sheep dog to do.

    2. Most serious herders don’t train for any obedience other then what is necessary for herding. Tricks…frowned upon.

    Jack Knox believes you ALLOW a dog to make a mistake and then correct him. No luring, no treats no reward for doing the right thing, just corrections for doing the wrong thing. It is the exact opposition of what we do. And it works. Herding dogs have been bred to know what to do. IMHO, we take that away from them with reward based training.

  71. Trisha says

    Thank you all so much for your kind congratulations! We had a perfect evening and a short, but lovely honeymoon. And yes, yes, I do agree the timing of a post about “autonomy” and an announcement of a marriage is interesting timing! And it is exactly why I agreed to marry Jim: after 12 years I’ve learned that we can be both committed partners and also autonomous individuals. A win/win for sure.

    So many interesting comments here: Just a few responses.

    To Marie: I agree with your point that Jack believes in letting dogs make mistakes and learn from them. I think that’s a great philosophy IF (and only IF) the dog has been given the background and experience to be able to do what is right. Yes, sometimes dogs learn what’s right by trying out what is wrong, but sometimes you have to work hard to help them discover what is correct. I like the idea of doing all you can to help the dog succeed, and preventing mistakes as much as possible.

    And to those of you who are looking for ways to add autonomy into your dog’s lives when they simply can’t be safe off leash, I’ve ended up starting a new post about it. I was going to comment here, but it feels like it deserve an entirely new post. It’ll come out on Friday. So please add more comments, I’ll summarize some of the best ones and my own ideas this week.

  72. ABandMM says

    In honor of this discussion, I let my dog Abby lead me into Petsmart on our walk on Saturday. I did not intend to go in there, but she was pulling towards the door as we approached the store on our walk. So we went inside where she could check out the guinea pigs, hamsters and cats (much to the chagrin of one cat that wasn’t happy to see a dog on the other side of the glass!).

    We used to go into Petsmart in the summer as a cool (as in airconditioned) place to practice “sits/downs with distractions” in preparation for an upcoming obedience trial. She remembered that this is “the kitty place” and wasn’t going to pass that by :).

    Looking forward to the “on-leash autonomy” post. I try to let her sniff when we are out and about on our walks, but even in open grassy areas she can find crap (chicken bones, gross burger buns) left behind by inconsiderate people before I can catch and redirect her.

  73. Martha says

    Congratulations on the marriage and being able to be autonomous within a supportive partnership!

    I don’t think it is possible for dogs to be totally autonomous in a human society but I feel we could shift our perspective a little bit on training. It is interesting comparing cats with dogs as cats manage to learn all they need to without the pressure of going to classes and training. I am not saying that it should be a free for all, managing situations and setting boundaries within the dogs skill set is important – I feel there should be a shift instead of training we could be teaching.
    There is a lot of pressure on the dogs to behave in a human world, so there is lots of pressure put on owners and that gets transferred down to the dogs. It is an interesting subject, even though there has been a great shift to positive dog training most dog training is still obedience lead. I feel building confidence, relationships, communication and problem solving skills are crucial to a well balanced confidant dogs who are able to start making some choices for themselves. Giving dogs choices within their skill set can be a powerful learning tool. Giving them choices where they don’t have the skills yet, is not fair this would be setting them up to fail. But you can build skills by building up confidence slowly and then offering choices within those boundaries.
    Figuring something out for yourself or being given choices (within your skill set) builds confidence and is a natural reward in itself – no treats needed.
    I am still on a journey myself trying to learn how to provide appropriate learning experiences and life skills for dogs within a natural learning environment.

  74. LarryC says

    I love to walk my dogs silently. I’m very rural, so they are never on a leash unless we are going somewhere. Pulling out a leash is a cue for them all to do their happy dance, dash around, bark and generally be nuisances, because it means adventure to them.

    I let them know when I am changing direction, usually with a whistle. That doesn’t mean “come”, it just means “heads up.” They are free to follow their noses, and often discover things I did not know where there. It’s a partnership. They know where their boundaries are, and know the road is absolutely off limits. Going on the road is the one thing that gets the e-collar dialed up to 9. Even snake aversion training doesn’t warrant that.

