Three Important Ways to Give Your Pet Choices

Do you do these three things for your pet?

3 things all owners should do for their pet. Photo shows white GSD.
Photo: Anetapics/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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I just went to brush my tabby cat, Harley, at the usual time of day. He was up in his cat tree and, unusually, did not come down. No matter; I can try again later as he loves to be brushed. Surprisingly, my tortoiseshell cat Melina came running to be brushed. She stood to be brushed, then laid down on her side, all the while purring away. Then when she'd had enough, she hopped up and walked off.

It made me think of my post about the importance of choices for pets, the right to walk away. That post has been enduringly popular and so I decided to revisit the topic of choices for dogs and cats. Choice, control, and routine, are important ways to look after our pet’s welfare and help them feel safe.

I'm not the only one who thinks choices are important. In 2017, when I asked experts how to make the world better for dogs, Mia Cobb picked up on the issue of choices. She said we should,
“ask ourselves at every step, "is this what my dog wants to do, if given a choice?" Not all situations where our dogs would choose differently are avoidable (e.g. temperature taking at the vet clinic) but people should consider dogs and the way their lives are lived from the canine perspective.”
And when experts told me about how to make the world better for cats, Dr. Naomi Harvey referred to choices for pet cats.
“Many cats are capable of great affection, and if given a choice would choose to be in your company rather than alone, which can mean their welfare is easily compromised when left alone for long periods or are shut outside all day.”
Now we can’t do everything our pet dog or cat would like, although it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if we did (would it mean not going to work?!). But there are important ways in which we can give pets the chance to make up their own minds.

Here are 3 choices all pet owners should give their dog or cat

1. The Choice to be Petted – Or Not

We get pets because we love them, and they have cute faces and soft fur that we just want to smoosh…

But not all pets like to be smooshed… or hugged, or even touched.

And insisting on hugging or petting a reluctant dog or cat is not fair on them and can result in a bite or scratches for you.

It is especially important to teach children how to pet cats and dogs and to give the animal a choice, because children are at greatest risk of dog bites. While most people know they need to supervise children and pets closely, many fail to recognize signs of anxiety in interactions between young children and dogs.   (If you want some tips, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?).

Always call the animal to you, and if they prefer to stay away, let them. And always give them the chance to move away from being petted if they prefer.

If you stop petting and they want more, they will let you know.

2. The Choice to Go to a Safe Space

When life gets busy and there is a lot going on, it can be stressful for dogs and cats. This is where it can help them to have a safe space to go and hide or keep quiet if they wish.

For dogs, a safe space might be a crate with a nice bed in it, or a dog bed in a quiet room to which they always have access. Make sure it is big enough to allow them to stretch out and turn around. If there are children in the house, you can use a pet barrier or pet gate to keep the dog separate from the children.

Three important choices to give your dog or cat. Photo shows kitten hiding
Photo: MrThanatsit/Shutterstock

Cats like hiding places. Ideally they will have nice cat-sized hiding places, and the best is probably high up since cats like high up places too. A cat bed on a shelf, a cat tree with several levels, or a simple cardboard box might do the trick. (Or if your cat is like my tortoiseshell, the chance to burrow into the pile of clean clothes that are waiting to be ironed). If you have multiple cats, they each need their own spaces to go.

The rule is that the safe space belongs to the pet and no one in the household will disturb them when they are there.

This means they always have a space where they can chill out and relax.

3. A Choice to Train – or Not

Another way we can give dogs and cats a choice is in whether to take part in training or not.

When we use reward-based methods that rely on positive reinforcement, training should be fun.

But it’s up to us to motivate the dog (or cat). Typically, that means using food in training such as great dog training treats.

And if the dog wanders off? That’s fine. Maybe they got tired, maybe something else is more interesting, or maybe we need to use better treats next time. Or perhaps it was too hard and they need the training broken down into easier steps.

It is better to train several short (e.g. 5 minute) sessions a day rather than one long session in which the dog gets bored.

And this applies to cats too. Yes, cats can be trained – training cats to like their carrier can help with vet visits,  and this often means the cat will choose to go in their carrier (perhaps it can be one of their safe spaces?). As well, training tricks can help shelter cats to be more content.

Training isn’t about forcing your dog or cat to perform (or stop) particular behaviours. Think of training as a way to provide enrichment and to help your pet cope with everyday situations.

Summary: The Importance of  Choices for Dogs and Cats

We decide almost everything for our pets. Giving them choices can help us look after their welfare because it helps them avoid situations they find stressful and find more opportunities to do the things they like

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

How do you give your dog or cat choices?

See also: Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today and five things to do for your cat today.

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