My Dogs Are Not in Charge

As a Humane Hierarchy trainer, it is part of my value system to help my dogs get what they want, within the confines of our mutual comfort and safety. It’s important for me to give them choices and let them operate on their environment. To have an enriched existence not overcontrolled by me.

Until I read this brilliant post, “Threshold Roulette or Choice,” by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs, I would have said without much thought that more control and choices for pet dogs are always better. But Yvette is way ahead of me. There’s a big fat exception to that. So if you have time only to read one post today, go read hers. It is show stopping. I’m just riffing off of it. But here is the learning that she triggered.

Is Putting the Dog in Control a Good Thing?

I think most of us who are dedicated to avoiding force in training would put a high value on freedom, choices, and the ability for our dogs to have control over their environments. So where’s the problem?

There are two problems that I perceive.

  1. As magical as dogs are, with their fascinating intelligences, we are the ones with the bigger brains and with the majority culture. We protect them, care for them, and make decisions for them to the best of our abilities. In so many situations, the one who knows more (the human) needs to be making the major decisions. Yvette made this point beautifully in her post.
  2. This one is more insidious. It’s not a problem with putting them in control per se. It’s just the observation that that even when we think we are putting them in control, most often we are not. Their choices are limited inside the structures that we create and we are feeding the illusion of giving them control. Refusal or inability to acknowledge the power differential provides a mask for doing abominable things to dogs and still claiming that “they are in charge.”

Exploring the Idea

Hypothetical situation: If giving my dogs as much control as possible is a good thing, does that mean that they should be able to eat what and when they want? I love for my dogs to enjoy life and have lots of pleasures. So is more food, tastier food, or more available food better?

I could do this:

I could put out for my dogs an ever-refilling bowl of pork cracklings and another of peanut butter cookies and perhaps some chicken to round things out. They would LOVE that.

But the problems that would cause include:

  • obesity;
  • pancreatitis;
  • bloat;
  • other digestive problems;
  • aggression and possible likely injuries from inter-household resource guarding;
  • danger from vermin or predators if this were set up outside;
  • and more.
My dogs would find this very cool
My dogs would find this very cool

I’ve described this in extremes to get a point across. Setting up situations where their free choice would have ruinous consequences is not humane. Even just giving them free access to kibble at all times has problems. I used to free feed. I stopped when my 60 lb dog gave my 15 lb dog a warning bite to the neck as they squabbled over the feeder while I wasn’t home. (A neighbor saw.) They were both overweight, and also I had a rat problem that went on for years after that.

I don’t usually use the term “dog guardian,” as it’s just a little too touchie-feelie for me, but it is a accurate description nonetheless. We make decisions on our dogs’ behalf all the time. We protect them. They will always be dependent on us, and living in a world that is at least partly foreign.

The obvious limit to giving dogs freedom and control over their lives and environment is safety. The considerations are both immediate (protection from mishap and injury) and long-term (keeping them healthy).

So just as we wouldn’t overfeed our dogs, we need to consider that putting some other bounds on the choices and control they have may be a good thing.


Many of us who love our dogs is enrich their lives by arranging challenges that allow them to express instinctive or naturally expressed behaviors. Instead of free-feeding, many of us use some of their food to train. We arrange for them to forage for some of it. Or we freeze or melt some into food toys.

Some days I choose this for them
But some days I choose this for them

These things we set up are enriching and even empowering to our dogs. You bet! And within the structure of the games we set up, they do get to make choices and exert control. Not to mention develop some skills that express their their natural aptitudes.

But we set up the structure. We don’t ask the dog if she’d rather snack on kibble from a never ending bowl all day or hone her extraction skills with a frozen Kong. We can’t ask her. We make decisions for her based on our observation, knowledge, and best guesses. And we keep in mind the concepts that she cannot. Perhaps she would have chosen the big pot o’ kibble, but we know that eating out of a Kong will assuage some boredom and give her something to chew on for a little longer. So we make the latter choice for her. And we take away her choice of an easy meal for that day.

Who’s In Charge?

I am.

I think the attraction of the idea of “putting the dog in control” is partly a rebound from the practice of punishment and valuing dominance, and in that sense is partly a good thing. At its best, it is an ethical imperative to make up for the strictures that domestication puts on their lives. However, “putting the dog in control” has the same unthinking attraction that the label on food of “all-natural” has for many of us. We like to think that our animals are expressing themselves in unfettered ways. It feels good and wholesome to many of us.

But denying the control we have and need to have is a dangerous slope. We cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that we are the ones with the big brains, we are the ones who have the keys to the cabinet, we put on and take off the leashes, and make health decisions. We spay and neuter our dogs or do not allow them to breed (how natural is that?). And people are free in many countries to strap on shock collars and hold the remote and hurt their dogs.

