Autonomy II: Do Ask, Do Tell

Last week I posted a blog about giving our dogs more autonomy, and asked for comments about ideas on how to do so outside of working dogs on sheep. Many of the comments sent in response to that post are extremely helpful, and I encourage you to read through them. However, I know that time is short for many of us, so I’ve summarized some of the best ideas and some of my own this week.

First, as a preface, it is important to note that just like people, dogs vary tremendously in their desire for autonomy. Some dogs are extremely independent and others find too many choices burdensome. That’s why Willie stays in a crate when I’m gone. I am 100% sure that he is more comfortable in his ‘bedroom’ than being left loose in the house. When left loose he’s been a wreck when I returned home; no chewing or defecating, but wild-eyed and panicky. I believe that he perceives himself as “off-duty” in the crate, rather than responsible for alerting the household to noises and unexpected visitors. And who is to respond to his alerts if I am gone?  However… his is just the kind of personality that can gain confidence from having autonomy in other contexts. So, suggestion Number One: know your dog.

In addition, there are some contexts in which some dogs simply can’t be given free choice, whether it’s because they’d never coming back if running off leash in open areas, or you’re walking beside on a busy highway. Bottom line again: Know your dog.

With those caveats, here are some suggestions, especially for people whose dogs can never be off of a leash or line, for ways to give your dogs more choice.

1) Do ask: Ask yourself how often you can change from telling your dog what to do to, into asking your dog questions. Granted, there are plenty of times when we really do require our dogs to do what we say. (Thus, the title, “Do Ask, Do Tell.”) Example: I am not requesting Willie to respond when I say “Stand” (still). Sometimes it doesn’t matter if he listens to this cue, but other times it matters greatly (ie, several 150 pound battering rams (also known as sheep) about to run you over… it happens, believe me), so I need him to stop and stand still every time I say it. How would he know the difference between “you must” and “please” when only I know the context? I can’t imagine how you could mix and match the same cue to sometimes mean “you must” and other times mean “only if you feel like it.”

Job One then is to decide beforehand which cues you use that are not negotiable, and only use those when you expect a response. However, other cues aren’t necessarily that essential.

Here’s an example: When Willie and I play “Find It!” with his frisbee outside, after he’s had a good romp with it in his mouth, shaking and flipping it around. After a few minutes, I ask him to drop it so I can hide it for our Find It game. Although he’ll drop it on cue in other contexts, if we’re outside on the lawn he clearly wants me to throw it for him (I can’t cuz of his shoulder) rather than play Find It. So we’ve had a bit of a struggle when I say Drop It and he doesn’t. Actually, he’ll drop it, but when I reach for it he snatches it up in his mouth again. I’ve countered that by giving it right back to him when he does drop it, knowing that the best reinforcement for giving up the frisbee is getting it back again. I’ve also said “Okay, game over” in a cheerful voice and walked away if he won’t release the frisbee. That has helped, but not completely.

After I wrote the post on autonomy, I found myself watching him grab up the frisbee as I reached for it one morning and thought “Why not switch this around and give Willie the choice? It is a game for him after all.” So this time, rather than saying “Drop It,” I asked him if he was ready for me to take it. “Ready?” I said, and reached toward the disc. Nope, he wasn’t. He dipped his head and took the frisbee back in his mouth. “Okay, I said, no problem.” I stood in the same place, smiling and enjoying the sun shining through the clouds, and then said “Ready?” again. It was a sincere question. He was. When I reached for the toy this time, he watched me with shiny eyes, and stayed in place while I walked to the other side of the house and hid it for him to find. I can’t tell you if it made any difference to him, but it did to me, and that matters too. [Note: I can imagine a context in which Willie would have to drop an item for his own safety, say he picks up something poisonous. In this case I would say NO, which I use to mean absolutely cease and desist whatever you are doing this exact instant. I use it very rarely, and only when I really, really need it.]

2) Autonomy on Leash Walks: This is tricky, because no dog on a line can be truly autonomous. However, you can give him or her some choices:

– Several people noted that they let their dog set the pace. This is a great idea: who said that walking a dog meant keeping it from smelling interesting things? My favorite leash walk combines a) periods of brisk walking during which I get good exercise and Willie/Tootsie trots by my side ignoring all smells and b) the dogs setting the pace (and direction if possible) while I basically follow behind. If I’m getting antsy and Willie is still sniffing, I might say “Ready?” and as often as not he’ll stop sniffing and move forward. If he doesn’t, well then, he’s not ready. What’s important here is to be clear about which is which. Have a clear signal that means he’s following your lead, and a clear signal that means he’s in charge. Dogs learn the difference very fast.

– Explore the world with your dog by picking up things and asking your dog to sniff them. Try sniffing them yourself. I’ve seen dogs stop in their tracks and look you right in the eye as if surprised when you do this. “You? Smelling something? Really???? I didn’t know you could!” Of course, you know I don’t have a clue what your dog is thinking, but it’s fun to guess and even more fun to try to share their world a little bit. You can also hide treats in tree bark and later show your dog where they are. I learned this from Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book Chase, an excellent source of information regarding keeping a dog with you when off leash.

– Extra long leads or Flexi-lead-like leashes can also give your dog more choices. Like many trainers, I’m not a fan of flex-leashes in many contexts (training classes, vet visits, etc.) and don’t like that they teach the dog to habituate to a constant, although minor pulling sensation. That said, life just can’t always be perfect, and these kind of leashes can give lots of dogs some freedom when they would never have it otherwise.

3) Choices in the House: One commenter (thanks!) related this issue to environmental enrichment for wild animals in captivity. Several of the ideas mentioned included give your dog choices about the basics: two water bowls, several sleeping places, a range of toys, etc. You can also swap out toys: Willie must have 50 toys (sigh), but I only keep a limited number out at one time. That way they stay more interesting. Other variants of choices are asking your dog how they’d like to play. One reader has a dog who loves walks and ball play. She holds the leash in one hand and the ball in the other and does whatever he dog indicates with his nose. Great idea!

