Stop Stressing Out Your Dog

Who do you think experiences higher stress levels?

A CEO responsible for billions of dollars and thousands of employees? Perhaps a military leader making decisions that could cause deaths and injuries to thousands of soldiers?

Or a middle manager just running her small department?

If you guessed that stress levels are higher for the CEO or general, you’re wrong. And your mistaken belief might be the reason you’re stressing out your dog.

Honey the golden retriever poses with a Halloween rat.

I’m feeling a little stressed about posing with this crazy rat.

Lack of Control Equals Stress?

A Harvard University study found baseline cortisol levels for highly placed leaders were lower than those of employees with only middling amounts of responsibility.

The researchers speculated that the higher stress levels in the employees might be caused by their having less control over their work. And I believe that’s likely.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has experienced the stress of being asked to double my productivity or work results without extra staff, equipment, or time. Right?

And here’s what that means for your dog: domesticated dogs have very little control over their lives. Could we be causing them stress?

Decisions We Make for Our Dogs

I feed my dog Honey at 7 a.m. every morning. I pick her food. She can’t go outside unless I open the door. I decide when we go for a walk and for how long.

Honey can’t chase that squirrel because she’s attached to me by a leash. And even worse, she can’t jump on the crossing guard, UPS driver, or random strangers.

If I see her getting ready to roll on a tiny mouse corpse, I stop her.

Honey the golden retriever rolls in the grass.

Rolling in a dead mouse? Yep, I’m happy.

Now I don’t imagine Honey saying in her fuzzy little brain: “Gee, I’m just trying to be a dog. When will I get to choose my own path?”

But she does express frustration when she can’t do what she wants. And if I frustrate her too much, I’m stressing her out.

How To Stop Stressing The Dog

I’m far from perfect, Honey will tell you (thank goodness she can’t speak English). But I have worked hard to keep from stressing Honey out.

I do it by watching for signs of frustration.

In the house, Honey shows she’s frustrated by barking.

She usually barks when she’s ready to go for a walk before I’m ready to.

If my husband is home, he’ll buy me some time (and lower Honey’s stress levels) by playing a game of tug. I’m not as talented at playing tug so I have to decide how important it is for me to continue with my work or if I can afford to take a walk break in the middle.

Honey the golden retriever loves to tug.

The answer to all problems is a quick game of tug.

When we’re on a walk, Honey shows her frustration by sitting down to scratch. It took me a long time to realize that’s what the scratching was about. But now it’s a helpful way Honey talks to me.

Honey is most likely to scratch when I’ve chosen a different direction than she wants to go. So I’ve started letting Honey choose the route, within reason.

I don’t always have time for a six-mile walk. And I’m not going to give in to Honey’s wish to say hello to that obviously uncomfortable cat on a neighbor’s porch. But why should I always get to choose our walking path? After all, we’re walking for her.

Most of all, I keep asking myself when I make choices for Honey if I really have to. Or if it’s okay to let her choose what she wants at any given time.

Honey the golden retriever chooses her route.

I love walking off-leash on my favorite trail.

Letting Your Dog Make Choices

I believe that people feel comfortable with different levels of control. Most people don’t tell themselves every moment of the day, “I could do anything I wanted to.” The stress of making good choices would be overwhelming.

So I don’t think every dog would feel comfortable with the total freedom Ted Kerasote wrote about giving his dogs in Merle’s Door and Pukka’s Promise (affiliates). A fearful dog would probably become more fearful with unlimited freedom.

But even a fearful dog can be empowered to make some choices. In fact, that’s the idea behind Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) which rewards dogs for responding calmly in a stressful environment by letting them move away from what frightens them.

So what are some choices you can safely let your dog make (hopefully lowering stress levels in the bargain)?

  • Treats – put a different flavored treat in each fist. Let your dog choose the one they want by nuzzling (hopefully, not biting) your  hand.
  • Walking route – if your dog shows an interest in another direction and it’s a safe choice, go that way.
  • Avoiding stressors – try the BAT method by moving your dog away from something that freaks him out before he reacts to it.
  • Toys – put three toys in front of your dog. Play with the one she chooses first.
  • Length of walk – if your dog isn’t ready to go in, lengthen the walk. Honey feels pure joy when we pass by our house and keep walking.
  • Beds – take the beds you have scattered around the house and put them all in the room where your dog spends most of her time. Keep her favorite in that room before returning the others.

I’m sure there are dozens of others I haven’t yet thought of.

