The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s breast and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this was. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

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