4) Fun with Food: Besides all the interactive toys that dogs can manipulate to get food, you can use the cheap, easy and always-enthralling method that I use every day with Tootsie. Because she would rather eat cat poop hidden like min-treasure chests in mulch, pine needles and straw, I let her come to the barn with us when I feed the sheep and cats. So I have taken to giving her a twice daily “treasure hunt” in a small fenced area that I call the “play pen.” I take a handful of kibble from her daily quota, and throw it as if I was scattering seeds. She then spends 10-15 minutes finding it, piece by piece, while Willie and I do the barn chores. She has a great time, her mouth doesn’t smell like cat poop, nor does she ingest heaven knows what. You may not have a fenced area, but you can do this inside too.

5) Honor your dog’s bark: This is a great reader comment that I completely support. Although we do have to be careful to not inadvertently reinforce barking, many dogs bark less if you acknowledge their alert signals and respond in some way to them. Willie could be a horrific barker, and I won’t pretend that there aren’t times he barks when I wish he wouldn’t, but like many of my client’s dogs, he calms down fastest if I acknowledge his barking. Just last night he lept up and began barking wild-eyed at the door to the garage. I went to him, asked him what was wrong and investigated. Sure enough, a side door was banging in the wind. I closed it, said “Hey, Willie, we’re fine,” and then took him into the living room. This won’t help with all dogs, but I envision lots of dogs screaming in frustration that their pack member is oblivious to their warnings or requests for assistance. Bottom line here: Barking isn’t always bad. (See more on this in Turid Rugaas’s book, Barking –  The Sound of a Language.)

5) Problem Solving: Some interactive food toys are in this category, but we can also ask our dogs to use their heads and solve other kinds of problems. Ask your dog to come to you with a barrier in between and help them learn to go around the side. Think of the world as an obstacle course and start asking your dog to go through, over and under objects both inside and outside of the house (with obvious concerns for safety). Some problem solving turns out to be a dog creating a new way of doing something. Here’s a great example: Finna’s owner wanted to teach her to  use a treadmill, but when Finna came up with a new way to do so, she was encouraged. Another reader has taught her dog the cue “Figure it out!” meaning: figure out yourself how to open this door, box, or get the food out of something. Problem solving at its best and too wonderful!

Another reader wrote about the body awareness work she is doing, in which a dog is asked to “Get on This” with all 4 paws, but ‘this’ is highly variable in terms of size, shape and surface. It’s the dog’s job to figure out how to get on and stay on. I love this kind of thinking… isn’t this what dogs who live freer lives would be doing all the time? Learning where one’s back paws are, learning body awareness of any area surely is as good for dogs as it is for people. Susan Garrett has a video on this, worth checking out.

6)  And finally, back to the nose: Engage your dog’s nose whenever you can, it truly seems to make them happy. I see people work so hard to keep their dogs from smelling things (“Don’t sniff that poop. Don’t sniff the garbage. Don’t Don’t Don’t…”) But it must be difficult for them to be restricted from using their best sense so often. We can turn that around easily. I often let the dogs sniff things that I bring home from the market, or anywhere else. They seem to enjoy it immensely. The easiest cue in the world, as a matter of fact, is “Sniff, sniff.” Just hold something out toward your dog and as he moves his head forward to investigate, say “Sniff, sniff.” It has broadened my sense of the world, and it feels (we all know I’m only guessing) like the dogs appreciate it. Several people who commented mentioned this too, so join the pack and give it a try!

That’s a start anyway, more ideas always welcome. By the way, one reader asked for a discussion about autonomy versus NILIF. Great question, and definitely worth discussing, but it deserves its own blog….

And here, just for fun, is one of my favorite comments about this topic: 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. And how about the cat that insisted on being allowed to solve problems for himself? The perfect reminder that many of our companion animals still need dignity and choice in their life.

Thanks to all of you who added your smarts and experience to the requests of others for ideas. You came through, as usual, brilliantly.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Thank you all so much for your good wishes about the wedding. Jim and I are still floating on oxytocin, although in a buzz for the Texas Two-Step Tour coming up. (I’m writing this on Wednesday the 7th, but I’ll post on Friday as usual when I’ll actually be speaking in Texas.)

The cycle of life at the farm continues. All the lambs have been taken to market, never an easy day for us. But it helped that we just brought King Charles over to Redstart from his c0-owner’s farm to begin the cycle again. (He is named after KC Spaniels, because he seemed so tiny when he first arrived.) I’m happy to say the King Charles is doing is work with enthusiasm.

To keep it simple, we loaded King Charles with the help of the buck goat he had been living with. Buck boy was happy to walk on a halter up to the trailer and King Charles was happy to follow him. Loading was relatively easy because of the way cool trailer Jim built this summer that is easy in/easy out for the sheep. After loading it was only a few miles drive to the farm, and then Willie brought the ewes out to the front lawn as a magnet for King Charles. Much easier than backing the trailer through the mud into the sheep pen.

King Charles went to work right away, sniffing each ewe in turn. Here he is checking out Lady Godiva, who was far more interested in the grass than the new guy in town. (Notice the red color on his chest: It’s called marking paint and it allows us to know when each ewe has been bred, because it rubs off on their butts as he mounts them.)

Spot attracted much more than a quick sniff. He tried to mount her right away on the front lawn, but she wouldn’t stand still for him until later when they were back in the barn pen. Perhaps she just wanted a little privacy? I checked the pen an hour later, and both Spot and Buttercup had clearly been bred. Good boy KC, good boy.


  1. Beth with the Corgis says

    I really enjoyed this post. Reading your tips made me realize how many things I do that I don’t even consciously think of as giving them automony; I just thought I was being polite! Whenever I carry something down the steps, big or small, the dogs are standing there saying “Well, what do you have?” and I let them sniff and they say “Ok, thanks!”, or at least that’s how I interpret their expressions. I have found that even things that smell of food don’t seem to get them worked up, since the gesture “Here, check it out” is very different from the body language I use when I’m about to give them a snack.

