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.