How much independence does your dog need

July 4 is this weekend on Saturday and in the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day mostly with cookouts and fireworks.


This year will certainly be different due to the COVID-19 pandemic but folks will do their best to celebrate regardless of circumstances.


Technically, Independence Day celebrates the United States’ declaration of independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, although for many people it’s more about the cookouts and fireworks.


What about our dogs? We all know that many dogs are scared of the noise and flashing lights of fireworks so I don’t mean what do they think of the holiday but rather what do they think about independence.


OK, the answer to that is probably not a lot as dogs are not really known for sitting around thinking deeply about philosophical questions. But, what do we think about our dogs’ level of independence? Do we sit around asking ourselves questions like:


  • Does my dog have enough independence?
  • What does independence mean to my dog?
  • How can I give my dog a feeling of independence without endangering her?
  • How much is enough independence?
  • How much is too much?
  • And so on and so on…


The idea of independence got me thinking about dogs and how much independence they have and should have. My friend, Suzanne, asked me earlier this week if my dog, Jake, ever got off leash time and if I thought he was happy with how much he got.


Jake doesn’t get to run free and frolic with other dogs because he can’t handle that and will fight. He doesn’t get to be off leash where other dogs will be for the same reason. So, Jake doesn’t get to walk along with me off leash at the park like many dogs do. 


What he does get is lots of shorter periods of off leash time. He can run free in our yard and he can run free in a nearby dog run when there aren’t other dogs there. I will also attach a 16’ retractable leash to his harness for walks at the park so I can lock it at 6-8’ when other dogs are around but he gets more leash so he can wiggle under bushes and such if the mood strikes him. He can also go from the car to the yard without his leash and vice versa.


For Jake, this seems satisfactory. I base that judgement on the fact that if I unclip his leash to untangle it from a bush or something, he does not try to take off. When we are at the dog run and he is off leash, he still comes when I call him and waits patiently for me to attach his leash to his harness.


Your dog may be different. Perhaps he is dog friendly and gets plenty of off leash romping time. Perhaps she is dog friendly but had terrible recall so stays mostly on leash. I believe the question of independence is less about how much off leash time a dog gets and more about how much opportunity for choice a dog has each day.


If we define independence as how often a dog gets to make choices about her own life rather than how much time a dog gets to run around unleashed, the impact on quality of life is much easier to see. The more choice a dog has, the better that dog’s life will be.

dog thinking about playing

What do I mean by choice in this context? It’s things like allowing your do to choose:


  • The route you take on your morning walk
  • Whether he is in the mood for being pet or not
  • Where to sleep
  • What game she wants to play with you
  • Which toy to buy at the store


What other ways can you think of to give your dog choices?


Choice also means giving your dog time to think before responding to a request from you. For example, if you are at the park and call your dog to come to you, give him a moment to think and choose to run to you rather than call several more times if he doesn’t turn on a dime in your direction. Sometimes it takes a minute to transition activities just like it does for people. If your dog has a well trained recall and generally comes running when you call, giving him a moment to choose is a kindness not permissiveness.


Plus, choice provides mental stimulation and enrichment for your dog. Getting to use her mind and sort out a decision is really good for your dog’s emotional well being.


What are some ways you can give your dog an opportunity to make choices in daily life? Share your favorite ideas in the comments!