    As far as games, I mentioned that Maddie is more of a follower, but honoring that part of her personality is in and of itself giving her autonomy, is it not? When we play frisbee or chuckit, I always have one projective for each dog. I control them just enough to keep them from charging headlong at the same toy (after a bad collision that left one dog screaming; I learned that lesson the hard way). But other than that, Jack loves to chase down his toys and grab them as quickly as he can, circle back with them and start again. But when we first start playing he sometimes likes us to chase him around for a minute first and play keep away. Since he has a good leave it and a good recall, it never seems to cause problems (I know that training books say never to chase your dogs, but they love it so and every dog I’ve known can learn the difference between playing it as a game, as opposed to returning when you actually want them).

    As for Maddie? Well, what SHE likes is to get her toy in her mouth on the first chase, then carry it around as she goes gleefully cantering after Jack every time he chases down HIS toy. Since she keeps enough distance to avoid annoying him, and since it makes her so clearly happy, I figure why force her to play the more traditional version? Usually once or twice in each session I will ask her to drop it and throw it again, just to reinforce the idea that ultimately I get to keep the toys, but otherwise she plays her own version. Since she’s a super-submissive dog (not fearful, just ditzy and happy to be on the lower rungs) and almost never gets the toy if there are multiple dogs playing, I think she’s just thrilled to have possession of something and run around with it. My goal in playing with the dogs is to have fun and burn off energy. Her version of the game accomplishes both, so why quibble with that?

    I’ve seen people “play” with their dogs in a way that’s so regimented you wonder how anyone has any fun. Let the dogs have some say in how the rules of the game are made, as long as both parties can understand and agree on the rules.

    And Jack, well he’s made up some of his own games that follow their own rules, and we like to play those, too.

  2. liz says

    A small act of granting autonomy (that may have more symbolic benefit than anything else) is providing decent-sized chunks of food for more substantial chewing. Adding large chunks of blanched veggies like carrots, or any large but easily chewed item, to kibble is a moment when I assert my faith in the dogs’ ability to safely eat. In my mind, dicing up all food into bite sized bits is awfully close to the stages in human life when we are without independence. For the time being- until they are without the ability to chew safely- giving them this little opportunity reminds me that they are capable beings.
    I have more philosophic thoughts on autonomy which would likely be a better fit for any upcoming and anticipated posts in this ‘series.’ I’ll hold onto them, and continue enjoying all the ideas. Great Topic!

  3. Kat says

    Your blog is wonderful. There are always light bulb moments when I suddenly understand something in a new way. Ranger came to us a mannerless teenager and the leash we chose has two grips one at the end of the six feet of nylon web and one near the clip. When we absolutely had to have him under control we’s hold the grip near the collar. Over time I started thinking of it as the equivalent of holding a toddler’s hand–we’re walking through the parking lot and I need to know you’re safe so you need to hold Mommy’s hand. Reading today’s blog post I realized that Ranger, who now has beautiful leash manners, gets to use his own judgement a lot on walks but when we absolutely must substitute my judgement for his I take hold of the lower grip. I don’t hold it tightly, much of the time I’ve merely hooked one finger into it but holding that grip is his cue that we need to use my judgement in the situation. Suddenly, I’m conscious of meaning when before it was an unconscious habit. I love it when I suddenly understand why something is so effective.

    We use the tossing kibble game too. I use it when I need two dogs and a cat to be otherwise occupied. We call it “free for all” I’ll toss a couple big handfuls of kibble down the hall and call “Free for All” and both dogs and one cat (the other cat won’t compete with the dogs) will be nose down searching for the goodies. Outside I’ll rake up leaves and toss treats into the pile for the dogs to find.

    Recently, I attended a nosework clinic with Ranger. The clinic was organized by a veterinarian that specializes in structural issues. She showed us some video of some of her patients (with permission of course) and how much nosework had helped them. Apparently dogs are structurally designed for sniffing and when a dog sniffs all the skeletal pieces align correctly. One video she showed was a mix breed puppy that literally couldn’t walk because his parts didn’t work together all he could do was hop. After a few minutes of nose work he was taking steps and in the follow up visit a week later was walking almost normally. Another video showed an elderly dog with terrible arthritis. At 14 years of age the discussion was whether it was time to put her down. Some nosework and the dog was moving much more freely, the video showed the same dog a year later looking half her age. The clinic participants included a somewhat reactive bully breed. This dog was very overwhelmed by having all the handlers watching. the tail was tucked, ears down, whale eye, and panting heavily until she was tracking when all the signs of stress disappeared.

    I’d always been inclined to let my dogs sniff but after that clinic I’m encouraging it even more. Maybe part of giving our dogs autonomy is giving them opportunities to just be dogs and do dog things–like sniffing.

  4. Elizabeth2 says

    My Keesie-mix rescue and I just passed our 6-months adoption anniversary, and as a newbie I’ve had a steep learning curve in trying to figure out how to handle her reactivity. She’s always on a leash, of course, and honestly I’ve been glad for those unusual times we’ve gotten through a walk without her reactivity being triggered (sometimes by a dog as far away as two blocks). Until this particular post and all the comments, I figured I had my hands full dealing with Bardot’s reactivity, and I wouldn’t even have thought about her very narrow experience of autonomy and the implications for our relationship. These posts have really made me rethink that, so the last two days as we headed out, I decided to honor Bardot’s choices when possible, and though these were just little choices, she clearly had fun with them, and she’s seemed more relaxed overall–we both have. Which feels great.

  5. Parallel says

    Thinking about this subject, I was reminded of a ‘fad’ in dog training that always bothered me. I say fad because I don’t hear it discussed much anymore. A few years back it was the hot new thing in ‘positive’ training, then it just seemed to disappear almost overnight. I could be wrong about that though…maybe it still is widely practiced but is now so common it isn’t spoken of as much.

    Basically it revolved around teaching the command ‘watch me.’ This can of course be a very valuable command, but the idea was the dog ALWAYS had to be watching their owner. They weren’t allowed to break eye contact until the owner allowed it, and on walks they were meant to pay full attention to the owner. This was reinforced by constantly changing direction so that an unmindful dog would ‘self correct.’ It was billed as a very positive, natural method that used a dog’s natural need to be dominated. I find it interesting that this method was billed as a positive one considering that Koehler, who is normally hated by positive-only trainers, used very similar techniques.

