What Do Dogs Really Want?

One night last week, I stayed up well past my usual bed time to finish the last few chapters of Merle’s Door.  The book is Ted Kerasote’s memoir about the dog he found in the Utah desert.  Kerasote highlights the lessons and adventures he shared with Merle over the years.  And he asks an important question:  what do dogs really want?

So, what do dogs really want?

We all know that healthy dogs tend to like food, walks, play, and the attention of their owners.  But is that it?  Kerasote and I agree that dogs crave more.  One thing that is often overlooked by humans, but also something that dogs really want is a level of autonomy; dogs want the freedom to make their own decisions.

It is an interesting proposition to say that dogs want the freedom to make their own decisions, especially from my perspective.  The work I do – dog training – is inherently manipulative.  After struggling with this contradiction for a long time, I do believe that there is a way to approach dog training that allows the human to have what they want while still honoring what the dog wants.  Doing this isn’t always easy, but to help me I keep the following things in mind:

1. Good dog training, in my opinion, ultimately allows the dog more freedom, not less.  Ideally, restrictions are temporary.  For example, I may initially keep a dog on leash while I work to develop good attention and a reliable recall.  Once the dog grasps these skills, he can enjoy off-leash hikes.

2. I only deny a dog freedom when the choice he is likely to make negatively affects his well-being or the well-being of others. 

3. I work hard to make my requests relevant to the dog.  I rarely, if ever, expect a dog to comply with no questions asked.

In addition to the list above, I try to set up everyday situations where the dog is truly the one in control.  I allow my dog to choose where she rests in the house.  She can sleep in her crate, on a dog bed, on the cool kitchen floor, on any one of the couches, or wherever else she chooses.  I ask her “yes” or “no” questions throughout the day and honor her answer.  I ask her if she wants “ear scratches.”  If she walks up to me, I scratch her ears.  If she continues what she was doing, I leave her alone.  I ask her if she wants “to work.”  If she rushes over to me with intensity, we have a fun training session.  If she doesn’t, I ask her again some other time.  On walks, sometimes I lead and sometimes I let her choose the path.

(Patricia McConnell lists several other great ways you can allow your dog to make his or her own choices here.)

Now, I do realize that allowing some dogs as much freedom as I allow my own dog may make them difficult to live with.  This is where I observe number two on the list above, but I would also go back to number one, at the same time.

I also acknowledge that there are some dogs who prefer more guidance than others.  And these dogs may actually choose more constant direction, as that is the less stressful option for them.  Ultimately, what a dog wants is specific to that individual.  Take the time to really figure out what that is.  Your dog will appreciate the effort.

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