    Because they are never on a leash they have learned to make very good choices. They do not run headlong off a cliff or try to bite a porcupine, and they encounter both cliffs and porcupines.

    I also pay attention to what they are telling me. If they are hungry they get food, if they are sore they get a massage, if they want to play I will throw something, etc. I feel I am very well trained. I don’t play winners and losers with my dogs. The dogs always get a chance to win every game. That has paid off in some amazingly sensitive behavior when they were playing with toddlers.

    My dogs are bird dogs, and it always irritates me to hunt with somebody who hollers and tootles at their dog continually. It’s as bad as being around a dog that won’t quit barking. A big part of the joy of hunting is being in the field with a good dog, just enjoying nature. They know what we are there for, and are better than I am at knowing where the birds are.

    I guess I have trouble defining them as autonomous, because we are a pack, and I have trained them to do fairly complex tasks. They take cues from me, but mostly they just understand their world and deal with it well.

  75. Beth with the Corgis says

    LarryC, this made me laugh: “If they are hungry they get food…” because I have Corgis, and if they had their way, my 30 pound dogs would easily weigh 80 pounds. :-)

  76. JJ says

    Congratulations!!!!!!! I think it is so cool that you are formalizing your happy relationship.

    The first time I gave serious consideration to the concept of “freedom of choice” for a dog was when I read your March 19, 2010 blog post and you asked, “What do dogs want?” The idea of working to provide freedom of choice, while a “duh” moment in hindsight, was so opposite of my focus up to that point – which had been solely on training / trying to control my dog. The idea struck me as vital and so missing from the normal conversations about that humans have about dogs.

    Since then, I have tried to keep in mind the importance of allowing our dogs appropriate levels of freedom of choice, but I appreciate this nice reminder. It is just too important not to bring up again.

    I wish I could do more off-leash walks with my dog.

    Other than that, I try to add choices for my dog in small daily living situations. For example, like others, I have let my dog pick a route through a store, though I had to curb where he went in some cases (not behind the cash register). I wish I would do more for my dog in this area. Maybe I just need to focus on the concept more.

    Once again, congrats on your wedding.

  77. Erin says

    Fascinating. Are we (as sheepdog trainers) really allowing for autonomy? We are still correcting for poor decisions and rewarding for good ones. We are just trying to stack the deck in the correct choice favor. The next part of the question is, why are we allowing them to be wrong or choose wrong. Don’t get me wrong, a well timed correction can change a behavior pdq. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves as trainers, what could I have done to set up the situation, so the dog learns w/o the correction? For me this usually means I have tried for too big of an approximation. If you always show him how to do it right and he never learns to do it wrong, then you have saved a lot of head ache for both of you. This idea takes away the autonomy out of working sheep. Really he’s free to make the correct choice, not whatever choice. Remember just because my dogs is working out at 600 yards does not make him autonomous, he is not free to do his will nor purely follow his instinct. He has been trained to make the choices I want him to make and listen to me when I have input on the process. You are still capturing and shaping, you are just dealing with raw instinct( set of coded behaviors that the dog is willing to throw at you repeatedly with much enthusiasm) when it comes to herding, unlike other dog activities where you are trying to teach them things that they have no genetic code for. Thanks for the brain food, I’ll be thinking on this more.

  78. Alexandra says

    Congratulations on your wedding! How exciting!

    I try to give my dogs time to just “be dogs” with hiking off leash as much as I can, but there are so few places where this is allowed (or where I can get away with it) in our area. I wish there were more safe places like this. I think all three of us bond during this hiking time, and I enjoy it as much as the dogs do. That said, I do NOT believe in letting your dog free roam or get bored in your back yard and make a nuisance of itself to your neighbors, regardless of how far out in the country you live. I live in a rural area, and I see a lot of that around here, and not everyone appreciates a visit from someone’s ill-mannered free-roaming dog or wants to listen to it bark in boredom for hours on end. There’s a balance here.