    I honestly felt that this was much less about training and more about ensuring the human took center-stage in the dog’s life. I think some people actually feel threatened if their dog’s attention isn’t entirely focused on them. A dog meandering on a walk and sniffing a pole isn’t thinking about their owner, and to some people that can be an affront. Some pet owners don’t want any kind of partnership, but a very one-sided relationship.

    I see this with horses as well. Some riders give their horse more freedom to make decisions. They are definitely in charge, but there’s more give and take. More conversation, shall we say. This is common with true working and ranch horses. Of course, a horse has to earn this right, and not all horses can. But you also see riders who feel they have to be charge of where the horse puts every foot. Those horses actually tend to spook more, and I would put forth the theory that it’s because they are never allowed to relay on their own senses. Horses in the wild DON’T go tearing off at every little thing. No prey animal does- it’s a huge waste of energy. They listen, smell, and look, but many horses aren’t allowed this privilege.

    I do wonder if perhaps this isn’t the issue when pet owners and working breeds like border collies clash. It’s often brushed off as just a problem with the activity level- a good dog is a tired dog and all that. But maybe another part of the problem is that some breeds have a need for more autonomy than others, and some pet owners aren’t well-suited to allowing this. They want that attention all focused on them, and the dog becomes frustrated and more prone to making bad decisions because it is never trusted to make good ones. The dog is going to find a way to reclaim some autonomy, and an owner who tries to block that will end up with a ‘bad dog.’

    Am I making any sense at all? Am I the only one who remembers the big ‘watch me’ fad?

  6. LunaGrace says

    Beth — Do you mean “chase” as in “trying to catch” or chase as in “playing tag”? With Siberians, you learn early on that you are never going to be able to run them down to catch them, so you come up with alternate ways to re-corral them.

    Yogi LOVES playing tag with me, where he’ll initiate the game by blasting past me from behind with “heavy feet” (thunderpaws) and I act surprised, jumping and exclaiming “OH! You scared me!” (I think he snickers when I say that). Then I try to reach out and touch him as he zips by from a different direction, always tucking his butt, throwing his front legs wide to “gather in the ground” and speeding by before I can tap him. I have to admit that once, when we were playing tag on the front lawn, I lunged to touch him but my shoes slipped on the grass and I went down, hard, on my stomach. It knocked the breath out of me and I had to lie there for a minute, gasping. And hope that the neighbor hadn’t seen my 60-year-old high-jinks-foolishness! Yogi was even concerned as he paused/pawsed in his zooming by and watched me (with concern?) until I could get up again. The cats sometimes get “heavy feet” in the house so that it sounds like a 60 pound cat coming through the kitchen! Why do they do that?

    Someone remind me ……. where can I find info on teaching sign language to Yogi? Now that we are going to have some Enforced Indoor Time with Winter coming on, I thought he might enjoy a new challenge. Thanks!

  7. Maya'sMom says

    Autonomy is something that I think about all the time in terms of how to balance my need to have Maya look to me for direction and Maya’s need to make decisions on her own as all creatures need to do. Maya is a Pyrenees mix and has inherited all of the breed’s independence and problem solving ability. Living in the suburbs as we do, means that I really need for her to work with me and take my direction more often than a working Pyr would have to do. She does love to work, and we have started to compete in Rally-Obedience with some success!

    Twice, Maya has completely blown me over by the decisions she has made on her own. The first time was at an off leash park with her buddy Chloe. Chloe is a very small lab who isn’t a great swimmer. She got caught in a fast river current and her owner and I kept calling and encouraging her, but she just couldn’t get closer to the shore. About the same time that I was ready to wade out and get her, I saw Maya looking at us and at Chloe, then all on her own she swam out to her buddy and bumped her until Chloe was close enough to shore to get out of the water by herself!

    The second time was in the back yard, the first day I ever tried to take my two kittens out on leashes and harnesses. As soon as we got on the grass, my neighbor’s two dogs started barking wildly as if there were aliens in the yard! One kitten made a dash for the door, and the other dashed in the opposite direction. There I was standing in middle of my yard with my arms outstretched wondering which cat I was going to drag in order to get to the other. Maya stopped pacing the fence and barking at the neighbors dogs, took in the scene, went to the kitten that was closest to her and started pushing her towards me!

    Wow, see a problem, fix the problem! She would have made a great farm dog!:)

  8. Mireille says

    These posts are so fun to read
    @Parallel; our first Siberian was rehomed, to us, after spending his first three years with an owner who insisted on being the dogs centre of the universe. But Chenak, a.k.a. The Emperor, was very much his own dog. We cohabitated, but he definitely needed autonomy. In hindsight, I think we could / should have given him even more. When he died, our biggest regret however, was that we hadn’t had him from the start. The frustration of his first three years, made him an “tense” dog, especially on walks it was very hard to make him relax. Almost as if he was always ready to defend his right to make choices. Does this make sense? We realize we will never have a dog like him (never seen a dog with so much personality) but it does do me good that our current dogs are so much more relaxed. Insisting when we have too, but giving choices when possible.
    @LunaGrace : I recognize the husky chase game 😉 Shadow loves it. Yes, dogs really an show concern, can’t they? I once did a head over heals fall while skiing downhill. When I groggily lifted my head, there was Chenak, licking my grazed nose, checking if I was OK ( we did let them off leash when skiing in Norway, he loved it and kept a close eye on us most of the time)


  9. Mireille says

    By the way, yes, I remember the fad about the eye contact all the time and I stil see it cropping up here and there in postings in a Dutch forum. Especially with reactive dogs, where owners feel like they have to have the dog in heel position the entire walk will full atention on them. I interpret that as the need to control the dog instead of also working on the dogs selfcontrol


  10. Beth with the Corgis says

    LunaGrace, I do play tag with Jack (not with Maddie; she won’t run away, only chase) inside the house. We run back and forth through the rooms, and I’ll change direction and come at him around a corner from the other way and jump out and say “Hah!!” and then turn and run and he chases me. Eventually I’ll “hide” in a corner with my face to the wall, he slaps me with both paws and when I turn around he takes off again. He loves this game. We must look like idiots, because besides me leaping out and yelling “Hah!” from around corners, Maddie runs after ME the whole time barking (and grinning) like crazy. Thankfully our neighbors are hard of hearing!

