Empowering, Not Overpowering

Allow your dog to make some choices in life

Every day, in all of our lives, we make choices for ourselves and others. Oatmeal or eggs? Black pants or jeans? Turnpike or I-95? Have a conversation with one friend or another? Read or watch television? Go to a movie or write that blog article? Buy a house or rent? The choices we have over our lives makes us feel in control and less stressed.

We can apply some of these same ideas to our dogs (or other pets). When we don’t give dogs choices in some situations, they rebel with turning away, ignoring us, growling, or shutting down. They don’t cooperate with us or they fight us. And what we usually do is keep pressing on, trying to coerce or force them to do something that they find scary or uncomfortable. At that point, our poor dog gets labeled difficult or dominant. We might even consider it a training failure.  Can we make dogs more behaviorally healthy by offering them some choices?

Dr. Susan Friedman, Ph.D., a prior faculty member in the Psychology Department at Utah State University, is a frequent presenter at animal behavior conferences. “The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health”, she explains. She recommends that animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control events in their lives.

When dogs can make choices, we build trust with them. If the dog says no, we figure out why; we don’t force the dog to do something that’s uncomfortable. We get a lot of information from the dog that is willing to work with us. We know that he is motivated, interested, comfortable and willing. We’ve set him up for success.  And when the dog learns that he has a choice, often the thing he didn’t want to do becomes okay. Nobody fights; everybody wins.

This game of choices allows your dog to have a conversation with you. He (or she) will tell you, “I’m ready”, or “Can we please wait a moment?” Or even something as simple as “I’d rather walk that way today, thank you very much!” His life becomes a little less regimented where he is told what to do from the moment he gets up to his bedtime, what to play, what and when to eat, where to sleep. Our relationship with our dog becomes richer.

How do we begin to empower our doggie learners while still offering guidance and expecting good manners?


We use shaping to teach a dog how to solve problems and earn a reward. Small steps toward the final outcome behavior are rewarded until the final planned behavior is reached. It becomes strong and consistent. There is no luring, physical manipulation, or commands. The dog figures out behaviors that will be reinforced and wants to repeat them to earn more reinforcement. In a short time, you are increasing your criteria and expectations and your dog is happily learning. Here’s a good video to learn more about the art and science of this awesome training method.


If your dog is enthusiastically participating in the task or training lesson with you, it continues. If the dog becomes reluctant or disengages from you, the trainer either waits to see if the dog will re-engage, takes a break and tries again later, or picks a different activity that has interest to the dog. Try this. If your dog begins to ignore you during a play or training session, walk away, sit down, ignore your dog, and wait. If your dog comes over with wagging tail and eager face, enthusiastically get up and begin the same exercise again or try a different exercise. The important thing is that your dog indicated his interest in engaging you. Nice choice!


You can use a consent test to allow your dog to choose if he wants to continue playing with another dog or even to continue being petted by you. If another dog is on top of him pinning him down during a play session, gently remove the other dog by applying a little pressure around her chest and moving her off. Does your dog jump up and return happily to more play? If so, it was fun and he wants to keep playing. If he moves away, he has made the choice that the play was uncomfortable or stressful and he needs a break. Support that choice by helping have his time to himself apart from his playmate.

You can also use a consent test for petting, called the 5-second rule. Pet or rub your dog for up to 5 seconds. Then take your hands away. Does your dog lean into you for more? He has made the choice to continue the interaction. However, if he turns his head away or moves away he has indicated that he’s had enough and has not consented to more. This is a good exercise for children to learn when they are interacting with their family dog.


Here are some simple ways you can incorporate more choice in your dog’s life.

  • Which way? Let your dog choose the path he wants to take on a walk.
  • Which hand? Hold two different treats, one in each hand and let your dog choose.
  • Wanna Play? Allow him to choose the toy he wants to play with you.
  • In or out? Let your dog decide if he wants to hang out with you or wander around the secure yard checking out sights and smells.
  • Cool down? Your dog can decide to continue to play ball or pause for a refreshing soak in the pool.
  • Chicken or beef? Let your dog choose the topping that’s going on his kibble.

Here is Seele deciding which toy she wants me to throw. She is new to the game but it took only a short time before she figured it out.


This game, created by London-based behaviorist Chirag Patel, allows your dog to have a conversation with you. Initially created for husbandry techniques, such as veterinary procedures, brushing or medicating without fuss or stress, this game can be used in a number of ways to let your dog tell you when he needs to take a break or when he feels comfortable continuing. It can easily be used to work with barking, training games, or to enhance your overall relationship with your dog. I can see some possibilities for dogs that react to things in their environment. It’s really great for food manners too.

We teach the dog to focus on a small bucket. They choose whether to look at it or not; we simply wait. Your dog will focus on the bucket, keeping his face 1-2 feet away and out of the bucket. When they look, we immediately mark it (clicker or “Yes!”) and reward. He will focus towards the bucket to signal he is ready to start a training conversation with you and will remove his focus to signal you to stop, take a break or change the speed of the conversation. Your dog gets to start making some choices such as the ones mentioned above as well as whether he stands, sits, lies down.

The duration of the look increases (we wait to reward, slowly increasing the time between the look and the reward). Then distractions or procedures are slowly added, perhaps touching ears, or bringing out a brush or eye meds.

During the Bucket Game, your dog will tell you:

a. when they are ready to start
b. when they want to take a break
c. when they want to stop
d. when they want us to slow down

View this video introduction to the Bucket Game (below) and then check out the videos at Chirag’s Bucket Game Facebook page.


Before you begin teaching the Bucket Game, you will first want to teach your dog how to wait for you to hand the treats from the bucket and not mug you for them. Read our blog article on It’s Your Choice. This is all about choice too!


Today, begin to think about the many wonderful opportunities for more choices you can provide in your own dog’s life and begin consciously offering some. Then observe your dog to understand what he needs emotionally during the encounters and support him. This protocol is a nice step forward in our relationship with our dogs and builds joy into new experiences.