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Dog’s Choice

There is more and more talk on social media, blogs and training lists about “Dog’s Choice” type training and what it means and if it’s a good idea or not.  So I want to make it clear what I mean when I say I use “dog’s choice” to give my dog a say in the training process and in day to day life.


Choice is defined as: “the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities and the opportunity or power to make a decision”

Limited choice = stress/poor health

Many studies (Some found here) have shown that when individuals (of a variety of species) are given the opportunity to influence their environment and/or others in their environment and have choices in their own behavior, they are happier, healthier and have less stress. Having the ability to make a choice and have control can be empowering, which can be a strong reinforcement. By contrast, not having any control over what happens TO you and/or AROUND you and not having any choice regarding your behaviors can be punishing and cause stress which can lead to depression and health issues as well as a condition called “learned helplessness”.

When a person’s sense of control is limited, such as when a person is incarcerated or placed in a nursing home, the stress level increases, sometimes dramatically. Low income, demanding jobs with little control and abusive relationships can keep a person in a prolonged state of stress. Stress suppresses the immune system, leading to poor health and shorter lives. We become anxious, restless, irritable, angry, unfocused, sad and/or depressed. But when we feel as though we have more control over our environment, we tend to live longer and be happier.  Dogs experience those same issues.

So the more often we give our dogs an ability to choose, to give them the power to have some influence regarding their behavior, their environment or others in their environment, the happier and healthier they will be.

Not a free for all

But it is not without limits. I give the dog a choice between 2 or 3 options, not free rein to do whatever he wants. So to compare it to raising a child; it is giving the child a choice between two different meal options that the adult has selected, instead of saying “you can choose whatever you want to eat”. This does not mean the ability to chose is not worthy because there are only two choices. It is still a choice the dog gets to make and can use to communicate his desires.

So for example, a session might start out with a few different treat options for the dog to choose from (or a mix of reward items).  While some dogs would eat them all, from closest to farthest as fast as they can, others are more thoughtful in the selection process and show definite preferences from session to session. And sometimes the answer to the question is “I don’t want any of those options”.  All of the dog’s selections are very valuable information for me as the trainer! And being able to choose what the dog wants to work for at that moment ensures you are truly using what the DOG wants so it will be the most effective motivator you have.

Engage with me or something else?

Another big choice the dog always gets to make for training sessions is “Do you want to engage (work) with me or not”. We all lead busy lives, but working from home gives me the flexibility to tailor training sessions to times when the dog is most receptive to learning.  Learning is happening any time that dogs are awake, especially when they are puppies and everything they experience is completely new!  And lessons about how to live within a human home happen as they are needed (“instead of chewing on that, chew on one of these”, “let’s go outside so you can potty”, etc.).  But for structured training sessions, when I want to teach the puppy or dog a new behavior or work on polishing known behaviors, I can choose times of day that make it more likely the puppy or dog will be able to choose to engage with me (such as after a nap or when the pup is energetic) or maybe more motivated to do so (such as shortly before a meal).

Sometimes the dog is free to choose to engage with other options in whatever way he wishes. Say, for instance, we are in the safety of the backyard. The dog can choose to go swimming, chase birds, sniff, potty, play with another dog, relax in the sun, or go through the dog door into the house. Or he can choose to play my training games and earn rewards.  The dog is free to break off his engagement with me and end or interrupt the session when he chooses. And in some cases, like in sessions that use the “cookie jar” concept, the dog is free to go investigate and check on the rewards he might be getting.

Outside of the house and fenced areas, the dog’s choices may need to be more limited (for the safety of the pup) with the use of a leash or long line until a solid recall is learned. This does limit the possibility of choices, but the dog is free to chose to disengage and focus on other things if that’s what he wants to do.  This is very different from some training methods that use the “ignore distractions or else” method or even people who try to “beg” or “nag” their dog to pay attention to them using the leash or cues or attractive sounds or certain rewards as enticements. I’m not hung up on the dog giving me their attention during training, even if I don’t have rewards on me, because I know it will develop and engagement will be a very strong choice as the dog acclimates to the environment, learns the habit of engagement and it is shaped into becoming  part of the “picture” of what I want the finished behavior to look like.

Shaping engagement

At first the engagement is likely to be just a moment of eye contact that I mark/click and the puppy coming to me to get his motivator.  But that develops fairly quickly into a puppy that stares at me and is hard to disengage. I can increase the duration of the engagement by waiting longer and longer before I mark the engagement and deliver a reward he wants.  And gradually the level of distractions going on around the puppy increase and I get longer and longer engagement even in highly distracting environments.  When I have a few seconds of engagement, I start asking for simple behaviors we have been working on like sits and downs and short recalls and now it’s those behaviors that gets me to mark and reward (the attention becomes part of the behavior). This is very simplified but you can see the exact steps of how to develop the dog’s ability and choice to engage/focus in the “training steps” documents on this blog. It is built into each behavior from the beginning because the dog always has the choice to work/play with me or to “surf the environment” to the extent that it is safe to do so.

Has to vs. want to

I feel that much of the disconnect that occurs between dogs and their humans is stress and conflict related. The dog knows it should pay attention to the human and respond to commands, but there are smells and people and other dogs and so many other exciting things! So there is internal conflict within the dog over what he should do vs. what he WANTS to do. A dog that knows there will be unpleasant consequences for failing to ignore distractions or a dog that relies mostly on a cue from the handler has a harder time than one that has learned the habit of choosing to ignore the distractions. And because he has had an opportunity to check out all sorts of distractions as he grows up, they are not as novel or interesting.