    With the frisbee and other toys, we play a mock “I’m trying to catch you and I can’t!” chase game. My husband and I will holler “Frisbee chase!” or “Tennis ball chase!” or whatever it is, and he canters around at half speed (in the house he’ll trot, since we’re slower on corners than he is” with us trailing after him, making a big show of not being able to catch him with his prize and occasionally hollering “Whoo-hooo, frisbee chase!”

    Since he’ll freeze on “wait” and drop it on “leave it” I’ve never had it turn into a problem with him running off with stuff. And again, we make a huge show of it being a “game” by our ridiculous shouting and laughing.

    The theory is that if you chase dogs you teach them that you can’t always catch them. But my Corgis are short and Jack came to us at ten weeks old already realizing the physics of the thing. There is no safe way to forcibly grab a running short dog. Chasing after a dog that you need to catch is a horrible method anyway. And he does love his chase game, and very obviously self-handicaps so us slow-poke humans can keep up.

  11. liz says

    In attempt to scale down some big ideas and make them applicable now, in terms of knowing your dog:
    I have a dog similar to Willie in that choice makes him seemingly uncomfortable, and another one who is biddable but also eager to make her own decisions. Both spent the early years of life in a small apartment in an urban setting, and have since experienced years of living the rural life on a property with many acres.

    One of the great challenges of knowing of a dog is allowing room for change, where ‘knowing’ is ultimately never complete and changes within an individual are continually embraced. (True of people too!) I could anticipate change in the dogs after the dramatic switch in scenery, and I was one of many who thought becoming farm dogs would relieve all anxiety. But with freedom, purpose, and ambition come responsibility.

    I always say to myself “Oh cry me a river” when thinking that in some ways life is harder for my farm dogs. (Before our move I referred to them as trail dogs since so much of our time was spent getting out of the city to experience nature and relative freedom.) On the farm, they do make great choices and have matured into less anxious creatures overall. The bottom line however, is that keeping them social and outgoing is harder, more stressful. ‘Knowing’ them is not the same, and admittedly it was a shock to step back from their lives so substantially. I like to be a part of their adventures, but I love knowing they have their own ones too.

    We go for leash walks about four days a week and train for fun and ‘relationship maintenance.’ Given free time outside they choose to hang out in the yard and don’t walk the trails on their own, essentially deciding their purpose and how much freedom is enough. Had they spent their entire lives here I think that my choice-phobic dog would rely on me either way, but that my more independent dog would suffer from lacking the structure her early years provided.

    There are benefits and challenges of autonomy in all beings. We all have a certain understanding of ‘rules’ and do what we can within to assert ourselves within perceived established systems. People set the stage for their dogs, and perhaps more important than autonomy is that the dog is recognized as a valuable member. Granting autonomy can affirm a dog’s value, but it’s not the only way.
    For those of us who have shadow dogs, or ones who lean on us to make the choices, I reminded of animals who have habituated to humans. Squirrels, pigeons, and other common city dwellers seem much more at ease than their skittish wild kin. For the abundance of resources and I would assume fewer predators, they have chosen to be less autonomous, wild or free. I can encourage my dog to feel better about himself if I think he suffers for it, though I’m not sure he does.
    Overall, in recent years I have come to understand the role of autonomy in domestic critters differently, that the grass is only sometimes greener, and that my own happiness requires the dogs to have their own lives while remaining close enough to me that I’m able to provide anything they need.

    This is to say nothing of autonomy in dog-dog relationships and multi-dog vs. owner autonomy, and it is to say very little of when/how much autonomy a dog needs at certain times in life. But as far as things like the “watch me” fad(!), I speak from a place of only wanting to be on a dog’s radar, and in mutual appreciation of our relationship.

  12. Beth with the Corgis says

    Just a comment on “watch me”: My agility instructor does obedience, rally, agility, conformation, and hunt tests with her dogs. She also does a lot of free-shaping. They can do a perfect obedience-ring heel with eyes on the handler and still work independently enough to win hunt tests and enjoy roaming her property freely and happily.

    Done right, “watch me” can keep a dog’s focus completely on its handler in situations (heavy traffic, noise, crowds, etc) where you don’t want a dog’s attention to wander. And a dog can still know that in other situations it is free to make choices and decisions.

    Done wrong, like anything else, it can border on abusive. There is a place for everything. My one dog absolutely needs a solid “watch me” to get through certain situations without getting herself in trouble. The other doesn’t really need it and so I haven’t worked on it.

  13. Kat says

    Having spent the day at an event where there were several dogs given almost total autonomy I feel compelled to come back and comment on the need for balance. The event was salmon viewing in the woods and there were over 100 people that attended. People who were doing work elsewhere on the site would simply open the door and let their dogs head out to do whatever they wanted but had almost no control of their dog so when they called the dog back the dog would blow them off. Barking at the people attending the event, tormenting the few dogs that were there on leash, running loose in the woods and sniffing everyone’s crotch was all much more interesting than responding to the people calling them. These dogs were autonomous in a situation where they were out of their depth. It was extremely frustrating. The dogs had nice temperaments so no terrible things happened but the dog barking at the people attending the event was clearly trying to gain control of this large crowd of people milling about and frustrated that she couldn’t, the dog tormenting the leashed dogs obviously wanted to play with the other dogs and both she and the leashed dogs where unhappy that it wasn’t possible, and the dog wandering through the crowd sniffing crotches was doing what dogs love to do but was very annoying to the people who were there. Dogs need some autonomy but simply releasing them into an environment and expecting them to cope appropriately is not doing the dog any favors.

  14. KT Howard says

    It’s nice for ME to be reinforced in my “Do ask..Do tell” way of dealing with Tucker. I have always believed that there are certain things that I need him to do (Wait, Off Road) but even with those he still has a knack of making his own choices. If I say “Off Road” and there is no car coming he just looks at me as if to say “Why?”. I always make it a point to tell him that he’s made a good choice when he has choices to make and chooses one that is aligned with what I want.
    I’m going to start showing him what I’ve brought home from shopping. He does so love to smell me when I return from going somewhere without him. I think he’d like to see what I have in my hands or in a bag!

