Never underestimate the power that comes from the ability to make a choice. I think sometimes it’s easy for us, as humans, to forget how much choice we have. We make thousands of choices each day – what to eat, what do to, where to go, etc. All of these choices lead to more choices, for better or worse. Having these choices is empowering. Making them is rewarding. As a society we even use the removal of choice to act as a punishment. Locking up people in prison or house arrest removes a number of choices including the freedom to move when, where and how they’d like to.
So how does choice related to dog training? Turns out giving your dog the choice of a behavior and letting them choose is incredibly rewarding to them. Controlling these what choices are rewarding can not only help you get the outcome you want, but you won’t ever have to force your dog to do whatever you’d like them to, instead they willing choose to do the right thing because THEY want to. Let’s look at an example of how powerful those choices can be.
I use this a lot to each a dog to be calm, but to do so it does require some patience on our part though, as we have to wait and respect the dogs choice, even if it’s the one we didn’t want. For this one I’ll sit or stand near my dog and think of what behavior I want them to do. For this exercise, laying down would be ideal as it’s a nice calm behavior for the dog to be doing to keep him or her out of trouble while being nice and relaxed. Your job, as the trainer, is to only reward the choices the dogs make that get him or her closer to the desired behavior.
The dog can choose to leap around and act all silly. That’s fine. Nothing bad happens. Nothing good either though. It’s a neutral reward. The dog starts to lay down and suddenly a piece of chicken or kibble falls in front of his or her face. Wow! That was pretty awesome! In the dogs mind, why would he choose to jump around when laying down is way more rewarding. Over time you’ll see the dog begin to select the “calm” option over others because in his or her eyes that choice is clearly the more awesome one!
You didn’t have force him or her into a down. Yell “stay” over and over. Actually you didn’t really have to say anything. You let the dog have the choice in the activity and through that choice you solidified and even strong resulting behavior because choice was involved.
I use the power of choice almost every evening to prevent begging for their dinner. The dogs would start to get excited for food right around six or so, more attentive and more conscious of every move I make knowing dinner is coming soon. But every night I wait until they’re all laying down. Then dinner happens. A few weeks of this, and suddenly everyone starts to get tired around six. They’re all laying down, yawning and acting calm because that choice is what makes the food happen.
I think sometimes we’re too quick to step in and restrict the dog’s choice. We limit them to only one option or forcing them to do something they don’t want to and the dog resists. So we drag them away from another dog. Or we scold them for barking at the cat or the neighbor or another dog.
One final example of this is (an AWESOME!) infographic about how your choice effects the choices your dog has available to him or her.