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Animals in Control

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Animals in Control by Eva B, Emilie J-V and Peggy Hogan

This was a really fascinating session with examples by multiple species (dogs, horses, birds, etc.). I found I have been doing this without really being conscious of it most of the time. but I’m looking forward to teaching even more choice signals. I love having my dog be able to tell me exactly what he wants/needs!

  • ABC’s of choice: In situation X, if I do Y, then you do Z (must be predictable)
  • 3 types of communication/choice:
    • Request (animals can tell us what they want)
    • Choice (Animals can make educated choices between desired options)
    • “Green light/red light behavior” (Animals can direct when an action will start/stop)


  • A behavior that specifies the reinforcer (getting what is asked for) (water, going outside, leaving the area, etc.)
  • Animal is cued by the desire and/or opportunity (empty water bowl, need to pee, anxiety)
  • If the animal were to get something else, it wouldn’t be reinforcing (going outside when animal wants water would not be reinforcing or could alter the behavior if that consequence happens often)
  • Can help humans meet the basic needs/desires of the animals in their care and open lines of communication can reduce some problem behaviors.
  • How to teach a request behavior:
    • Teach the “alert/request” behavior you want to use and have it on cue (nose poke, chin rest, pawing, etc.) Be sure it is socially acceptable (barking in an apartment/hotel/seminar is not good). In some cases you can use or shape the behavior the animal is already giving you.
    • Read body language to determine what the animal wants (dancing by the door to go out, whining by empty water/food bowl, etc.)
    • When animal gives the current signals, cue the new behavior you want and then reward with what the animal is requesting (nose poke = going outside to pee/poop)
    • Ensure the signal behavior does not turn into other things (take dog out on leash for 2 min., if potty doesn’t happen, come right back in. Don’t let it turn into a request to play outside).
  • Sometimes the answer is no
    • You can teach the animal a “wait/not now” cue once the behavior/reinforcer link is strongly established. Just don’t use it too often.
    • Sometimes the answer is simply “no, you can’t have that”.


  • Might be a single option (would you like this? Yes or no) Animal can respond with a “yes” answer. Absence of yes answer can be the “no” response.
  • Might be a choice between multiple options (would you like this? Or this? Or this?) Animal can pick/select the option/item it wants.
  • Choice adds opportunities for the animal to control his life/environment and you can test the animal’s preferences (do you want to work for the toy or the treats today?)
  • How to train a choice behavior:
    • Animal must have experience with an ABC contingency. They have to know that they can control the outcome with their behavior and that things can predict the availability of reinforcement (basic clicker training) In situation X, if I do Y, then you do Z.
    • Might need to teach an indication behavior (nose touch, retrieve, paw) depending on choices
    • For different objects, the choices can be presented to see which the dog chooses (different toys or treats)
    • For a single option (a yes/no question) the animal’s response = yes and lack of response = no. (Door opened is the “do you want to go outside?” question. The dog going out = yes. Dog not going out = no and door closes)
    • When using items/targets to indicate different options, you’ll need to teach each separately before offering a choice. If the square means going for a walk and the circle means going swimming, you’ll have to pair each target item with its related action first.
      • Show square, go for walk, Show square, go for walk, Show square, go for walk, etc.
      • Show circle, go to the lake, Show circle, go to the lake, Show circle, go to the lake
      • THEN, once those seem to be known, try offering both. Where you go depends on the selection the dog makes.
    • If there is no choice- don’t ask. (Parent asks child- “do you want to put on your coat?” Kid says no, but parent knows they are going outside so the coat has to be put on anyway).
    • If there is something that has to be done (such as ear drops for ear infection) give the animal warning of when you are going to go get the drops. This allows the animal to relax for the majority of the day instead of thinking about running every time you move (having them on edge all day is very stressful).
    • If force will be involved (such as needed restraint for medical care before choice is taught), don’t use treats DURING the unpleasant situation. It can poison the rewards. Instead, give the reward at the very end, where it is paired with relief/escape/desired consequence. Rewards SHOULD be used if the animal has a choice in the process. If the animal is free to leave then rewards can be delivered for staying. If he knows how to do green light/red light behavior rewards can be delivered for that behavior.


  • These behaviors give the human permission. It could be permission to clip nails (by offering a paw), wash an eye (by pressing eye to cloth), drop a teeter during training (by choosing to lower his head), give a belly rub (by rolling on his back), etc.
  • In most cases, the green light is a duration behavior the animal does and “red light” is implied when the animal stops the green light behavior (removes the paw, moves eye away, raises head up, getting up and leaving)
  • Sometimes it’s helpful to teach a “red light” behavior and have the “green light” be implied. If dog gets anxious about something on a walk, stopping and/or backing up can be the “stop” signal that lets the animal communicate his anxiety about what is coming up. If the dog doesn’t stop/back up, the green light is implied and the walk can continue.
  • Why teach these?
    • Useful for getting the animal to offer desired behavior in spite of something unpleasant (offering a paw for nail trim even though dog doesn’t necessarily enjoy nail trims)
    • Gives the animal control to stop something unpleasant if it gets to be too much
    • The control paired with reinforcers for desired behavior can turn the unpleasant into something the animal not only tolerates, but enjoys!
    • Gives us information about how the animal really feels about the situation
    • Can make us better at reading body language
    • From another session at a different Expo- having choices for unpleasant things was explained this way: “We all know we have to go to the doctor and dentist, but few people enjoy those visits or the resulting procedures. We still go, but we know we always have the choice to not go (even if greater illness or even death would result). But imagine how much more scary those visits would be if you were kidnapped, physically restrained, strapped to the chair/table and had zero idea what was going on!” This is, unfortunately, how most dogs see vet visits. And when they KNOW something is going to be unpleasant (nail trim, ear cleaning, etc.) and force is used, it becomes even more unpleasant. But when you teach the animal to be a willing participant in these sorts of things whenever possible, there is MUCH less stress on you and the animal. This video is just one example of this in action:
  • Teaching the permission cue:
    • You may be able to capture yes/no reactions as you are working with the animal. If he pulls away, that can be your signal to stop and move away. If he moves closer, that could be a “yes” signal.
    • Can use shaping to teach the animal the behavior you want (paw in hand) reward for duration of paw in hand
    • Slowly add the negative while rewarding paw remaining in hand (presence of nail clippers, nail clippers get closer to paw, touch nails, tap nails, clip a nail, etc.)
    • Paw being pulled out of hand is a “red light” response and you remove the clippers and the rewards. Paw in hand brings back the rewards and then the clippers at an easier step in the process.
    • You can also teach a specific “stop what you are doing” cue if you prefer. Nose on the target means you stop. With “nose not on target” being the implied consent to continue.
  • If the “green light” behavior has duration, you need a cue or marker that indicates when you are done. “Okay! Great job!”
  • Ensure you are giving a true choice
    • It should not be “the lesser of two evils”
    • If something is unpleasant, be sure there is a choice to be made (or don’t ask)
    • The animal should not be so desperate for the reward that it over powers the ability to choose (food for an animal that is or thinks it is starving, such as due to medication)
    • A super highly reinforcing reward can “over shadow” true feelings of anxiety or fear, but doesn’t remove those feelings. Use lower value reinforcers to ensure you are getting true “buy in” and choice to participate.
    • Take frequent breaks to assess the progress- does the animal beg you to continue? Or does he leave?

About dazzlesmom

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

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