  79. Erin says

    I felt compelled to respond to this:

    1. Most serious herders do NOT use any type of conditioning when training their dog. Clicker training is a joke to them.

    Clicker traing is not a joke, it is a wonderful tool for building relationships. It teaches the subject how to learn and it builds their confiedence. Sheep dog handling and training is all about the team work and the reationship you have with your dog.
    I’m a serious handler I compete all over the US ,I raise sheep too. I use a clicker off sheep for relationship building activities, especially with a young pup. There’s sooooo much you can do before you even get to sheep that can help you once you get there, it is a shame to miss out on team build oppertunities.

    Here’s where you have sadly believed that there is no reward: you don’t see Jack praising the dog up or giving it a cookie. Jack gives the dog a bigger reward than that, he lets the dog work. Buy letting the dog work you are giving access to the sheep. There is no greater reward for a working dog. The sheep are the reward! So you are using reward based training, which totally works :)

    In this case your R+ is access to sheep!!

  80. Kerry M. says

    I have thought about canine autonomy for a couple of days now. I have some ways that we’ve worked out some autonomy for my dogs and I think my current dogs have more autonomy than my previous dogs, but I’d still love to explore more. I control so much of their life, when they eat, when they walk, when they are left alone, and I want to give them back as much control as I safely can.

    For my dogs, I have one pet dog and two dogs I’m puppy raising to be service dogs. My dog is reactive to some people and dogs. Even though he has a pretty good recall, I can’t call him off a person or dog he finds scary yet, so no off leash time for him. As for the future service dogs, one is 18 months old and he actually turns in this week for advanced training. The other is almost 4 months old and has over a year left with me. Autonomy is not an important part of training for them. In fact, I’ve been told that we should always train on leash – even indoors! Which, if I followed that guideline, would give them very little choice in whether or not to participate in training. I ignored that since that seemed pretty unnecessary. But when all is said and done, these are $50,000 dogs that will be donated to someone who needs them, so they are never ever off leash outdoors.

    Since off leash work isn’t feasible for any of my dogs right now, my favorite autonomy is through choices in training. One example is I taught my dog to ride a skateboard using luring until he started refusing to follow the lure. We took a month off and came back with shaping instead of luring. It was fun to see him make more of his own choices and released from the social pressure of a lure, he started going back on the skateboard again. I loved watching him work out the problem on his own and decide whether he was comfortable enough to go forward.

    My least favorite training advice has to do with autonomy: that once you give a dog a command, make sure you follow through each and every time otherwise your dog will learn he can blow you off. Your dog already knows he can blow you off. Forcing him to comply doesn’t teach him that he can’t. If it did, this would be a one-time thing and would never happen again. The lack of autonomy and the threat of compulsion that are hidden in that statement bother me. OK, there are probably much worse bits of training advice, but this is such a common one, even from trainers who subscribe to positive training methods. I would phrase instead, “Don’t ask your dog to do something you don’t think he will. If he refuses, look at why before you take your next step. Hint: the answer probably has to do with distractions or your reward history,.”

  81. JJ says

    I have been thinking further on the question, “What do our dogs want?” One of the things I noticed after my earlier post is that your March 2010 posting actually asked a little different question: “What do our dogs need from us?” They are similar questions with lots of overlap, but are there differences?

    Differences aside, I like the lists from both posts and would add another item to the list. So, my answer to the question of “What do our dogs want/need to be able to live happy, fulfilling lives?” (which is 100% inspired/plagiarized from Trisha) is: (in no special order!!!!)

    > basic needs: shelter, food, water, medical
    > freedom of choice/autonomy
    > novelty
    > positive social interactions
    > physical exercise
    > mental exercise
    > training (positive, clear, scientific)

    That last one, training, overlaps some with every other item on the list (with the possible exception of autonomy). However, I think that “training” is worth including as it’s own item. Our dogs *need* to be taught how to behave in the environment (our homes, the park, etc) that they find themselves. Without that benevolent teaching, the dogs can become unmanageable and end up killed.

