I’ve started to allow Tess to set her own meal times. If she brings me her bowl (and it's close enough to meal time +/- a few hours), I will feed her. The trade off is that meals happen in her kennel and she chills in the kennel for several hours post meal time.
In essence she is making a choice to give up her freedom (which is her most precious commodity) and spend a couple of quiet hours in her kennel when she decides she wants food more then freedom.
Recently I’ve allowed her to end her own training sessions too. Instead of making it a point that *I* am the one the initiates and end training and play sessions and thus *I* am the one that controls resources, attention, and routines - I've given that control back to her when I can.
What have I learned in this experiment?
Foremost I have learned that given options and a way to control significant aspects of her life, Tess makes good decisions with less stress then if those same choices are imposed on her.
I want to emphasize that Tess isn't allowed to go wild without any type of structure or regulation even though she has increased autotomy. Pleas for a lunch go ignored (and there isn't much opportunity for her to ask at the "wrong" time anyways since I'm home in the mornings and evenings mostly), and ignoring cues isn't allowed. She still isn't allowed on the counter, or in the trash, and bolting through the door to chase the neighbor's cat that suns itself on our front patio is still off limits.
However with less extrinsic psychological control on her (I'm telling you to do something so now you must decide whether to obey or be naughty) she seems more capable of practicing instrinsic control (I know the right answer for the situation is to ask by sitting instead of asking by pawing), gives me less stress signals, and seems more capable of willingly following extrinsic requests when I do make them (leave a very stimulating play session with her best friend and come over to me).
In conjunction with giving her more autonomy I've also started giving her less in other areas. It's well documented that humans suffer from decision making fatigue and depletion of willpower, and I believe this also occurs in horses and dogs. Thus I limit the number of times I have to ask her to use self control so she has more left over for when I need it. So, I'm mindful of when I'm asking her to do things that require her to decide to make the right choice when she would prefer not to (don't scarf food off the plate that I left on the floor), and if I know it's going to be a HARD choice for her to make, and there's no reason to have her practice that level self control (we aren't training, she isn't going to get a gold star/awesome reward for making a good choice, the reward of being naughty is so much greater then any risk of "negative" from me) then I remove the choices completely. Such as putting her on a leash while I sit in my chair. By doing so, I have set her up for success by not leaving her with any sort of option for a "bad choice", both preserving her willpower, her decision-making ability, and lowering her stress level (and mine!).
This combination of spending time on either end of the spectrum - removing choice and setting her up for success, while also giving her more autonomy for other things she cares about - and minimizing the time "in the middle" where she's obeying commands and having to to work really hard to ignore what she really wants to do is working well.
Overnight I have a dog that is more likely to stay in the house then dash out the door after a dog or a cat if the front door is accidentally left ajar. A dog that is more likely to ask to go outside by sitting by the door instead of pawing at it. A dog that no longer attempts to figure out the trash can lid in order to get to the contents. A dog that doesn't scheme to drag whatever poor stuffed animal she's currently obssessed with out to destroy it the minute the spare bedroom door is left open. A dog that is more likely to look at me and sit if she spots a bird or a cat that she wants to stare at and chase. A dog who is excited to follow cues and commands when I do ask.
In summary, I have a dog with impulse control that is more likely to go to great lengths to communicate me her wants and needs, rather then demand and then take matters in her own hands. And this is a very good thing indeed.
I don't think I could have necessarily done this without the previous foundation of training that Tess had. But I do think it's a natural progression of that training. Much like my 16 year old proven endurance horse enjoys a different sort of relationship and freedom within the partnership then her 3 year old half sister has, the 4 year old Tess enjoys certain priveleges that her 2 year old self could not have been successful with. Training dogs and horses never completely stops but what happens when once things like down, sit, stay, come, and other commands are mastered, training moves beyond "commands" (and "tricks") or other behaviors done "on cue"? For my animals exploring concepts like what I've written in this post is part of that ever evolving training journey.