How, by giving your dog a choice and control, giving it a better life (2014).
I have always felt awful about controlling the lives of my dogs. Being the one deciding what to eat, when to pee, where to play – well, just about everything! Therefore I try to give my dogs a choice, in as many situations possible. Instead of always telling them what to do they get to choose where to walk, what to eat, when to play and what to train.
The results are remarkable! I can see happiness and self confidence growing in my dogs like never before. They are less stressed and they handle challenging situations and changes better. There is a notable difference in decreased unwanted behavior and increased wanted behavior. My theory is that when dogs feel they have control over their own lives, they in turn have a better life. Just like we do.
Ralph, Mini American Shepherd 4 years, loves to romp around the forest, mainly to search for squirrels, I am certain. In the forest, as we get to a fork in the road, before he would wait for me to give him directions where to go. Instead, one day I stopped, looked at him and said: «You are The Boss!». As soon as he looked one direction, I would turn that way and start to walk. The first couple of times I did this, the look on Ralph’s face was puzzled. But as I repeated the routine every time we came to a split, and as he grasped the new game, the disbelief on his face turned in to joy, his tail rose high and off he would go.
He seems to prefer to choose the smaller paths, probably because that is where the wild animals travel, and he is tracking down more squirrels than ever before. It is quite obvious he is enjoying the walks much more, and he will actually choose by himself when to turn back home, exhausted, with his tongue dragging on the ground.
Not only is Ralph happier, I enjoy the walks a lot more as well ! Ralph has taken me to parts of the woods I have never seen before, the most secluded areas, and we will never again be bored following the same old paths, because every day is a new adventure.
Lana, Mini Pinscher 11 years, is the most food motivated of my dogs, therefore she gets to choose what food she wants for dinner, or what treats she prefers to work for. I simply present her with 2-3 options, placed in closed containers, and say «You are The Boss!». She sniffs them and after making her choice marks the one she wants the most.
When training I can give her this option several times during a session, she sometimes chooses to swap for something new, and sometimes stays with the same. What I find so interesting is that she does not always chose the same out of the two options, she seems to enjoy the variation.
Bug, Griffon Petit Brabançon 2 years, is the most play motivated one, so when playing she gets to choose from a basket of toys. I say «You are The Boss!» and she gets to pick her favorite. We play tug of war, fetch or search games together, and if she wants to swap she will simply go and get a new toy. I vary the collection of toys in the basket, so there will always be “novelties” for her to choose from.
All of the dogs get their choice in the activities above, and they most certainly have their own preferences. Therefore I also set up «You are The Boss!» sessions when they get to choose if they want to train, what they want to train, if they want to go for a walk, if they want to play, cuddle or chew on a bone.
Beforehand, I prepare different types of gear in different cupboards or boxes. One cupboard contains stuff for Service Dog training, an other cupboard contains toys for Memory games, one box keeps harnesses for tracking a second one chewy bones, and so on.
During these sessions they get to choose what activity they want to do, one dog at time. They know what to expect because I will pull out a certain training mat, ask the dog in charge to sit there and then say «You are The Boss!». Lana will most often go and mark the cupboard with service dog training or the chewing bone box. Ralph will alternate between sitting on the doormat, which is the signal for going for a walk (squirrel!) and he also really likes playing memory games. Bug is young and sort of likes everything, so she will choose wildly and surprise me often, as do all of them. There is no way, with any certainty, that I can predict their choices.
The dog can easily get confused if you are not clear on when they get to choose or not, so it is important to have consistent routines. Vary where you take your walks and let your dog be the boss on only one of them. Ralph gets to choose where to walk only in the morning when we are in the forest. In the afternoon it is always Lana who is the boss and we slowly walk the neighbourhood on a lead, read pee-mails and follow the neighbour cat around. The evening walk I am the boss and we train recall, contact and cooperation.
Be consistent on where you keep different training gear so that the dog can easily mark his choice of activity. Are you busy in the morning? Let the dog choose what to eat only in the evening when you have more time. (Or get up 2 minutes earlier – that is your choice!)
The most fascinating changes in our lives using the «You are The Boss!» concept is that, in so many situations when NOT training, I learn what my dogs prefers to do. Instead of just doing what I ask them to do, they now show me what they prefer to do. After a couple of weeks using this concept, Ralph showed me that he does not like to be in his cage when it is placed at the back of the car. By refusing to jump in when I opened the cage, and instead walking up to the side door where he preferred to be, I moved the cage to this new location and now he happily jumps into the cage again.
Bug showed me that she prefers to lie next to Lana in the car, rather than in her own cage. Since Lana seems to be fine with this, they are now keeping each other warm and company. Lana often shows me where she wants her bed in the house. By simply sitting down on the floor where the sun is shining or by the heater and looking at me intently, she makes it clear to me where it is nice and warm for an elderly body.
All the dogs show preferences on what kind of harness, or collar, they want to wear and they also get to choose when to wear clothes if it’s cold outside. They seem to prefer the water bowl placed elsewhere than in the kitchen (I do not know why!) and they prefer room temperature water over cold water directly from the tap.
On walks, they clearly show what dogs they want to greet, and which ones to avoid. They know now they have a choice, and they can control the outcome themselves. An interesting development, now much more than before, is that it is quite obvious what people they actually do like and whom they do not really care for. Dear Uncle John is clearly not as good around dogs as he might believe himself to be …
… you have based your relationship with your dog on mutual trust and rewardbased training methods.
… you are consistent on when, and where, the dog gets to be the boss.
… you have already trained your dog in signal control, cooperation and recall.
… you have an independent dog, you let the dog be the boss only in secure situations.
… you have several dogs, you let only one dog at the time be the boss.
… you are cool enough to trust your dog being the boss.
I’m still the one who decides when my dogs get to be the boss. They are still one hundred percent dependent on me to get the resources they need. Therefore I have no concern regarding loosing so called leadership or, as I rather call it – cooperation. On the contrary, I’ve experienced that my dogs trust me even more after introducing this concept. Less situations occur when they do things I do not wish for, and they are more cooperative since I rarely ask them to do things they do not like.
Depending on the needs and preferences of your dog and your daily routine, choose when and where it suits you to let your dog do the “You are the Boss!” concept. Perhaps you can find even more situations when your dog gets to be the boss?
Since I first wrote this article, I have later on learned about this beautiful training on teaching dogs to answer your question with Yes or No. Now I use it all the time! Read more about why and how in this article by Jennifer Arnold.
«I love it! As much as I advise clients and students to give their dogs choices, you have extended this concept beautifully and practically. In fact, you give me ideas for some things I can do with my dear old dog Nick. We walk together a lot, but being a creature of habit, I tend to choose our ‘usual’ routes. So I’m going to experiment with letting him decide where to wander. I’m eager to compare the tracks we make in the two conditions, as you did.»
– Kathy Sdao
«One of the seminar attendees this weekend Tess Erngren shared with me an article they wrote and I really enjoyed reading it, loved the hiking map images!»
– Chirag Patel
«I was surprised at the title of Tess’s article. ‘The Dog is the Boss’ seems counter to popular belief. After the first paragraph about adventures with her dog Ralph, Tess had med hooked.»
– Terry Ryan