    This is such an important list and yet how many people really get this big picture? Too few. (Perhaps not enough people reading Trisha’s blogs and other writings.) I hope we can find ways to educate owners more about all the items on the list – everything from freedom of choice to proper training.

  82. Frances says

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is muttering away in the back of my mind … is autonomy, for a dog, a matter of self-esteem and self-actualisation, or is it (through giving some sense of control over the environment) at the much more basic level of engendering a sense of safety? Or are dogs’ needs so completely different from our own that we would need to construct a completely different pyramid?

  83. Annika says

    I am late to this conversation but wanted to share my thoughts on dogs, autonomy and living in a city environment/apartment. I am doing this with my dogs right now, having gone from living in a house with a yard, and obviously it´s a less free environment for my dogs with a smaller territory and fewer opportunities to go out and explore independently. I also can´t have my older dog offleash as she is not reliable.

    I do think however that just as with cats and large birds, you can try to provide an enriching environment indoors for your dogs, even in an apartment. What do I mean by that? For example, sleeping places on different heights (obviously still safe), places where they can look out, “dens” (open crates) to go to if they want to be left alone.

    To make sure that they have plenty of stimulating toys – kongs and thought-toys, soft toys, etc. Perhaps to circulate these every other month so that the dog doesn´t get bored with them. Putting some blankets and towels in their beds so they have a chance to “bed” if that ´s something they like to do. And of course safe chewtoys, marrowbones, etc.

    I think foraging for food is something most dogs really enjoy – seek-games with food items are a big hit around here. I also started wrapping pieces of food in papertowels, then placing them in old toiletpaper rolls and wrapping another time with more paper so the dogs get a chance to “rip” these apart and find the food. Another tip I have heard is to make sure that the food you give to the dog is varied in consistency, taste, smell and texture, even adding some items that the dog will explore and then reject, obviously within the limits of safety. Perhaps put some organic eggshells in the food. Feeding raw would of course be ideal but hard to do in a small apartment with a small fridge and carpeting….

    My dogs do get to make choices on walks – my older female is very decisive in terms of where she wants to go and i let her call the shots within reason as well as give her the time to use her nose on walks and to explore. We are out 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day.

    Anyway, I hope these are helpful to all of you who can´t offer your dog several acres of land to run on :)

  84. LarryC says

    Erin says, “Here’s where you have sadly believed that there is no reward: you don’t see Jack praising the dog up or giving it a cookie. Jack gives the dog a bigger reward than that, he lets the dog work. ”

    That’s the bottom line for working dogs. They want to work, and they want to do their jobs well.

    Motivated doesn’t even cover it. The job of the person is to care for the dog. Sled dogs will die in their traces. Retrievers will drown trying to retrieve a duck. And, as Trish pointed out recently, hounds will die if you run them on wolves. They have a job and nothing else is important, not even their lives.

    Dog’s don’t see consequences, or if they see them they don’t care. It’s up to the human to set safe limits.

  85. says

    I like to take my dog to the beach, let him off and then use minimal cues while we’re there and just let him decide what we’re going to do. If he wants to go play with other dogs, he can. If he wants to go sniff that dead seagull carcass, um, fine (ew). If he wants to pee in the tide pools, I’ll laugh and let him go nuts.

    If he wants to writhe around in a pile of kelp, dig a hole in it and stuff his head in, and then slide down it ‘side swimming’ ten feet all the way down the pile, to finally land at my feet with a crazed look in his eye-well, that’s fine with me.

    He gets to make the choices there, thankfully the choice is often a boring one: Racing circles around me like a nut, making tracks that look like they belong in the movie ‘Signs’.

