A Sense of Control

A Sense of Control

Control, something that many humans want to have over their dogs. In many ways this makes perfect sense, not only because humans are responsible and accountable for their dog family member(s), but also because being in control gives a feeling of security and trust. Having a sense of control over your own experiences and knowing what to expect is of high importance for welfare.

The more we feel in control (the feeling alone can be enough), the more relaxed we become. When humans are faced with unpredictable situations, stress automatically occurs and coping mechanisms arise. Individual preferences will remain, but most people have a need for routines and predictability, resulting in a sense of control over their own experiences.

Exactly the same can be said for dogs. It is a common myth that dogs would want to gain control over others. Dogs really just want control over their own experiences. Unpredictability and a lack of control can cause dogs stress and negative feelings such as fear and frustration, often resulting in behaviour that causes problems/concerns for their human guardians.

A physically and emotionally healthy dog can be tolerant and resilient. They will quickly recover from stressful situations, especially if these are short and when there is plenty of room to recover. However, if a dog has no sense of control over their own experiences whatsoever and it is constantly challenged, pressure can rise and recovery can become more and more slow and difficult. If this goes on for a long period of time, this can eventually result in chronic stress, threatening a dog’s emotional and physical welfare.

Many dog behaviours that people struggle with are strongly influenced by stress and a lack of sense of control (i.e., imagine being on a short lead all the time). This is why a lot of dog professionals are advising to give the dog more control. Now, this may cause some people to panic. “Offering a dog control?? Can my dog handle this? What about safety?”.

Don’t worry, you can offer a dog more control AND assure safety and guidance. It is not about letting dogs sort out everything by themselves and just wait and see what happens. You do not have to cut loose all forms of control, this could even be detrimental and dangerous. Responsible, active guidance is always needed in order for dogs to survive safely in our busy human world. 

You can give your dog a sense of control. Just the feeling of being able to make some own choices and experiencing them, can already make dogs feel more relaxed and strongly increase their trust in the world.

Herewith 3 suggestions to increase your dog’s sense of control.

1: Offer a certain amount of routines and predictability

Individual preferences will always be present, but most dogs like to know what to expect. Some dogs thrive if you decide to walk the same route every day (though visual cues may remain the same, scent changes continuously), other dogs may get bored by this, so always adjust strategies to best fit your dog. Not everything has to be at set times (though some dogs will love this), but you can also think about the way that you present certain things and see if your dog prefers routine over unpredictability.

2: Offer your dog some choice

In example, when showing affection to a dog, offer the dog the choice to move away or to lean in for more by stopping the interaction for a couple of seconds. What does your dog choose?

Another example is letting your dog choose between multiple toys or different kinds of food and seeing what the dog prefers. 

Why not let the dog choose which way the walk is going and offering the dog the possibility to choose direction? Perhaps use a longer lead than the standard 1.80m (see what happens if you use a longer line, i.e. 3m to start with..)

Again, individual preferences may differ, but have a go, test and see what your dog enjoys.

3: Structured interactions, welfare based training

Teaching your dog cues for behaviour that result in pleasant outcomes for both dogs and humans can create an enormous boost of confidence AND a sense of control (for both the humans and the dogs involved, this is a win win situation). You can help your dog by showing the dog what behaviours will result in rewards and offer your dog the opportunity to score. Both of you will benefit greatly from this.

© LotsDogs | Written by Liselot Boersma, welfare consultant (PgDip CABW) and owner of LotsDogs, august 2017; translated in 2020. Copy paste of images or text is forbidden. Sharing the URL of this website is very much appreciated. Many thanks in advance.