Yesterday, when Sky wanted to play, I sent her to find a toy.  When she had searched the room and came up empty, she spied something she thought I could throw for her to retrieve.  But when she got there, ready to fetch it and bring it to me, she saw it was a pair of socks I had dropped onto the floor.  (So, you’re perfect?)  She hesitated and came back to me empty-handed, as it were, deciding that it wasn’t appropriate to make the sock into a toy.  I told her she was a good girl and off we went together to find one of her toys.

Of course, because she’s a service dog, Sky makes decisions all the time.  Service dogs for invisible disabilities such as diabetes, epilepsy, coronary artery disease, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease, to name a few, often help on their own, figuring out first what the issue is and then subsequently when their help is needed.

But what about the pet dog?  Surely she shouldn’t make decisions when you say Come or Down, unless, of course, the decision she makes is to do what’s asked of her quickly and cheerfully.  After all, quick obedience to either of those commands could save her life.  But are there times a pet can make decisions?  Are there times when she should she do so?  And if so, how would you teach her to make good ones?

Every creature needs to use her mind and part of using one’s mind is making decisions.  So, yes, decision making can be a good thing and, moreover, it can help your dog to grow up.  A dog who can make appropriate decisions when it is appropriate for her to do so will be a more interesting companion, more reliable, smarter, possibly even more helpful, even is she is a pet.  After all, pet owners get colds, flus, the occasional headache and it’s lovely when a dog can decide that today is a day to lie quietly on the bed and be comforting, not a day to lob toys and my person.

The best way to teach a dog how to make sound, appropriate decisions is really, really simple.  It is easiest to start this with a young puppy.  Walk around your house with the pup, initially on leash, then off leash, and monitor the puppy’s behavior.  When the pup picks up a toy, softly say “Good dog.”  When the pup picks up a shoe – or a sock – softly say, “No,” and replace the shoe or sock with one of the puppy’s toys.  Don’t leave the pup with a blank slate – saying no but not telling the pup what will get her praise.  Teaching not that but this will help your dog view the world in a better way, teaching her that some things are yours and other things are hers, teaching her that making good decisions is a very good thing.  Be clever.  Be subtle.  Be persistent.  Take your little walks many times a day.  Take them until your puppy becomes trustworthy, knowing that some things are for chewing and others aren’t.    But don’t stop there.  Also praise your pup for exploring, for being friendly to other animals and to humans, for curiosity but not for theft, for playing with you gently, for waiting for her food bowl to be put down.  The list is long, but time with your puppy is precious and whatever you teach when she is young will pay you back one hundredfold.

Continue when you go outside.  Encourage your puppy’s appropriate choices and discourage bad choices, replacing a bad decision with a good one when that’s possible.  As your pup grows, and her confidence grows, if you put your mind to it, you will continue to see that she makes decisions all the time and you will be able to quietly, softly encourage the good ones and quietly softly replace the bad ones, helping her to become a thinking adult and a fine, appropriate companion.  Remember, praise should not interrupt what a pup is doing.  Think of it as something in the background.  On the other hand, your disapproval, because what the pup is doing is potentially dangerous or inappropriate in some other way, that should disrupt.  That should stop your dog and give you a chance to show her a better decision, something as she grows that she will become better and better able to do on her own. Don’t be afraid to say “No,” because it’s not a four letter word.  It’s merely a tool to teach your dog how to think.