  15. Mireille says

    I tried letting them snif the shopping but it was not a good idea. Spot took off with my lettuce.. Sigh, that dog eats anything, he loves sour apples, madarins and, as. It now appears, lettuce…


  16. Laura says

    I just love all the responses to this thread. I’m learning a lot and love hearing about all the fun things you and your dogs do. In the last post, I commented on how I need my dog to have certain amounts of autonomy so that our working relationship can be effective. For example, last week I was headed out of my office to go home. I work in a building which often holds events in the large lobby area out front. When I came out, people were setting up for something and there were, well, since i can’t tell you what was in front of me let’s just call them obsticals. I felt Seamus slow down and pause, as if judging something. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary and so I said, “figure it out,” and gave him the hand signal for “forward.” He moved out and I trusted him to go. He guided me beautifuly around what ever things were in my way and we made it to the door. I didn’t think too much about it again until I was out with my friend yesterday afternoon. She asked her dog to guide her into a store at the mall. Most of those stores have very wide entrences and nothing in the way, but her dog still paused to check with her handler if it was really ok to go in there. I remarked that she really was careful and I wondered if it effected their relationship at all. Seamus would have never done that. I could see how it would’ve been frustrating because we trust, that when our dogs move slowly, or don’t move at all, there is, inicially at least, a good reason to do so, but when there isn’t, and the dog isn’t confident in it’s decisions as a guide, the relationship can start to fail. One great confidence booster a trainer from my school reccomended is to take our dogs to someplace enclosed like the mall and just let them guide you where ever they want to go. It can really let them know that the decisions they make are ok and that they are doing the right thing. Plus, it boosts our trust in them emencily because we don’t have as much control as we normally do and which is normally stressed that we should have. I want to try this with Seamus on a really cold winter day. It’s not that I think he needs any more confidence boosting, but I think it would increase our trust in each other and that can’t hurt our relationship at all.

  17. Kat says

    @Laura, That sounds like an absolutely fascinating exercise, allowing your guide to take you wherever he chooses. I wonder if he’d choose where he wants to go, where he thinks you’d like to go, or some combination of both. I imagine it would shed some interesting light on how your relationship works. I let Ranger chose where to take me on walks a lot but I’m not dependent on his judgement making it a different dynamic.

  18. em says

    I am really enjoying all of the discussions about autonomy. It has really made me go back and re-evaluate my own views and behaviors. What I’ve come up with is this- I do believe that dogs need structure, basic rules and parameters that provide safe boundaries for their behavior and activities. But I also believe that dogs do best if they can be allowed to make as many of their own decisions about how to fulfill these expectations themselves.

    I do see a difference between empowering a dog to make decisions for himself, honoring his feelings when possible, and allowing a dog to make decisions for ME. My daily off-leash walks are the example I’m thinking of. My dogs have a great deal of freedom and autonomy on these walks. I set them a very general task: Stay with me, which I allow them to interpret very broadly. I require them to stay in sight, but they can range ahead, lag behind, drift to the side, run up and down the hills in the woods, stop and sniff, gallop through the fields, pounce after mice, play with each other or with their dog friends, interact with people and dogs we meet if they like (they almost always do), decline if they don’t. Individual situations might require more management, and I’ll intervene if I need to, but the great majority of the time, I trust the dogs to make their own choices. It’s a great deal of autonomy. But it’s only possible because they know and obey my rules. A hard recall and a Stop (freeze in place) are my two ‘safety’ cues, and while I rarely need to use either, I find that I can handle almost any situation with one or both of them. If I couldn’t count on the dogs to obey, I couldn’t trust them with as much freedom as I do. (BTW Kat, I smiled when I saw your description of Ranger’s short handle- I do the very same thing in dicey situations, but I my case I loop my finger through the ring on Otis’ collar- it’s purely symbolic, but it makes me feel like I’m holding his hand, too. Sandy is too short to do likewise with, much to my chagrin, so she had to learn a very hard heel which she fortunately excells at) .

    My dogs are big and fast moving. Even if I wanted to, there is no way that I could keep up with the pace they would set if I tried to follow them, even assuming they went in the same direction, which is highly doubtful. If I couldn’t trust them to follow the rules of the task that I set- stay with me- I couldn’t risk allowing them to run free. I do honor their preferences sometimes when they express them (this trail rather than that one, ) but the choice is not theirs, it’s mine. In this area, I do not allow them to have total autonomy- I may pause for a bit if they are playing in the field, but if I walk one way and they walk another, I do not turn and follow them, I expect them to turn and follow me. BUT, even in this, I don’t FORCE them to do anything- it’s not like leash walking, I don’t have my hands on them. I trust and expect my dogs to follow my rules, but in the end, the choice is theirs-I couldn’t MAKE them stay with me off-leash if they didn’t want to. I feel that making that choice, to do as I ask and expect, strengthens our bond. I know that I feel closer to my dogs when we are ‘working’ together on our off-leash hikes than at almost any other time- it’s when I feel that I am most honoring and enjoying them as dogs- seeing the balance in them between joy in freedom and joy in companionship as they run forward or circle back, light in their eyes, to stay with me.

    I also have rules for their general behavior- how to behave with people and dogs, how to conduct themselves inside the house, etc. I expect them to follow these rules all the time, but the fact that they do so allows them to have more freedom, not less. For instance: a well-learned and strictly enforced rule against ‘crossing the plane’ over the kitchen counter or dining room table with his nose means that Otis doesn’t need to be crated or gated out of the kitchen when I am cooking and serving dinner- I can count on him to be polite, so he can be free to come and go as he pleases in the kitchen, lying on his kitchen bed and keep me company while waiting and hoping for tidbits.