Many people say jokingly or not-so-jokingly that their dogs are always in charge. Sure, they shape our behavior. Certainly those of us who care for pets dutifully feel like we are their servants at times. But you know, I try not to even joke along those lines. It’s part of the cultural fog about learning and behavior to ignore the power that we have when we control the reinforcers and punishers and set the contingencies. I have read more than one shock trainer claim, in all seriousness, that the dog is in control of the training process. They mistake the fact that the dog can learn how to behave to turn off the shock with the dog being in charge. Really? Did the dog go pick out the shock collar, put it on, hand the human the remote and order him to start pressing the button or else? If the dog is in charge, in what way exactly does he hold sway over the human that would be even nearly equivalent to the humans’ power of holding the shock remote?

Recently protocols that include negative reinforcement have become popular among some trainers who consider themselves part of the force free community. Some practitioners (not all) make similar claims about the subject dog being in control or in charge of the process. This is what Yvette discusses so eloquently. But, as she points out, the dog did not participate in the decision making that arrived at that training session. She didn’t set up the rules. She might have preferred not to participate in that whole situation entirely. (And Yvette’s major point: that letting the dog make the decisions in a potentially explosive situation is a bad idea anyway.)

As in any situation involving operant learning, including with positive reinforcement, the dog learns behaviors according to a rule structure set up by the humans. She is not in control except in responding to the situation that we set up.  We don’t need to unthinkingly attach ourselves to this idea of the dog being in control because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Certainly sometimes the safer and more humane choice is for the human to make the decisions in the dog’s best interest.

Feral dog Clara at the mall
Formerly feral dog Clara at the mall

One of the things I do in this blog is to attempt to clarify misapprehensions about the learning processes, to the best of my ability. Sometimes they are things I read, sometimes they are my own errors in reasoning. I like to explore my own value system and discuss ethical choices. So I really appreciate that Yvette has widened my comprehension with her post. I’m still thinking about what she wrote.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

12 thoughts on “My Dogs Are Not in Charge

  1. The analogies and comparisons (food choices/neutering/deciding when and where to walk/overcoming a fear of drowning from the other blog) aren’t really working for me in respect of understanding behavior modification in social situations. I find them too extreme. The simple fact is most reactivity in social situations is because the dog had has his options taken away from him (no one listened to him when he said he was uncomfortable; he was on a leash and couldn’t flee) Too much control caused this issue in the first place. If anyone wants for their dog to enjoy a life off leash, meeting and greeting other dogs and/or people, where appropriate, then straight CC isn’t going to cut it, without teaching/shaping social skills at the same time. You are going to have to let that dog go forward and decide for himself things are not so scary, all by himself, at some point, with his new found skills, with you watching on, helping him out, facilitating the learning. This is not to say there should be no control and no boundaries whatsoever. It’s why foundation ‘obedience’ skills are still absolutely necessary. I’d say if you want your dog to pass and see other dogs/people/scary things on leash, and not react, straight CC is your solution. Some people want a different life for their companion. A life of more freedom once in a while. After all, they can’t choose their life and we control almost every other aspect of it.

    1. Hi Helen,

      I agree that reactivity is pretty different from some of the things I brought up, but I would call it in many ways more complex, not less. Some reactivity is caused by unfortunate handling by humans. We cloddish humans drag our dogs into all sorts of situations for which they are unprepared and have no control. I think we are in agreement that this has horrible effects on lots of dogs. That’s why teaching people how to read dogs is so essential. But there are certainly other causes of reactivity and I would not reduce it to a “simple fact,” of the dog having his options taken away, as you said. I would hate for everyone who has a reactive dog to believe that it was their own behavior that caused the problems. (Helen, I realize you said “most,” not all.) It can also be genetic or simple lack of socialization, or the result of a medical problem or a specific trauma.

      And as you know from the piece, I don’t necessarily think the antidote to reactivity is to put the dog in charge. I do believe that a carefully controlled protocol can give her far more freedom in the future. And I believe in hurling my heart and mind into understanding and observing my dog and doing my best to discern what her true wishes and needs are, and/or what they would be if emotional impediments were removed.

      With all due respect, I disagree strongly with the following two remarks of yours.

      “I’d say if you want your dog to pass and see other dogs/people/scary things on leash, and not react, straight CC is your solution.”
      “If anyone wants for their dog to enjoy a life off leash, meeting and greeting other dogs and/or people, where appropriate, then straight CC isn’t going to cut it, without teaching/shaping social skills at the same time”

      For the benefit of other readers, the technique Helen is mentioning, CC or counterconditioning (usually coupled with desensitization) actually changes the emotional and hence neurochemical response of an animal to a former trigger through building a new association. Something that was once feared can go beyond tolerated to loved and sought out. It is an extremely powerful process.

      A dog who has been successfully conditioned to feel that humans are the best things ever is not likely going to be limited to “passing them on leash without reacting.” He typically sees them as a walking, talking entertainment center (and they don’t have to carry a cookie or a ball forever for that to stick).

