Features November 2016 Issue

Training a Dog to Make Choices

Why some handlers strive to empower their dogs to make more of their own choices.

[Updated March 23, 2018]

Some 30 years ago, Karen Pryor wrote a small volume intended to be a self-help book for humans. That book turned the dog training world upside down. Don’t Shoot the Dog introduced the general public to the principles of operant conditioning and emphasized the benefits of positive reinforcement over punishment, with the goal of improving humans’ relationships with each other: husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, etc. The book didn’t make much of a splash in the self-help world. But the fortuitous inclusion of the word “dog” in the title captured the attention of dog trainers, who, led by early positive training notables such as Dr. Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson, launched a positive reinforcement revolution in the world of dog training.

Thanks to the pioneers in the development of effective, force-free dog training techniques, there are now thousands of trainers (including me) who use, teach, and promote force-free training. In the past few decades, we’ve learned the value of creating relationships with dogs based on voluntary cooperation, built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect.

We learned about the “four quadrants of operant conditioning,” and realized that the tools many of us had successfully used in the past, such as choke chains and prong collars, and verbal and physical punishment, worked because they suppressed behavior. They taught the dog that if he did the wrong thing, we would hurt or intimidate him.

dog at a crossroad

Do you ever give your dog the opportunity to decide which way he wants to go when you are on a walk? You might learn a thing or two about him if you do – and he will surely appreciate the opportunity!

We learned to ask questions. Not just, “Does this work?” but “Why does this work?’ and the very important “Is this something I am willing to do to my dog?”

We learned that there was an entire body of science behind dog training and behavior. We eagerly embraced the science, and learned about behavior analysis, unconditioned responses, classical conditioning, and much more.

The more we learned, the more we committed to our position that, while old-fashioned punishment-based methods may work, there is no need to use them, and no ethical justification to do so. We became operant conditioning junkies. We thought we had it all figured out.

Then the world shifted again.

Cognitive scientists turned their attention to dogs, and confirmed what we had suspected all along: that canine behavior is far more complex than what can be explained by Skinner boxes and Pavlovian responses. Our canine companions not only share a wide range of emotions comparable to our own, but also, they are capable of grasping and applying complex concepts, functioning on a higher cognitive level than we had previously been encouraged to believe. While positive reinforcement-based trainers had long come to value the role of “relationship” in training, to a blossoming new generation of trainers, “relationship” doesn’t just have a role; instead, training is relationship.

Positive reinforcement-based trainers have acknowledged the importance of relationship, in part, just by altering our vocabulary. Because they are a reflection of our internal processing, and because they influence our associations, words matter. Many of us now say “Cue” (a signal that indicates an opportunity to perform a behavior to gain a reinforcer) instead of “Command” (do this behavior or else!). We call our training classes “good manners” instead of “obedience.” We “ask” or “help” our dog do a behavior rather than “make” him do it. We recognize that, as the supposedly more intelligent species, it’s our job to get our dogs to demonstrate that they happily and eagerly want to do what we ask of them.

Some professionals are going one step further, calling themselves “teachers” rather than “trainers,” and suggesting that we are “educating” dogs in a broader, cognitive sense rather than just “training” them to do a specific set of rote behaviors. It’s a compelling position.

Our Dogs' Choices and Empowerment

One would expect that the rise of force-free training methods and the increased awareness of and respect for dogs as sentient creatures would make life easier for them. We should expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of calm, stable, well-adjusted dogs who are happily integrated into lifelong loving homes. But many training and behavior professionals note with alarm the large number of dogs in today’s world who seem to have significant issues with stress and anxiety, with high levels of arousal and low impulse control.

It’s quite possible this is a function of societal change. There was a time not so very long ago when life was pretty casual for our family dogs. They ran loose in the neighborhood day and night; ate, slept, played, and eliminated when they chose; and many had jobs that fulfilled their genetic impulses to herd some sheep or cows, or retrieve game felled by a hunter’s gun.

In contrast, life today is strictly regimented for many of our canine companions; many live in social isolation, and when they do get out, their activities are on a tight schedule. Owner expectations and demands are high. Dogs are told what to do from the moment they are allowed to get up in the morning until they are put to bed at night, including when and where they are allowed to poop and pee. Some of today’s dogs never get to run off-leash or socialize freely on a regular basis with other dogs. During any free time they may have, they are expected to just lie around and be “well behaved” (by human standards, not canine ones!). They have virtually no control over what happens in their world. Some trainers suggest this strict regimentation is a significant contributor to the stress and arousal levels of today’s family dog. Imagine how stressed you might be if your life was as tightly controlled by someone else.