    Because my dogs are big and love to roughhouse, they are strictly forbidden to run or wrestle in the house or on the deck. They can go outside basically on demand, so if they want to play they bounce to the back door and I let them go out to play in the yard, but the house is not for play, the house is for rest. Because they know and respect this rule, my whole house basically functions like a crate- Otis and Sandy will play quietly, lying down with plushie toys , gnawing on a chewy toy, or engaging in very, very quiet, carefully restrained games of tooth fencing if they’re both fired up and waiting to go out, but that’s it. They are both very calm and quiet in the house- they don’t harass one another or pester the humans, seldom bark, never pace, destroy things, or seem anxious. On the one hand this rule seems restrictive–it’s certainly not appropriate or desirable for everyone- but it means that the dogs never need to be crated, penned, or blocked out of our living space to keep them from destroying things or hurting themselves. Because they know and follow the rules, they are free to come and go as they please.

    It creates an oasis of calm, safe space for them, too. When Sandy and Otis gallop around the back, they wrestle vigorously, play- growling, leaping, dashing, crashing into one another and tumbling over in the grass. But if one of the dogs wants a ‘time out’, they jump up onto the deck- both instantly stop and they catch their breaths for a moment, before returning to the yard to continue the game. The rule becomes part of the game. (Otis had a bad shock one time when he assumed that a floating dock, drawn up on the beach for the winter, counted as “deck”, and that his best dog friend would follow the “no roughhousing on the deck” rule. Otis bump-n-galloped down the beach with his buddy, made a fast break and leapt onto the dock, immediately stopping and relaxing. His buddy DIDN’T know the deck rule, and bodyslammed him hard, catching him completely unprepared. The look of shock and betrayal on his face was priceless. ‘Hey! Deck is SAFE!’)

    I guess my point with this long, self-indulgent ramble is this. I believe that rules are important for dogs, but that the POINT of my rules is to broaden their lives, not to restrict them. The rules that I maintain, I maintain not out of a desire to dominate or micromanage my dogs, but because doing so allows me to give the dogs more choice, more freedom, more chances to feel safe, included, and in control of their lives. Good manners on the leash and in the car means that my dogs can go with me rather than stay at home. Good house manners mean that the dogs can be allowed to move freely in the house, good recalls mean that they can enjoy off-leash walks, good social skills mean that they can greet and interact with many dogs. So I guess that’s my two-cent general take on autonomy –it is so valuable, so precious a thing to be able to provide to our dogs, and adds so much to their confidence and contentment, but it is only safely possible when we can balance it with structure.

  19. LarryC says

    While I feel I give my dogs plenty of autonomy, there is a limit. The other side of autonomy is neglect, which is one of the cruelest forms of abuse. A person has a responsibility to be the human in the relationship. That gives a dog a great sense of security. Training the dog to accomplish complex tasks gives them purpose.

    My Labrador rescue was a neglected dog. I don’t know how he came to my door as a 9 month old dog, but he obviously had been horribly neglected. I have mentioned before that he didn’t even know how to pack something around in his mouth, which I would have sworn was impossible for a retriever. He didn’t know how to fetch. He didn’t know how to use his nose. He didn’t know how to sit or lie down on cue. This in a dog that was desperate for approval and affection.

    In less than a week he was letter perfect in obedience except stay. He refused to be more than six feet from me at any time, which I recognized as acute separation anxiety. This presented some problems in retriever training. At first, a 50 yard retrieve was out of the question unless I went with him. He had no tracking ability until the other dogs taught him how to use his nose. When he first showed up I would have sworn he had no scenting ability at all, and in truth I never expected him to match the spaniels, but at 8 years old he doesn’t take a back seat to anyone.

    I give my dogs a lot of autonomy, and we all feel comfortable with that, but I correct them when they misbehave or do something dangerous. I teach them that they have a job, and when it’s time to work they need to focus on their task. They like to run around and sniff, but they love to work. That partnership between people and dogs is as deep in their blood as it is in ours.

  20. Laura says

    It is going to be really interesting to let him do that. I believe it would be a combination of both and I also think that it would take some real coaxing on my part the first time we try it. The dogs are usually dependent on us giving them the direction of where we’re going, and so I think inisially, he’d take a few careful steps, but knowing Seamus, I think he’d get the hang of things quickly. I know some dogs would never do it and if Seamus were showing signs of stress of course I’d stop, but I think he will enjoy it. When we work, he is usually very confident in where we are going, but he does show me lots of things, stairs we’ve been down or up, buildings we’ve gone into before, streets we’ve crossed and I think he would do a lot of that in this experiment. I’ll try it, and keep you all posted as to how it goes. Also Kat, I’ve successfuly taught seamus the “Beep” cue and it’s awesome to see it work. Also, it’s always fun to tell people who come over what cue to use to move him and watch them think about it, smile and then laugh, so thanks for that. Your dogs sound great, and Ranger sounds like such a great boy. He reminds me so much of my Marlin, confident and steady.

  21. JJ says

    As much as I appreciate this whole discussion, I have been bothered by some of the activities that are presented as examples of offering autonomy/”freedom of choice” to a dog.

    Here’s a human example: Suppose I love fair trade dark chocolate. I am sent to prison. Every once in a while, the prison gives me fair trade dark chocolate for dessert. I can “choose” to eat it or not. I still love the stuff and my “choice” is to eat it or sit there staring at the mean person across from me. So, I eat it. I enjoy it. HOWEVER, just because I enjoy it, does not mean that it is an act of freedom. Quite the opposite. Some “choices” are not really choices. A more extreme, but similar example is being told, “live or die, your choice”. Uhhhhh.

    Similarly, throwing food for our dogs in a confined area and letting them hunt for it is hardly offering autonomy. They almost have to do it. They love food. They love to hunt. And the other “choice” is to sit there and do nothing. Uhhhhh.

    I love my dog, and I love providing him with those very same food games. I throw food on the ground (inside and out) and hide it for him to find all of the time. He LOVES this behavior/food opportunity. But I would never put this activity in the column of “offering autonomy”. On the other hand, if my dog go to choose a) WHEN to play, b) with which food, c) for how long, d) where, etc. THEN that would be freedom of choice. He never gets these choices.

    This is just one example of activities that have made me think, “that’s not autonomy.” Just because a creature enjoys an activity does not mean that the activity is about freedom of choice.