      As for teaching/shaping social skills to enable the dog to meet and greet other dogs and people: removing the fear first tends to strip away the problems for a lot of dogs. And if there are effective ways for humans to teach true dog/dog social skills I haven’t seen them. I think this is hubris.

      Dogs move and perceive at a much faster pace than humans, and many of their signals are under the radar for even the keenest of human observers. Most of us have to watch video in slow motion to even start to see them all. What I have seen are negative reinforcement protocols that reinforce certain behaviors that are believed to be associated with stress. For my own dogs I would far rather change the emotional response to remove the stress to begin with.

      This is more than theoretical for me. I have watched my feral dog (who growled at all other humans besides me at 10 weeks old) become not just tolerant of humans, nor just a watcher from the sidelines, but a social butterfly. Being released from the fear and suspicion opened the door. By changing the emotional response, we removed the REASON for the fearful behaviors and thus changed the behaviors. And she has much more freedom and enrichment as a result of this non-intrusive protocol. (And to stick up for the introverts, both humans and dogs: my other reactive dog could not care less about meeting and greeting other dogs and humans. I do not see that as an absolute goal for all dogs. She does other enriching things instead.)

      Granted, my personal experience is a small sample (my own dogs and other dogs worked with by trainers I am acquainted with). But it is in concert with the science. CC/DS is still the method recommended by eminent behaviorists and is used successfully by behaviorists, trainers, and even lay people worldwide with great success.

      Helen, you make some good points about the analogies. They’re not perfect. You also appear to have a method you believe in and that you are helping dogs with. That’s great. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care deeply about dogs. I’m just going on record to refute the idea that the powerful technique of counterconditioning is somehow an inferior method for improving the life of a dog.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we stop listening to the dog – a my way or the highway and I don’t care what you think – approach. Rather, that the student does not necessarily see pitfalls and the teacher may say, “I hear you but have to make the wiser choice this time.”

    It’s a constant re-evaluation – listen/think/decide…listen/think/decide…

    Frankly, even with CC, if you let the dog decide to approach too close (or any other program DS/R-) and you feed, then you are at risk of creating the wrong association.

    If the dog is stressed, then you risk creating a negative conditioned emotional response. “I see cookies – where is the scary monster? – I hate cookies.”

    When someone says that CC did not work, then I think the first question has to be a thorough review of the process. I do mean thorough.

    By the way, best point ever in this blog is the phrase, “illusion of control.” It’s like telling a kid, “do you want to wear the red sweater or the blue sweater?” It’s done to give the child a feeling of control. Fine. No problem with that. Honestly, it’s an illusion. The child might want to wear a tu-tu. It’s not choice but the illusion of choice. That illusion is given in order to exert control without a fight. Doesn’t always work. Didn’t work with my kid.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Yvette. You always add something.

      Glad you focused on the illusion of control thing. I have been wondering if I come across as someone who doesn’t want to afford my dogs every possible, wholesome freedom. I do want that for them. (If anyone is thinking that at least they haven’t commented to that effect!) But I think the starting point for me is to acknowledge the ways in which my life and behavior do limit their choices before I can figure out how best to empower them and enrich their lives.

      In a previous discussion, someone said that a dog who was being taught to approach and mount the agility teeter using a combination of R+ (treats) and R- (retreat from teeter) was doing it of his own free choice. I strongly disagree. The trainer was standing by the teeter with treats, and called him by name. She used her body as a lure at times. She fed the dog when he met criteria. The dog appeared afraid of the teeter, especially approaching the pivot point (i.e., he pretty clearly knew the teeter could move and also pretty clearly didn’t like that). He obviously would have preferred some other game. I’m not dissing the trainer at ALL. I’m saying that the dog simply didn’t have free choice in that situation. He had stacked choices. That’s just another way of saying, “Make the right choice easy for the dog.” That is control.

      By the way, you may like to know that it is well known among Alzheimer’s caregivers that if you give someone with moderate to advanced Alzheimer’s a choice between two sweaters or any two things, they almost always choose the second one. Grin.

  3. I think a person should consider if their dog is capable of handling a choice in a particular situation, if the dog even understands the concept of choice in the first place. My nephew was offered many choices of what to drink when he was only two. He cried and whined and said NO to every suggestion. I thought maybe he wasn’t capable of making that choice and maybe the parents should have given him what they knew was best and leave it at that.

    1. That’s a very nice point, Genevieve. And it can actually be very difficult to ascertain a dog’s choices, as anyone who has set out two different treats to see which the dog may prefer can find out. Both proximity and “handedness” can affect the choice. Observation over time seems to work better than trying to “ask” the dog in that situation, although I have seen some clever ways to try.

  4. Each of your choice blog posts have been very fascinating to me. I love how you think through concepts and put them out there for people to ponder in their own situations.

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