Golden Retriever on the porch

Which bed is better? The soft one on the floor? Or the one where the people sit?

I’ve Stopped Stressing My Dog (most of the time)

Honey doesn’t always get her way. But I think I’ve made walks more enjoyable for her since I’ve tried to look at them through her eyes.

She certainly scratches less.

Sometimes I have a good reason for not following Honey’s nose down a particular street, like knowing that it will lead us in front of that house where the big, off-leash dog likes to glare down at us from atop his garden retaining wall. But I think Honey realizes that I listen to her often enough that she doesn’t find being denied something nearly as stressful.

Honey isn’t quite the CEO of Chez Webster. But I think she’s feeling better about the amount of control she has around the house. And hopefully she’s not so stressed that she needs an executive golf weekend to improve her day.

Your Turn: What choices do you let your dogs make? Do you think giving some control to her our dogs lowers their stress?


I love Ted Kerasote’s books and found them very thought-provoking. The links will take you to Amazon. If you buy something there, I will earn a few cents but your item won’t cost you any more. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging This Way Comes.






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  1. Ooo this has so inspired me to write something I have been thinking about for a while…

  2. I’ve always thought that dogs taking all the time in the world to find just the exact place to poop, like it would have a great effect on the future of the planet, was their way to gain control,

    • Ooh, you may be onto something, Jan. And the added bonus is that it keeps us right where they want us until they’re done.

  3. Great suggestions Pamela, I will try the two treats in hands. I will see if I can guess correctly which one he will choose. Harley doesn’t really show stress much. I’m usually spending so much time catering to him BOL he doesn’t get the chance to stress out. When Leo first died, he would wander off (which was very rare) and I would let him remain in a separate room for however long he wanted. I quickly figured out – he was going to what used to be Leo’s bed in my office and spending time on it. That taught me to respect his desire to go and do what he wants, knowing he’s on a mission.

    • It’s sweet that Harley tried to find ways to be close to Leo after he passed. Sounds like with your example, he’s very good at managing his own potential stress.

  4. I try to give them freedom of choice a little bit every day. For the most part, they determine our walking route (which is why, with Lucas, I always end up meandering through the park, rather than around it… he much prefers grass to sidewalks), and they have free reign of the house to decide where to play/sleep/hide from Newt. Everything else – when they eat, when they go to the bathroom, and so on – I try to keep routinized because I feel like even if they don’t have the choice, the predictability will lessen their stress levels.

    • It’s always a balance between routine and excitement. No one would survive making every choice. But it sound like you’ve worked things out for your boys (and Newt).

  5. Ah, the ever-changing role of control vs freedom!

    • Yes, and how many times does control vs freedom come up in other aspects of our lives?

      Child raising, politics, medicine, employment. It’s a constant question, isn’t it?

  6. My dogs like to choose where they’re being scratched: I start scratching leaving my hand in place while they move their bodies. They usually end up choosing a butt scratch but I start at the head anyway.

  7. I’ve found that letting Haley stop and sniff more on walks is great, but what really frustrates her is not being able to go outside and chase squirrels out of her yard each time she sees them through the window, lol!

    • And those squirrels are so cheeky, aren’t they? I swear they run even closer to the house when they know it will make our dogs crazy. :)

  8. We have some control. Once and a while we get to choose where to walk, or we get to choose between 2-3 different treats, we can go upstairs and go to bed at night when we want, if we want to play in the yard, we wait at the door, if we want to come in we ring our doggy doorbell. Life is fairly laid back except for the issue of chasing squirrels and wabbits. We are still fighting over control on that one.

    • Unfortunately, it appears the rabbits and squirrels have more control than you dogs or you mom. They practically run the world.

  9. I love this article. I’m quite aware of all the times I frustrate Cookie when I cannot help that. When I can I do my best to let her make her own choices. I agree that living in OUR world, by our rules is pretty frustrating and stressful to our dogs.

    • I think that if every dog person recognized how hard our animals work to live in our worlds, we’d have much happier pets. Cookie is lucky to have someone who understands.

  10. Choices are the spice of life! We do it for almost anything and everything and what I’ve found is that the dogs and I negotiate back forth on almost everything. It is most noticable on walks as we bounce back and forth with speed and where to go. And for the most part I love it, but sometimes the dogs aren’t as willing to “give back” their control and it takes a little more effort on my part with our compromise.