    Of course, the dog can’t choose to have *everything* his/her own way all the time. And even activities which offer some (true) autonomy can not always give the dog everything she wants. Thus, this is my point: there is a line there somewhere that defines what counts as some level of autonomy and what does not. I think it is worth thinking about what that line is.

  22. Frances says

    Very good point, JJ – a lot of what we are describing as autonomy is actually environmental enrichment. Extremely valuable, and highly desirable, but very different from true freedom of choice. I have contrasted the life my cats live, where they are very rarely expected to do anything except turn up for meals twice a day (and even that is optional), have free access to come and go, to visit neighbours, to hunt, to sleep anywhere in the house, etc, etc, with the far more trammelled life my dogs lead. My dogs get frequent, regular off lead walks – but I decide where we go, how far we walk, how long we stay. If they have to be on leash, I will give them time to sniff, etc, but again I control where and for how long. It is all very different from the lives of free range dogs when I was a child – necessarily so, but that is a different debate.

  23. Lisa W says

    The first blog on this was titled: “Autonomy and the Domestic Dog.” One definition of domestic is devoted to home life or household affairs; another is tame; domesticated. I think it’s within that context we are discussing dogs’ autonomy. The very fact that we call them pets and are their “owners” implies a less-than-free lifestyle and restricted freedom of choice. Even Merle of Merle’s Door had a shock collar used on him to prevent him from fighting with a dog that presented a threat to Merle’s health and freedom.

    As an adult, my first dog had tons more autonomy than do my current dogs. She was more of a free-ranger. She also got into more trouble, got hit by a car, but admittedly had more autonomous fun. She was also steady and reliable and had a good idea how our world worked and lived to a nice old age.

    I think this may have been touched on before, but I sense a correlation between our human society’s rules and codes tightening up (more urban dwellers, less space, more people and dogs) and our dogs’ shrinking autonomy.

    But we can still offer environmental enrichment and some autonomy (not the same thing to me) because we know how much these things matter to our dogs and our own quality of life.

  24. says

    I started reading the comments on the previous post about autonomy, but in the end I couldn’t follow anymore. So I’m not sure if the next thing was mentioned anywhere but sins I didn’t read it anywhere in this post, I’ll put it down here anyway:

    My dogs rarely get regular dog treats of biscuits, but mostly the “healthy” kind without any grain. Meaning strips of tripe, liver, meat, lungs, heart, … (all dried) as well as dried fish, dried chicken legs, dried lamb legs or tails, rawhide strips or rolls, bull pizzle etc. I usually buy these things in bulk, in big plastic bags. I always take some of each kind and put them all together in one big box with a tight lid.

    Sometimes I quickly grab three treats out, one for each dog so I pick them myselves. But most of the time, I offer each dog the box. They get to pick one. Just one, but they can choose it themselves, and how they like that!
    I use a specific cue so that they know they’re only supposed to take one of course. To make sure that they only pick one – it sure helps that they are very polite and not too-food-motivated Border Collies, and of course that those treats are quite big – I teach them so. When I first offer them the box, I keep a small, soft and delicious quickly-swallow-treat in my hand (e.g. cheese, sausage). If they only pick one, they get that treat as an extra reward. If a young dog is too fast and grabs two treats, I take them back, place on on each hand and the young dog gets to pick only one of it. I give the other dogs who did pick just one the small treat, very obvious for the young one to see. They learn fast enough that being “greedy” only gets you one treat, being polite gets you two!

    The nicest thing about this is to see their growing confidence in that they get a treat no matter what. Meaning that the young ones are usually very fast, very much about grabbing because they always seem to think I might take the box away before they have anything. They don’t really pick but just grab what is closest to them. Over time they learn that they can take their time, and they can sometimes sniff for minutes before picking one. It’s like I can see them thinking 😉 “Hmmm, that one smells delicious and I really like it. Oh, but wait, I already had that a couple of days ago, perhaps I should take another one. That one, no, it’s tasteful but it really sticks to my teeth and gums. Ooooh, yeah, that one, yummy!!!!”
    My 9 month old BC always picks fish when there is any, and if not she picks tripe. The funny thing is that she really seems to want and actively look for the biggest piece, all-the-time. She goes even further with that: Sometimes there is still fish but only really small fishes. When I offer these with equally small pieces of tripe (I tested it a couple of times) she ALWAYS chooses fish. But when there are only small pieces of fish left, and tripe are usually quite big strips, she can linger for minutes with her nose over the fish pieces (as if she wants to taste them through her nose) but eventually always goes for the biggest piece of tripe. When no tripe or fish are available anymore, she doesn’t seem to have any preference in taste but goes for whatever is the biggest piece.

    One of my three BC’s is somewhat older (celebrating her 10th birthday in 2 weeks!) and has bad teeth because of too many tennis balls. :-( Since a year or so she can’t eat most of these hard treats anymore. Lungs are usually still fine, and liver and heart sometimes, when they’re not too much dried. I usually make it more exciting for her by hiding the pieces of lung under the other treats. But there are days when she doesn’t even want to gnaw on lung. Then she almost immediately turns her head away. I then give her another, really soft treat out of the fridge, like a piece of cheese or a small sausage or so.

    I really like doing this, and find it so nice to see the difference between my dogs then, how each one handles it differently. But, they all seem so enjoy it more. When I give them one myself and they can’t pick (usually through lack of time), I always make sure I pick one for each dog of which I know for sure that dog really prefers it. And still, they always seem to be disappointed when I only offer them their preferred treat, and not the whole box LOL.

  25. Kat says

    Our local pet supply store had its annual customer appreciation event today. Part of the event was an obstacle course. The $2 entry fee went to a local rescue. In the obstacle course there were different actions for the dog to perform. One of these was to do a paws up on a plastic bin. We took Ranger through the course with no requirement that he do any of the actions, he was free to ignore them or do them as he chose. Ranger decided that the plastic bin was too flimsy for him to trust his weight to. I started to walk past it when Ranger suddenly laid down on the floor and put his front paws on the bin. All on his own he decided the bin wasn’t strong enough to support him as well as how to do what he’d been asked to do in a way that he deemed safe. I like that he is able to solve problems for himself.

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