Who’s in Charge Here – and Why It Should Be Your Dog

Dogs have few choices in life. They don’t choose where they live, or who they live with, or when to go for a walk. But lack of control makes all kinds of animals more anxious. How can a good caretaker give her dog the control that builds confidence?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #198

Who’s in Charge Here – and Why It Should Be Your Dog

Pretty much everything we read about dog training and life with dogs assumes that the human should be in charge. The paradigms vary. Some are just plain ugly, urging coercive and painful methods to get dogs to “obey.” Others, like the idea of “leadership,” aren’t necessary or scientific but can be benign and even useful. But pretty much everybody who writes or speaks about training, me included, emphasizes that it’s the human in the relationship who sets the rules.

Today, I’ll talk about why you might want to turn that idea upside down, and put your dog in charge instead.

Let’s start with two questions. One, how much control do our dogs have over their lives? And, two, does it matter?

The answer to the first question is, if we’re honest with ourselves, “Not much.” Our dogs don’t choose who adopts or buys them – they have no voice in whether anyone keeps them at all. They don’t choose where they live, or who their human or animal roommates are. They don’t choose what we give them to eat. (And never mind your “finicky dog” who insists on some special delectable food or other. He wouldn’t have access to that food if you didn’t deliver it, right?) It’s up to you whether he has fresh water to drink. He has no say in whether you teach him anything. If you do teach him, he has no say in the method. He gets toilet breaks only when you feel like giving them.

Of course, most of us take our dogs’ needs and likes into account. We might choose an apartment that’s close to a large park, or we might adopt a second dog if we think our dog-loving Zippy would enjoy the company. Most of us also try to do right by our dogs – we buy the best food we can afford. We keep the water bowl full and clean. We provide regular vet checkups and a comfortable place to sleep.

Also, some choices shouldn’t left to dogs. Dogalini might prefer to be off leash all the time, but in many places that wouldn’t be safe for her. A dog door would give her the option to go out to pee whenever, but if she doesn’t learn to hold her urine and feces for a few hours, then travel, hospitalization, and even sleeping through the night turn problematic.

All the same, it’s worth asking whether there’s a downside to living mostly under someone else’s control, even if that someone loves you to pieces. It turns out there might just be.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).