7 min read


Can Dogs Feel Autonomy?



7 min read


Can Dogs Feel Autonomy?


This is a subject dear to the heart of all freedom seekers who have instigated revolutions to redeem their autonomy. As citizens of a confined planet, we seek to be autonomous and, watching animal planet, we long for the apparent freedom many wild animals appear to have.

Making one’s own choices in a world of rules and regulations is no easy feat, so how does it feel for our dogs that were once wolves living a reasonably autonomous life? Perhaps our canine pals are in the same boat and take their freedom when they can. It's deep within our souls to feel a sense of free will, so do our dogs also want autonomy?


Signs a Dog Could Feel Autonomy

In order to be autonomous, a dog needs to be self-aware and this thinking has a fan base with Natalie Evans, the author of Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self. Her research into animal ethics shone a light on humans not being the only autonomous beings on the planet. If a dog whines because they feel pain in their body it shows they are aware something is wrong. Evans believes that all animals show variances of self-awareness and a certain need for autonomy.

Watching our woofers run free in the dog park highlights their love of freedom. It’s a doggy dance of autonomy as the neighbor's Collie runs off, hoping to be chased. Each pooch in the park feels the unrestrained feeling of being able to bark, yelp, and roll around in the grass. It’s a magical time for all mutts to be free of constraint and enjoy hanging out with other woofers looking for the same sense of freedom.

With tails wagging in unison, the happy pups meeting up at the dog park play cute guarding games with the ball, their heads bobbing up and down. Dog owners love the sight of care-free canines soaking up the fun-filled ambiance as their pups pace around, the whole time drooling and panting with glee. We see how much our dogs adore being off-leash, kicking up their paws, and howling like a wolf in the wilderness.

It’s been confirmed by the Daily Mail and a study at the Barnard College, US that dogs are aware of who they are by their unique scent. Yes, woofers are self-aware, although they didn’t get a pass at the classic mirror test used by scientists to see if animals can understand who and what they are. 

Our beloved dogs work differently and it was possibly an AHA moment somewhere in a laboratory when a great mind realized dogs think a lot with their noses. Their “out of this world" olfactory system is a guiding light for all pooches and a strong indicator of how they navigate the world they live in. If dogs are self-aware, do they also seek their autonomy?

A dog chained in the backyard and heard to constantly howl and bark is merely expressing its awareness and desire for freedom. The same goes for the pooch being locked up in a home with little access to the outside world. Their cry for help could be a campaign of destruction or vocalizations that finally get the attention of authorities. An aggressive pooch with cause to snap and bite might be frustrated by their lack of autonomy over an abusive owner.

Body Language

Signs a dog could be autonomous include:<br/>

  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Panting
  • Howling
  • Sniffing
  • Snapping
  • Biting

Other Signs

<p>Sings a dog is trying to be autonomous are:</p>

  • Playing With Other Pooches At The Dog Park
  • Trying To Escape
  • Getting Aggressive When Mistreated
  • Going Wild When Off-Leash
  • Barking When Chained Or Confined

History of Autonomous Dogs


When mankind first walked the earth, their own personal autonomy was stunted by predators looking to make a meal of them. Their self-awareness was evident but freedom was somewhat restricted. Wolves, the Kingly ancestor to our esteemed dogs, led an autonomous life as terminators in a prehistoric world. Roaming in packs, these soldiers could take down animals far greater in size.

So, why did a species comfortable in their own furry skin give up their autonomy to combine forces with humans? A lot of reasons have been given including the tempting scent of mammoth roasting on an open camp, or a desire to rule the open plains.

Different species are super-glued to their own kind, so getting psychological, what benefit would there be a for a warrior-wolf predator to relinquish their freedom.

To back up this theory, Defense Systems tells us the Pentagon is looking to create drones that hunt like wolves. The U.S military wants to mimic their hunting skills with unmanned aircrafts designed to track and engage targets. Wolves appear to have a pack mentality that allows them to live free and hunt in a group where every member is engineered to play their part.

The ever-growing populations of street dogs live a reasonably autonomous life as they wander the urban landscape looking for shelter and the next feed. Their day to day existence is one of avoidance as many people have little empathy for their plight.

From the day we made dogs our companions, their freedom was altered. All breeds of pooches were called upon to either perform tasks or live with us as animal friends. Their autonomy was in the hands of humans, who took charge of their lives and endeavored to make them happy and safe.

