Choices are so vitally important to our dogs and in fact they have very few. We chose them after all, they didn’t choose us. Even when we offer them a happy home with plenty of love, they still have few choices. Think about the freedom we have. We might think we are stuck for a multitude of reasons: money, relationships, people or necessity all give us the impression that we have little choice. On a wider scale, government, taxes and world politics allow sinister beliefs to grow, beliefs that tell us that we are stuck when really, 99% of the time we are not. We have options. We can study, change jobs, change relationships, move home or even move to another country if we want to. Yet our minds have given us the illusion of lack of choice.
Dogs on the other hand, they do have little choice, particularly in the UK and other countries where they are heavily “owned” by people. Dogs can’t move home, change their daily routine, decide what we buy them to eat, go out for a walk when they feel like it or decide they are fed up of an abusive relationship (if they find themselves in one) and leave. Dogs are pretty much at our mercy. In addition to this we have for so long been taught that any freedom of thinking or behaviour from them represents dominance and must be met with further boundaries, even punishment.
Thankfully things are changing, people are starting to recognise that it’s OK for a dog to show individual sparkle and make requests that are important to them. The term obedience is being cast out with the demons and replaced with life skills and manners. We are beginning to stop issuing commands and instead teaching cues, through positive lessons and games, and dogs are being encouraged to be themselves. In amongst all this positive change is an emerging practice of learning and living through choices, which makes my heart sing.
In addition to being a mirror and sponge for our energetic influence, our beloved dogs are often captive to our decisions, about and even for them. For example when they walk, what they eat, where they sleep and how they live. So our dog might not want to go for a walk one day but we believe they need one so take them anyway. Or our dogs might not want to be touched, hugged or cuddled but we are so interested in touching them that we miss their signals and touch them anyway. We might even do it when they don’t expect to be touched, making them jump, accidentally setting off their Sympathetic Nervous System without meaning to. Think of a time someone touched you unexpectedly and you jumped, that jump occurs alongside the activation of your SNS which is the internal fight or flight, survival system. It happens to our dogs too, when we touch them unexpectedly. Even when they are expecting it, dogs might not want to be touched, little dogs might not want to be lifted but often they are.
Another thing we see regularly is dogs out on walks but given no or few choices. Dogs kept on lead, head up and marching along without the option to saunter, sniff and explore always look like prisoners walking the exercise yard to me. Sometimes they show a reaction to something that might have scared them and are swiftly corrected, what a sad life. Sometimes we have to move our dogs on quickly or choose for them, for safety reasons, but without lots of sauntering, sniffing and choice to balance their experiences out this dog will become quite unbalanced and never really meet their full potential. They will also feel pushed around, disregarded and unimportant, no matter how much their misguided human actually loves them. Add to that being touched without giving permission and the dog is not treated as the unique animal, perfect in their own right. Instead they are treated as a pet who is forced to be a bit of a machine, as opposed to a wonderfully healing, funny, free friend who has their own choices respected and catered to as much as is possible.
There are so many small things that we do when we live with dogs, that can empower them when we do these things just a little differently.