Canine Empowerment Pioneer

The word “choice” started cropping up in positive training circles well over a decade ago, in no small part thanks to Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D., who was a faculty member in the Psychology department at Utah State University from 1995 to 2014. Today, Dr. Friedman is a frequent presenter at animal behavior and training conferences, always promoting the use of Applied Behavior Analysis – the technology of behavior change, developed originally for human behavior applications – for working with animals of every species.

Dr. Friedman began her career in psychology 40 years ago by working with adolescents with severe behavior problems at a residential treatment facility. After earning a Ph.D. in special education, she worked for a number of years in human education settings. She was drawn into the study of animal behavior after obtaining pet parrots for her young daughters.

“When I read the lay literature for how to care for and interact with the birds, I was horrified at the density of the cultural fog about how behavior works,” Dr. Friedman says. At the time, the field of parrot training was even more densely populated with punishment-based methods than dog training, and most of the advice that could be found was focused on getting rid of problematic (mostly aggressive) parrot behavior.

In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the goal is to develop procedures that will produce objectively measurable changes in behavior. In humans, the work might be aimed at increasing the amount of time that a hyperactive child will focus on homework, or increasing the number and quality of personal self-care skills (brushing teeth, bathing) that an autistic child can be expected to perform. Given her experience with using ABA to help humans increase the incidence of their socially acceptable or personally beneficial behaviors, Dr. Friedman immediately saw that the same principles could be used to help animals change their behavior, too.

“I started writing about the science of behavior change and its basic focus: that behavior is always conditional. To change behavior we need to change conditions – not the animal! – by making the right behavior easier and more reinforcing. The wrong question is to ask how to stop problem behavior. The right question is, ‘What do you want the learner to do instead?’ ”

Dr. Friedman began writing for and presenting information to animal training audiences, explaining the benefits and strengths of using ABA for teaching children with severe behavior disorders, and suggesting that the same approach can be taken with animals of any species.

One of the most basic standards for professional ABA educators is to use the most positive, least intrusive procedures that are effective for teaching new behaviors. Dr. Friedman explains that this standard is upheld in public federal laws that protect children, as well as in the Guidelines for Responsible Conduct for Behavior Analysts. She proposes,

“Surely a similar intervention hierarchy, both ethical and feasible to implement, would be in the best interest of companion animals, their caregivers, and the professionals working with them to solve behavior problems,” she says. “By selecting the least intrusive, effective procedures (i.e., positive reinforcement-based and empowering) we increase the humaneness of our interventions without compromising our learning objectives.”

Today, Dr. Friedman maintains a busy schedule, presenting lectures and behavior workshops to all sorts of animal behavior and training professionals and enthusiasts. She’s a faculty member at Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo and her online course, “Living and Learning with Animals for Behavior Professionals,” has provided even wider dissemination of effective, humane behavior change practices to students in more than 30 countries.

“The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health,” Dr. Friedman frequently tells her audiences, using examples from many captive species of animals, from marine mammals in “sea parks” to parakeets in cages (and, yes, including the dogs in our homes). “Research demonstrates that to the greatest extent possible, animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control significant events in their lives. When a lack of control becomes a lifestyle, it may result in aberrant behaviors.”

I believe that Dr. Friedman’s thesis explains many cases of canine separation anxiety, aggression, and other behaviors that indicate our dogs’ unhappiness and cause problems for dog owners. Perhaps we can help our dogs be emotionally healthier by finding ways to give them more choices in their world.

Shaping Our Dogs to Make Choices

One way we can incorporate more choice and empowerment into our dog’s daily lives is through shaping and other positive teaching techniques, where the handler sets up problems for the dog to solve.

In shaping exercises, the dog must figure out what behavior to offer in order to elicit a treat from his handler. It might be a simple behavior such as a “sit,” or it might be a complex cognitive challenge like “match to sample,” in which the dog indicates a color, shape, or object that matches the “sample” provided to him. When the dog solves the problem and offers the behavior that earns him a reinforcement, you might hear his teacher/trainer enthusiastically praise with “Good choice!” Lots of behavior choices happen in the everyday lessons of any force-free program.

But canine teachers who promote choice and empowerment have a much grander vision than basic problem-solving options. Here are some other ways in which dogs are being offered choices so they have more control in their lives, with the goal of increasing their behavioral health:

Do You Want to Work?