Dogs now have little connection to the wolf, except for a long distance call for autonomy. Science has told us they are self-aware, so the question is, do they crave their liberty?

Charles Darwin, an 18th-century philosopher, wrote that the difference between animals and humans is not black and white but various shades of grey. This would account for dogs having more powerful senses of hearing and smell than us, so they perceive this planet in a different way. We may have been walking around this world for over 200,000 years but our awareness of other species is still limited.

The Science of Dogs Feeling Autonomous


Science has made it pretty clear that dogs are sentient beings. They feel happy, sad, and can pick up on their companion’s moods. Psychology Today reinforces the science stand with the news that other animals are showing unique traits, proving they have minds of their own.

According to Live Kindly, pigs are intelligent, love to play, and can recognize who they are in a mirror. Some folks refer to them as pink dogs. Who would have thought elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress, or squirrels were cunning. 

With more restrictions applied to beaches, parks, and areas you could once take your dog, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the inequality between canines and humans. According to International Dog, creating a multi-species society could be the way to go. This would be a world where all animals’ autonomy was respected.

According to Time Magazine, a neuroscientist named Gregory Berns, who put pooches through MRI machines, thinks dogs have everyday occurrences similar to us. This might suggest their level of awareness is greater than thought. It's sure a lot further on than the picture painted by 17th-century philosopher Descartes, of dogs being non-thinking machines.

Our pooches present the cognitive level of a toddler and it is at this age a child becomes self-aware and desires the right to self-govern. Mom might ask junior to go to bed and for the first time, hears a resounding NO! If our pups have toddler autonomy, it could explain why some testing pooches refuse to sit, while others are stubborn beyond words. They might just be exercising their doggy sovereign rights.

Training Dogs to Think for Themselves


How do we grant our dogs more autonomy? We obviously can’t let them run free, as they could be harmed or impounded. Back in the day, it was the norm to let your pooch roam, especially if you lived in a rural area or a quieter neighborhood.  Nowadays there are signs pertaining to a dog’s freedom everywhere. 

If a pooch could read, they might think they are the public enemy number one, but laws have evolved for good reason. We live in cities and suburbia with caring dog owners who respect the rights of others, that may not be so dog-friendly. On the other side of the dog-fence lives an owner who disregards rules. Their pooch is not restrained and could chase other dogs or kids.

A dog roaming the streets may not be a threat but could go a fair distance and cause damage to property, or get hit by a car. They might also get attacked by another dog. The world has changed and a dog's autonomy has along with it. If we want to encourage their sense of freedom, there are safer ways to do it.

When you go for a walk along the trails, stretch out the leash and let your pup dictate where you go. This can be fun. Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist from "The Other End of the Leash", agrees companion dogs do not have liberty compared to pooches roaming free in nations like India. She believes off-leash walks are a great way for woofers to feel autonomous and suggests scent games as a way for dogs to do the thinking while using their own talents.

Ever heard of non-training? That’s the mantra for Canine Assistants, who teach their service dogs to think for themselves. Psychology Today featured this innovative organization who listened to science and how dogs are capable of making complex decisions.

This was played out when a stranger bellowed SIT to one of their service dogs that were outdoors, with its handler. The pup refused and the stranger commented the dog was badly trained. The handler then gently remarked his dog, named Bee, had no-training, as canine assistant dogs are taught to think autonomously. This training demands a strong bond with a handler and teaching a dog to make good choices.

When Bee was asked by her handler if she wanted to leave, he opened his left hand out to indicate YES and then right to mean NO. Bee answered by nuzzling her nose into the yes hand. (Much to the amazement of the stranger)

If you want to try this revolutionary training method with your pup, rub the scent of a treat on your left hand. Make sure the actual piece of food, is out of reach. Point at the treat and ask your dog if they would like it. At the same time open your left hand and say yes, then your right hand and say no. If they sniff the treat hand, tell them yes again and let them have their reward. This is thought-provoking and fun while allowing your dog to be autonomous with that classy canine mind of theirs!

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Safety Tip For Dogs Seeking Freedom:

  1. Make sure they cant leave the property without you.
  2. Keep your dog on-leash around busy areas.
  3. Don't let your pooch roam.

By a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Published: 06/19/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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