  86. Frances says

    Sophy reminded me this morning that there is another way that dogs have autonomy – the training they give us. She has recently taught me not only to provide two cushions and a big soft throw (intended to keep my feet wam in winter) to make a comfy bed for her at my feet, but also to plump it up several times a day, and to persuade all the other animals to sleep elsewhere. She has also taught me to play the games she enjoys, when she enjoys them (very specific games and times!), to carry her out when it is raining hard so she doesn’t get too wet, to feed her in the sitting room away from Poppy, to make sure there is a rug by the bed so she does not slip on the wooden floor, and various other things that I hardly notice until I wonder just why I am doing them. All with the very best reward based methods – she asks politely; if I get it wrong she ignores it, and continues to stare at me; when I get it right I get a thank you smile and a burst of oxytocin!

    More seriously, I wonder just how damaging the whole “dominance” thing has been to such small autonomy as our dogs still have, with its constant reiteration of not letting the dog take charge, or “get one over” on the owner. Sophy’s quirks are completely harmless, and indulging them pleases both of us, but to anyone from a “dominance” training background “giving in” to her would be the first steps down a slippery slope of creating a snapping, snarling monster, determined to take over first the household and then the world…

  87. says

    Once more, I am totally late commenting on your blog.

    First, congratulation on your marriage!!

    The issue of autonomy in dogs is a subject I’ve thought of a lot in the last 10 years. I have worked with dogs more or less for the last forty years. I now have a petsitting/dog walking business.

    I saw an increase in the last ten years of dogs (mostly smaller dogs) that have very little autonomy. Dogs raised as infants and kept in a state of complete dependency. For years I thought it was a very bad thing to force a specie to live as an other, in the process taking away the essence of dog and create a being whose needs are not respected, or considered, in favor for having the human owner’s needs fulfilled. Frankly it was difficult for me.

    Recently I have changed my mind slightly and think that if a dog is raised completely dependent what is indeed important for the most part, is that it’s needs continue to be catered to, if retraining is not possible, for the rest of the dog’s life.

    Although retraining is possible, I have found it very very upsetting to the dog. Those dogs are very very different psychologically than working dog or even a general family dog who barks to be let out who goes on vacation with the family who hikes and jogs and do adapted dog things with his/her family.

    As a dog sitter, I have to treat those infant dog/child as being with greatest care not counting on them to let me know their needs but anticipating what they may need. Usually the owners of such dogs do not need housesitters because they have convinced themselves (and their dogs) that they are the only ones able to make the dog happy. But in the event they must leave town, they usually leave me a VERY long note or small note book with detailed instruction of all the needs that need to be met. From 6 complicated meals with supplements herbs etc a day to the intricate explanation of the bedtime rituals.

    Of course I do my best to follow them and usually start adding a few rituals of my own. Recently I have taught a Frenchie how to push a door open, when ajar, to get into the next room or go home. What joy for the both of us to see us run up the stairs and bully herself through the door joyously waiting for me to get there too and give her a treat. I have also let her off leash at a safe park, and although she checks in with me every 10 seconds I can see how she explores her environment so much more and with delight.

    An other small dog who is raised as an infant did not know how to walk up the stairs until age 3 when unknowingly I taught her: her owner was horrified…

    When I said i found that it is very hard emotionally on dogs who have been raised that way to learn to be more independent I meant that those being seem so terrified at first, shaking and stressing–breaks my heart. but with trust and patience and a LOT of encouragement I can CLEARLY see their pleasure at being able to care for their basic needs on their own.

  88. says

    Thanks for this post! It gave me the boost I needed to look at Beskow’s life and realize that I needed something else for her. We attended her first herding lesson last weekend (she’s a BC mix) and she was entranced! I’m very excited about adding this to her life. Thanks for the extra boost- this is why I love reading your blog so much!

  89. Ashleigh says

    Ha, way to bury the lead – congratulations!!
    As for dog autonomy… I’ve been dealing with that recently as my dog and I have taken up tracking. Like many hounds, she’s a slave to her nose, so I’ve always considered her to be quite an “independent thinker” (AKA, doesn’t always listen!), but she’s also quite a nervous dog, so the tracking – where she is responsible for both of us – is a bit of a challenge for her! I’m trying to find ways to increase her self confidence working on her own, while not letting her forget how great it is to pay attention to me every once in a while (which has taken a lot of training already).
    Thanks for the thought-provoking blog, as always!

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