Some trainers now ask their dog some version of this question before embarking on any training exercise. If the dog moves agreeably or enthusiastically forward to the task, the activity continues. If the dog indicates any reluctance to engage, the activity stops, or the trainer initiates a different activity that the dog might be more enthusiastic about participating in.

The Bucket Game

London-based trainer Chirag Patel developed a protocol he calls “The Bucket Game,” in which the dog has the opportunity to indicate his choice to proceed with a husbandry procedure – or not.

Patel, who has a Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree in Veterinary Sciences from the Royal Veterinary College in London as well as a post graduate certificate at the University of Lincoln in Clinical Animal Behavior (and has a Kelpie!), presented the game to the Pet Professional Guild membership at its first conference in November 2015, and its use is spreading like wildfire. A trainer demonstrated the procedure at a recent Peaceable Paws Behavior Modification Academy. I am now a fan, and will be sharing it with many of my future clients.

In the Bucket Game, the dog is reinforced for focusing attention on the bucket (or cup, or any other small item used as a target), and the handler initiates the beginning steps of the husbandry task – perhaps touching the dog’s ears in preparation for ear cleaning. If the dog takes his attention away from the bucket, the task stops – as does the reinforcement! If the dog stays focused on the bucket (or returns his gaze to the bucket), the task (and the reinforcement) is continued. The dog learns that he controls the procedure, and as a result becomes less stressed about it, eventually choosing to continue the procedure by gazing at the bucket.

A Facebook page that has been created by Domesticated Manners for the Bucket Game describes the game as an activity that empowers the dog to indicate when she is ready to start, when she may want to take a break, when she wants to stop, and when she wants her handler to slow down. “This game was initially designed to teach essential husbandry behaviors, (those that allow your dog to actively participate in her daily and veterinary care). But you will soon learn how this game can be integrated into your every day training to help reduce barking, increase confidence, and enhance your overall relationship.”

Which Way?

Next time you take your dog for a walk, how about letting him choose the way? When you get to the end of your driveway, let him decide whether to turn left or right. If the path divides in the woods, at least sometimes follow his lead instead of always telling him which way to go. Let it be his walk.

You Pick!

If your dog isn’t accustomed to making choices with you, you can teach him to understand the choice concept with this very simple “You Pick” exercise:

1. Hold a high-value treat in one hand, and a lower-value treat in the other.
2. Show both treats to your dog in your open hands. He can sniff, but don’t allow him to eat them.
3. Close your fists, say “You Pick!” and offer both to your dog, palms up, about 6 inches apart.
4. When he “picks” one hand by sniffing it first, open your fist and let him eat that treat.
5. Repeat, using various value treats, making sure the higher value treat is not always in the same hand.
6. When your dog indicates that he understands the game by his prompt eagerness to pick a hand, generalize it by holding two of his toys and letting him pick one. (Then play with him with that toy as the reinforcer for his choice.)
7. Generalize even further by looking for opportunities to ask him to pick – which way on the hike, which food bowl, perhaps even which collar and leash he’d like to wear. Start offering him verbal choices – “Up on the sofa, or on the floor? You pick!” “Inside or outside? You pick!”

What Else?

So – where do we go with all this? All the way, with Jennifer Arnold’s Bond-Based approach (see "A Bond-Based Approach to Dog Training"), where actually teaching your dog to do specific behaviors becomes secondary to developing your relationship with him? Or is there, perhaps, a middle ground, where we are much more sensitive to the role relationships plays in our lives with our dogs, while still using positive-based training methods to help them learn the behaviors we need them know in order to live happily with humans?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the idea of giving your dog more choice and empowerment in his life? What opportunities can you identify in your life with your dog where you might be able to offer him more choices? Do you have examples you’d like to share of choice experiences you’ve had with your dog? As much as it stretches our brains, we’re excited about this step forward in the world of dog training and behavior. Are you?

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She and her husband Paul live in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where Pat offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers. Miller is also the author of many books on positive training. Her newest is Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs (Dogwise Publishing, 2016).

Comments (12)

ok so explain to me HOW to make a HIGH prey drive choose NOT to kill a racoon? Want to explain that to me.

Prey drive is prey drive there is no choice in that.