Allowing the dog to CHOOSE to engage with me allows me to clearly see when the dog is stress free, feels safe in the environment and is ABLE to focus.

More choices

Here are more choices the puppy can make and that I will reinforce with a motivator to encourage the puppy to choose these again:

  • Sitting (the choice of not jumping up)
  • Being Quiet (the choice of not barking/whining)
  • Engaging with me (the choice of not “ignoring” me)
  • Going to the bathroom outside (the choice of not peeing and pooping in the house)
  • Walking on a loose leash (the choice of not yanking my arm out of the socket)
  • Coming to me for any reason (the choice of not running away from me, or avoiding me)
  • Lying down and relaxing (the choice of not racing around like a maniac, begging at the table, barking, pestering)
  • Bringing me anything (the choice of not playing keep away or destroying stuff in private)
  • Giving me anything (trusting me; the choice of not resource guarding and not ingesting items he shouldn’t)
  • Coming or staying near me (keeping tabs on where I am; the choice of not wandering off)

Consequences drive behavior

The frequency with which the dog chooses each of these desired behaviors over the undesirable ones is definitely influenced by the consequences of those choices.  But it is still up to the dog to make the choice.  Being a smart trainer, I will control the puppy’s environment to HELP him make good choices. Because if I am always making the choices for him, I ALWAYS have to be in a position to tell him what to do and to control the consequences and that is simply not possible. It is so much better for the dog to learn to CHOOSE desired behavior and to practice that often enough that it becomes a habit.

An example: When I’m busy, my Malinois occasionally brings me things he has found around the house to trade them for rewards.  These are things he could have easily chosen to hide from me and destroy or ingest. But he KNOWS that if he brings the item to me, one of two things will happen.  I will give him a reward and return the item to him and let him destroy it (if it’s safe, like paper I don’t need) or I will take the item and “trade” it for some yummy treats or a toy or a play session or something else he wants.  I have helped him make desirable choices by making those choices advantageous for him.

Voluntary vs. forced

Choice does not apply to all interactions with my dog, just as humans don’t always have the power to choose.  There are times that the dog simply has to do stuff they don’t want to do. Play sessions need to end, they need to go to bed when I’m ready to do so, they need to learn and exhibit self-control around things they REALLY want but can’t have.  But even things often thought of as “no fun” can be made into a choice for the dog, like vet visits/exams, baths, nail trims, crates, wearing a muzzle, etc. so that they are something the dog can tolerate or even enjoy.

It is the difference between voluntary cooperation and force. Voluntary cooperation means that the behavior or thing maybe unpleasant, but the dog is there voluntarily. Forced means there is zero choice and if the dog resists, pressure and/or physical force will be used.

Consider things you have to do but that you really dislike.  Maybe things like dental work, blood draws, certain wellness medical procedures. We still have the choice to not go (even if the alternative is pain or death), but we choose to voluntarily do these sorts of things even though they are very unpleasant.  How much worse would these things be if the person you loved the most (or a complete stranger) physically restrains you (blindfold, handcuffs, or a chemical restraint that does not allow you to resist), you are picked up and carried if needed and you are strapped down so you can’t move. Your choice to not go to such a procedure or to leave is completely taken away. It’s more like an abduction/kidnapping. Now imagine that everything you say is completely ignored and you have no idea what the people who took you are going to do to you.  Do you think that might add to your stress and your fight or flight response?

The smaller the animal, the more often this happens. But people still come up with ways to force 1500 lb horses and other large animals in this way. And it’s why zoos that deal with large, dangerous animals have gone to using force free/choice methods for medical care of the animals of all sizes. It eliminates the need for sedation and is MUCH less stressful for the animals. Just watch the alligator video on the “Other Species” page to see an excellent example!

Teaching dogs (actually, any species) that they can choose to leave, but also that it’s worth it to them to stay and give voluntary cooperation for things they don’t like gives the dog control. And simply knowing it has the choice to leave can help it choose to stay. But also teaching the dog what you will be doing and that it won’t be bad is also very empowering. If it works for alligators, killer whales, and tigers, it can certainly work with a dog!

Communication is empowerment

I just came across this article about horses that were taught to communicate with their humans about blanketing. It gives the horses a way to say “I want my blanket on” or “I want my blanket off” or “I’m fine with the way it is”. I think very similar sorts of choices and communication options could be set up for dogs.  Maybe something like a cue of “Where do you want to go” with options of the park, a walk in the neighborhood, and the lake?   I don’t know.  That’s just off the top of my head.  But I’m going to be giving it more thought!  Dogs DO learn cues for different places.  I know my dog knows “swimming” and “walk” and “outside” and “home”, so it’s not a stretch to think that he could learn to do something that communicates his desire to go to these places. Maybe a “picture board” he can use to nose poke his desire?  I’m sure there are many such applications of this sort of choice. Just food for thought for my training geek brain to ponder. 🙂




About dazzlesmom

Dog Mom, Reward-based Dog Trainer, Former Police Officer, Author, Speaker, Martial Artist, Traveler, Instructor.

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