    Besides who says the walk is just for the dog? I need one too, so we do it together. :)

    • Yeah, I guess you’re right that the walk isn’t just for the dog. But I probably wouldn’t do it so much if I didn’t think it was important to Honey. :)

      Don’t you find the dogs are much more engaged when they don’t know what’s going to happen next? As for getting them to “give back” control, that’s a life long relationship issue. We experience it with people too.

  11. I have to agree that a game of tug fixes everything – it certainly does in my home. I’ve often wondered about this as well especially given two recent studies I found. One of them mentioned that dogs don’t beg for food just because they want it – it also has to do with trust. If they see us eating it they trust that it’s good and something they should participate in. The other was mentioning that letting a dog sniff while out on walks adds a ton of extra mental stimulation. So lately I’ve been letting leisurely sniff around a lot more; and if she wants to go a different route I’ll generally follow.

    • I can vouch for the mental stimulation of sniffing. I’ve fostered a few beagles and hound mixes recovering from surgery. I wondered how I would be able to exercise them enough in recovery.

      No worry. As long as there are plenty of smells to check along the way, they come home just as exhausted from a short walk as from a long one.

      If you can find routes where lots of other dogs have walked before, your pup will probably get a lot of exercise.

  12. Great post – I think about this too and try to let Jack & Maggie make some choices on their own. Maggie, being fearful doesn’t really like it and prefers structure, so she shows her stress pretty quickly – she freezes. Jack is Mr. happy-go-lucky NOW, but he stressed a lot and shows it by invading your space. Neither would be a good “Merle”. Now Tino, he was absolutely a Merle type dog – he lived totally by his wits for months before we rescued him and continued to live a pretty independent life…even when he went blind. Love those books.

    • Yeah, I loved Kerasote’s books. They really made me think.

      I suspect Honey would be happy to make all the choices as long as I followed her with my treat pouch. Otherwise she wouldn’t bother to get too far ahead of me.

      I’m curious about Maggie. Do you find that in the safety of your home she shows strong preferences for things? Or will she always take your (or Jack’s) lead?

      • She’s getting braver both in and outside. It’s funny, just before and after dinner she is her bravest and most proactive – I think her instinct just kicks in sometimes and she overcomes her fears and lets herself be a dog. The only thing she shows a preference for is food. She won’t play with toys or anything. She has really grown to love the dog door and the backyard now. On walks she is pretty independent too and prefers to be off leash as she is a sniffer…but that’s also the time she can become the most spooked and freeze. At that point our only recourse is to head home.

  13. I read your post early this morning and didn’t leave a comment since I didn’t have anything significant to say. Then a little later I took Cricket (beagle) out for a jog, only she didn’t want to jog. I had your post in mind, and just decided to go at her pace, and I think she really enjoyed that, and as it turns out, so did I! We got a little jogging in, but mostly walking and she had fun following her nose which, believe it or not, she doesn’t do that often. I let her pick some of the directions we went too! It inspired a post for later this week, so thanks so much for this! Oh, and Cricket thanks you too. :)

    • Thanks for stopping back, Jan, and telling us about how this worked in real life.

      In fostering, I’ve certainly learned not to rush a beagle. But Honey enjoys picking up the pace some. In fact, when we have a beagle or other hound in the house, she becomes a little depressed at taking such slow walks.

      Too bad you’re not close enough to pick up Honey for an occasional run. She’d love it. :)

      When the dogs choose a certain path, I always wonder what I’m missing. They obviously smell something interesting in one direction. And I have no idea what it is.

  14. This is really god to think about! I’ve read the thing about middle managers and it makes so much sense. Since I foster a lot of impulsive shelter dogs, and since Fozzie himself is impulsive and anxious, I most often am intervening to block their choices to engage in impulsive activity. This evening is a perfect example–they are both eager to wrestle like mad, but that choice allows them to practice behaviors they’re already really good at! So I agree with letting dogs make their own choices–and maybe good training is about helping dogs make better choices :)

    • “maybe good training is about helping dogs make better choices” – nicely put. And I think it’s very true.

      When we train Honey not to jump on people, we give her a choice: jump on the person and get ignored or pick up a toy with four paws on the floor and get lovies. Unfortunately, I’ve never figured out how to train the people to ignore her when she’s jumping.

      I have to figure out how to encourage people to make better choices. :)


  1. […] just a bit.  I happened to read a blog post at Something Wagging This Way Comes, titled “Stop Stressing Out Your Dog“.  The idea behind Pamela’s post (you can click on the title to read it yourself) is […]