Choose Your Treat





Everybody has to earn their paycheck, so Willie must do a ridiculous array of tricks to procure the dog treats I dole out through the day. But I do let him choose. I hold up two bags of possibility, and he sniffs each one, deliberates, brow furrowed, then swipes the bag he wants with one paw.

I give him choices on our walks, too—a practice that sometimes backfires. On a leisurely stroll, we reach an intersection, and I ask him which way he wants to go. After the first few times, he grasped his power and now he chooses immediately. But he also comes to a dead stop on the other walks, the hurried ones when I need to get home as soon as possible, then looks longingly in the opposite direction, neck arched backward, eloquently expressing a preference I am not about to honor.

When I, still laughing, relay this to my husband, he groans. “No wonder he gets stubborn now. You have got to stop giving him choices!” I nod glumly, conceding the folly of my plan—and resume it the next morning.

Now I can use this post in to defend these choices. “I’m often reminded that the idea of giving dogs a choice is dangerously close to anthropomorphism,” Vedika Shah begins, then points out that animals in the wild make choices every day. Take that power away from any intelligent living creature, and they will begin to feel insignificant, helpless, and anxious. Or, in the case of companion animals, they will go underground, surreptitiously making choices to confound you.

Choices reveal personality by revealing preferences. They remind us of the lively, independent mind inside what might otherwise seem a plush wind-up toy. They are healthy. If you have ever known someone who just smiles and says “Whatever” every time you ask their preference, you remember how maddening it can be, how insipid they seem.

Dr. Susan Friedman is a psychology professor at Utah State University. She pioneered the use of applied behavioral analysis, which was developed to change human behavior, to understand companion animals. Giving dogs freedom of choice gives them a measure of control over outcomes, she observes. This builds trust, confidence, and the ability to think for themselves—which makes them far less likely to become aggressive or skittish or neurotic.

In our own realm, we have yet to figure this out. Too much education remains lockstep, compared to, say, the Montessori method, which gives children all sorts of creative freedom. When you let them devise their own creative projects and play, they concentrate far longer, focus far more intently. Choices get kids thinking for themselves. Instead of shrieking, “Don’t touch that stove!” my mother told me calmly, “You can touch the stove if you want. But it is very hot, and it will burn your hand.” All temptation vanished.

At any point in life, being given a choice—even if it is, “Would you like to be awake during the root canal, giggling with gas, or totally unconscious?”—nearly always takes away some of the stress. Life is lighter, freer, and more your own when you can choose what to study, where to work, whom to marry, when to bear a child, where to live. Ask anyone who has been enslaved or dominated in any way, worked in a labor camp, lived in poverty, gotten redlined, been forced into a shotgun marriage or forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy. Nothing worth happening works smoothly when it is coerced. Yet we expend kilowatt hours of energy pressuring people to make the choices we consider best.

The smaller, simpler world of the dog makes our folly easier to see. Try urging your dog to play with another dog at the dog park. Either your dog tries to obey and the other dog snaps at him, or they both look at you with blank indifference and go off to separate corners to sniff. Sit back, chat with the other humans, and soon they are playing. If you lock a high-spirited dog into a crate for hours at a stretch, you cannot expect them to be calm and tractable when released. Like prisoners kept too long in “the hole” of solitary confinement, they emerge either broken, frantic, or roiling with resentment.

A bath, though? “You do not have a choice in this matter,” my husband informs the dog firmly. Same with stepping into the street and a million other things that they, like humans, are not allowed to choose, for their own and everybody else’s sake. This is not the Ayn Rand model of dog rearing.

Reasonable choices, on the other hand, are more necessary than ever. Dogs used to have the run of a neighborhood; there were fewer rules about where they could eliminate, fewer leash laws, more actual jobs they could do for us. Now they are pampered and controlled with an iron fist by people terrified of fines, lawsuits, or disapproving neighbors. Safety requires many of these changes—more cars driving at faster speeds, more fecal bacteria we have come to fear as a pathogen. We also like pristine landscaping. And nobody has time to teach their kids how to not scare or poke a dog into aggression. So the dogs live on parole, and meanwhile, we forget that they should have a choice about who gets to pet them and how, which ought to be any living creature’s right.

One more thing we have yet to figure out for ourselves.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.