Offering your dog choice is becoming an important part of dog training and behavior modification. It might seem strange and counter-intuitive that giving your dogs more choices can lead to better behavior, but the benefits are becoming more and more clear.
Giving your dog a choice doesn’t mean you let them do whatever they want. I distinctly recall one of the best pieces of advice I received when wedding dress shopping was that I was NOT going to try on every dress in the store. Instead, I was encouraged to find a few styles of dress and try on a dress or two of each type. The ladies who came with me were permitted to help pick those dresses BUT, once those initial selections were made, that was it. No new dresses were to be handed to me until we narrowed things down. After trying on a few, it was clear there was real logic behind this method. After just a few different dresses, my head was already spinning, and I am one of the most decisive people I know! If there had not been restrictions made on my choices, I might have stressed myself out and been at that store all day.
When it comes to our dogs, we need to find a balance between no choice and too many choices. A dog given free range of your home with no rules is clearly getting to make too many choices. They can do whatever they want without limit and usually, our response to those choices is going to be frustration and anger, which is terribly unfair since we let them choose what they wanted to do without restriction. After all, we probably didn’t want them to choose barking out the window, chewing up the couch, or stealing food off the counters. No choice means they spend their entire lives in confinement and that’s not fair to them either. So where is the balance?
Choice allows us to correct behavior problems. For this, choices should be limited but not overly restrictive. For most common behavior problems, we want to set up the environment so that only appropriate choices can be made and then we reward the one our dog picks. For example: Setting up the living room so the dog is confined to an area that contains only dog-safe items to play with. When the dog choses a behavior like “play with dog toy” or “lay down quietly” we can reward those choices with attention, food, or play. For more on this topic, see my article Management = Success.
Choice works for grooming and veterinary scenarios. More and more zoos are starting to train the animals in their care to cooperate in their own veterinary care because unless you sedate the wild animals, it’s pretty safe to say no person is going to be able to sit on them and force them to get a shot or be still for a blood draw. You might think to yourself, NO WAY! If given a choice, most animals are not going to want to get blood drawn. But let me ask you this: Do you enjoy going to the dentist? Do you do it anyway? Turns out most animals are happy to cooperate if they have choice in the matter and are receiving reinforcement for that choice! Check out the videos below for some prime examples of this!
Choice is enriching. If every time you went out with your friends, they never took your tastes into consideration and always picked the location, the restaurant, and the activities you’d be participating in that day, you’d probably stop hanging out with them. If you aren’t interested in something, you aren’t going to give it much attention and your engagement will dramatically decrease. The same is true of our dogs. If we always pick the route of the walk, if we always chose the toy and the game we play, your dog isn’t likely to commit as readily to the activity as when you let them occasionally make the choice. I often ask my dog to bring me particular toys by name, but nothing seems to make him happier than when I ask him to get me “a toy” and get gets to sniff through his box of things and select the one HE wants us to play with. Often, he comes bouncing over to me with a little extra spring in his step as if to say, “look mom, I picked the banana!”
Choice prevents learned helplessness. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it is used to describe the phenomenon wherein a person or animal stops trying/behaving/attempting to solve a puzzle because they have come to the realization that their behavior has no impact on the results. If your dog is getting yelled at for every choice they make, eventually they will stop trying to please you. They just learn that nothing matters, so don’t bother trying. We want our animals to know that they can make choices that impact their lives! Pick the right thing, good things happen! This will increase their confidence and make them happier and mentally healthier. For more on this topic of choice and learned helplessness, I recommend the article by Laura M. Kurtycz that can be found HERE.
Choice creates cooperation. Anyone who has ever fought with a toddler who didn’t want to get dressed can attest to the aggravation that argument can cause you. I distinctly recall this being an issue with my younger siblings. By simply offering the child two outfit options (not the whole closet!), you can save yourself the drama. Notice that not getting dressed wasn’t an option but by giving the child a choice, success was achieved! Choice often gets us cooperation! This is true of our dogs. Letting them have a say in the rewards we use, the location we train in, or the time of day we train can all have big impacts on our dog’s willingness to participate.
The bottom line here is that choice should be a part of your dog’s life. By giving your dog choice, you might find that things get a little bit easier.
Nicole L Yuhas CPDT-KA
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.