“If Fluffy doesn’t want to, Fluffy doesn’t have to”
In the past few years, I’ve seen an interesting trend with regards to dog training. I’m not sure where or how this trend evolved, although I have my suspicions.
This trend involves the pretty basic game called “It’s Your Choice” – a name coined by a prominent dog trainer and agility handler several years ago. It’s a great game, and a simple way for trainers to get their dogs on board with the idea that their choices have consequences, both negative and positive. I start with this game almost right away with any puppy or dog that comes my way, and use it to branch out to all sorts of other games and behaviors, from teaching food bowl manners, sits and downs, to stays, getting a toy on cue, discriminating between two agility obstacles, and more.
The key with it’s your choice type games, and really, ANY choice based training, is to remember that you’re trying to create a situation where your dog gets to choose, but from a predetermined and limited number of choices created by YOU. And, this is where things have gone off in to the weeds.
A fair number of agility handlers that have come across my path seem to think that ‘it’s your choice’ means that the dog gets to choose what it wants to do from ALL the possible choices it might make. But that is SO not what It’s Your Choice means, at ALL. I’ve worked with handlers who have informed me that their dog “just doesn’t want to sit” and that’s the end of it, as though there’s no possible solution other than avoiding teaching the dog a sit entirely. Huh?
The key to choice based training is for YOU, the trainer, to create an environment (training space) where you have made available to your dog or puppy a set number of SIMPLE choices.
The idea is to keep choice making as simple and binary as possible in the beginning, until your dog is on board with the game of MAKING choices in an attempt to get you to pay out with some reinforcement. In the beginning, your dog or puppy may have no idea that its choices will produce any action whatsoever on your part. You may simply be another part of its environment in the beginning.
FRAMING CHOICES FOR MAXIMUM BENEFIT
Let’s say that you’d like to go out to dinner with your partner/spouse. Which of the following two statements is most likely to yield the desired result for you?
- “Honey, would you like to go out to dinner tonight?”
- “Honey, would you like to go to the burger joint or the spaghetti joint tonight?”
Of course it’s entirely possible you know full well that question #2 is the better statement, USE it, and still get an answer that isn’t an answer to your question at all, such as “neither” – but, question #2 is a much different way of framing choice than question #1.
Similarly, when I take my puppy out to the potty area to potty, I do not do so with the idea that my puppy can choose between pottying outside or not, and regardless of the result, return to free time in the house. My puppy can potty outside and get some free time inside, or NOT potty outside, and return to her kennel for a little while, while I move on with my day, no matter how much I’d like to play with her.
WHY SO MUCH CHOICE?
So, why is it so difficult for so many trainers to avoid this trap of thinking that their dog must be able to choose from ALL possible choices, or, choices of its own design, or else it won’t be a fulfilled animal, and the trainer is an awful, constraining human being? Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that is absolutely what I have found consistently with this issue when I stumble across it. Handlers couldn’t possibly restrict their dog’s choices because that would mean they are being mean or unfair to their dog. If Fluffy doesn’t want to, Fluffy doesn’t have to. Again, Huh?
There ARE some assumptions:
- The choices are simple
- The choices are fair
- You have something your dog wants as a reinforcement
- You’ve limited other possibilities for reinforcement
- You’re working to control the environment rather than the dog directly
- You’re actually interested in changing your dog’s behavior, and are willing to change your OWN behavior to get from what you’ve got to what you want
That last point is one that also seems to be misunderstood. So often, trainers adopt one of two attitudes:
- “I will not change my behavior at all but you must change yours”
- “I will change my behavior so you don’t HAVE to change yours”
There’s a third door here that we really should be taking:
Change YOUR behavior to get your DOG to change behavior
In my Performance Puppy ABCs course, one of the first things I work on with my puppy is a version of It’s Your Choice. I’ve included a lesson from that course below for you to watch for free!
Remember that positive training doesn’t mean permissive training.
There are still things that we need Fluffy to do that Fluffy may not inherently WANT to do. When that happens, it’s our job as trainers to make it worth our dog’s while to play our silly games! Just because Fluffy doesn’t want to sit doesn’t mean we should instantly abandon all our efforts and ask Fluffy just what HE would rather do – probably, he’d rather sniff dirt, roll in dirt, eat dirt…you get the idea.