It's so fundamental to our lives in the western world that we don't give it a second thought until it’s taken away from us. Most of us have a say in where we live, what we eat, what time we go to sleep, and who we spend time with. If we hate our job, we have the option to quit. If we hate cheesecake, we can have ice cream instead.
When I was a child, my parents moved me back and forth repeatedly between the United States of America and Israel. I was never asked if I wanted to go; my mother simply put me on a plane and off we went. Because I kept moving back and forth between cultures, I never fit in, whether speaking English in Philadelphia or speaking Hebrew in Tel Aviv. I struggled to make friends. I felt awkward and unloved. Being picked up and moved to suit my parents' needs made my life very uncomfortable.
Because I felt like an outsider with humans, my best companions became animals, and it was immediately clear to me just how important choice is for them too. Befriending my uncle’s dog in Israel, a gorgeous German Shepherd named Bonnie, allowed me learn how to read canine body language and respect canine communication.
Unfortunately, dogs (and other household pets) live in a world where they don’t usually have the luxury to make a lot of choices. Worse yet, research demonstrates that a lack of choice leads to stress, anxiety, physical symptoms such as ulcers and high-blood pressure, and a condition called “learned helplessness” in which the animal essentially gives up and stops trying to express itself. On the other hand, being given meaningful choice opportunities increases joy and reduces stress, even in potentially stressful situations. Choice matters.
This is where I come in. I like to think of myself as a choice architect who is there to help you design a life for your dog (or other pet) where your pet is empowered to make lots of choices, and the choices he makes make your life better too. My clients learn how to create a choice-rich environment for their dogs by adding choice to practically every aspect of the pet’s day, from hanging around the house, to walks, to training, to playtime.
I know this may seem a bit counterintuitive, but when you give your pet more choice, your pet’s overall behavior will improve. That’s because a great deal of misbehavior is related to stress. When we increase choice, we decrease stress, and that leads to better behavior.
And remember, as mentioned above, being given meaningful choices increases joy. So beyond just reducing 'bad behavior', choice translates into more joyful dogs, cats, birds, etc.—and more joyful humans, since they are not being stressed out by their pets.