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.

Enrichment

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