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The Importance in Offering Choice to Our Canine Companions

Updated: 6 days ago

According to researchers at Cornell University, humans make approximately 226 choices per day on food alone. Some sources say that in the grand scheme of things, humans make an average of 35,000 conscious choices... PER DAY. Let that sink in for a moment.

From when we wake up, to what we eat, how we dress, to where we live - humans have the ability to make thousands of choices on a regular basis, whether we consciously realize it or not.

But what about our canine counterparts?

Free Choice

When it comes to free choice, our dog's outlets are fairly limited as they are essentially captive companions.

Think about it: Your dog doesn't get to choose their roommates, where they live, or what brands they eat. The majority of their decision making is taken over by us (the owner) in their day-to-day lives.

Offering choice through enrichment is a great way to improve your dog's well being. Why? Because free choice in their lives is hard to come by, and has the power to reduce stress and improve animal welfare.

What does choice have to do with enrichment?

Enrichment is a great outlet for dogs to simply be dogs. As a result, certain forms of enrichment can offer dogs a sense of choice in how they engage with an activity, choice in movement, choice in play, or even the choice to walk away if something isn't their cup of tea.

Not only that, but studies show that having choice is desirable for our pets. Here's a quick breakdown on Catania et al's classic experiment on Preference for Free Choice, as surmised by dog trainer and author Eileen Anderson in, Not All "Choices" Are Equal:

"The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same."

Catania's study shows us that the act of providing a choice is desirable for animals in many scenarios. Similarly, offering choice allows us to learn what an animal's preference may be.

Is there such thing as too much choice?

Like most things in life, too much of a good thing can potentially make it sour. Receiving too many choices can lead to what's referred to as choice overload, or "paradox of choice".

Choice Overload: The tendency for people to get overwhelmed when they are presented with a large number of options, often used interchangeably with the term paradox of choice (The Decision Lab).

While there aren't very many published studies regarding choice overload in dogs, it's an important thought to ponder over when it comes to our pets. Theories suggest that offering too much choice can overwhelm our dogs or make certain activities less exciting for them. To put it plainly, sometimes less is more for our canines.

As a result, we want to offer our dogs a sense of choice with enrichment without it being overwhelming. You may be wondering, how do I do this?

How Can I Offer Choice At Home In A Positive Way?

There are many ways that you can offer choice at home to your pets, in a way that's inclusive and beneficial for them. From a variety of toy or activity choices, rotating toys, offering alternate cozy places to rest, to small changes like letting your dog choose between treat types on occasion - the sky's the limit!

What will your dog choose next?


Looking to have a happier, healthier dog? I've put together some of our favourite resources for you in one place - my first book!

Filled with canine enrichment activities and tips and tricks, I hope you love reading it just as much as I loved writing it.

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