Posted by: feralcat | February 25, 2019 12:29 AM    Report this comment

LOVE this article and couldn't agree more. I use the term teach more and more as trainer just doesn't sit well with me. My dogs (both rescue with unknown backgrounds) get to choose if they come in after a walk or hang out in the yard, they get options for food, raw, kibble, canned and different days they choose different things, my oldest is 12 and sometimes just doesn't feel like another walk in the evening. I ask if they want to come with me to run errands and that's always a resounding "yes" Playing games is most always a "yes" too.
Trips to PetSmart & tractor supply is sometimes a "no" I don't want to go in there today, I guess depending on how they feel and what they smell is going on, I feel it's when it's busier they say no. I dream of the day everyone will offer and respect their dogs choices.

Posted by: skydivasb | February 24, 2019 12:40 PM    Report this comment

Dear GiftofGalway,
There's an app called Sniffspot that lists people who allow those with reactive dogs (or other issues) to use their yard.
I haven't used it myself because there are none in my area. But maybe there are some where you are?

Posted by: Snoring on a Snowday | February 20, 2019 6:58 AM    Report this comment

Agreed, a great article. I was fortunate to be able to take a series of classes with my dog where the goal was to get the dog to think -- and make good choices. Frankly, it took ME a while to "get" it. It really is a very different way of interacting with your dog. And one that has greatly improved our relationship and subsequently, his behavior. That said, we still have a (very) long way to go.

Patience is an integral part of making this work. You have to have the desire, ability (and time) to wait him out until he makes the right choice. Cleaning my dog's ears used to take 20 minutes. Two minutes to do the job but 18 for him to become cooperative. He came to understand that I was going to sit there until he was ready. And nothing else was going to happen until after his ears were cleaned. It's his choice if gets his alligator treats sooner rather than later (he has extreme allergies; all he can eat is his prescription diet and special treats that are almost 100% alligator meat).

When he's got something he's not supposed to, I do whatever I can to make myself calm, barely move, speak in a whisper, and look at him. "Give it to me" and "make a good choice" are usually all I say. What used to take 15 minutes now is less than a minute with just a look and a quiet "are you kidding me?" He knows better and we both know it. Respect -- of one another -- is also a component of getting a dog to do the right thing. Like humans, I need him to buy into the solution. It was his idea.

I have no idea what the first two years of his life were like -- only that they weren't good. It's been a while now since he's had one of his temper tantrums (really ugly). It's not always easy to be patient with him. But we're both learning. When I try to rush him, there's a problem. In the long run, patience is a great time saver.

But as I said before, we still have a long way to go. I continue to drive 45 minutes each way, every other week, to his dermatologist to get his allergy shots. My goal is to be able to give him his shots. For now, I'm happy I can clean his ears. Happier still that between the shots and the daily oral allergy medication, I rarely need to clean his ears.

If you're old enough to remember Flip Wilson, my dog is like "the devil made me do it" Geraldine character. Good choices don't come easy to him. Dogs are pretty amazing at how hard they try. I find it somewhat magical that I live with another species. But I can't imagine what it would be like if I had to live in another species' world.

Posted by: Phoenix, NY | February 19, 2019 10:46 PM    Report this comment

From our house, my dog Jake - a lab mix rescue whom we adopted 2 years ago when he was 6 1/2 - has three different walks from which to choose. I have been impressed that, from the beginning, he chooses them in sequence in order to maximize his variety, and is always excited to get in the car to be taken to some new area to explore.

Posted by: jtodd | February 19, 2019 6:53 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Pat, for another thoughtful, deep dive post. Our submissive young hound mix was attacked by another dog (lesson learned about dog parks) and because very afraid of other dogs near her. We found a dog behaviorist (thanks to another of your articles!) who helped us create a plan to rebuild Jenni's confidence. Learned the importance of making sure that there was ALWAYS a way out of any situation we put her in and that she always has the choice of a 'safe exit' if she starts to feel overwhelmed. Have been amazed how quickly her whole outlook on life turned around. You've given me more 'teachings' to apply. Again, thanks!

Posted by: RamblingDog | February 19, 2019 6:52 PM    Report this comment

I love all these ideas, many of which I already use, and more that I'm eager to try, but what jumped out at me was this: "Some of today’s dogs never get to run off-leash or socialize freely on a regular basis with other dogs." Unless one lives out in the country, it's very difficult, even impossible, to find places where dogs can run off leash and socialize. Dog parks, while a wonderful idea, are not a safe place to take dogs. There is always a risk, one I'm not willing to take. Everywhere else, off leash is illegal, and rightly so, living in a city or even suburbs, as I do. My dogs have always attended classes in various sports: obedience, rally, freestyle, nosework, etc., but the dogs, while they get along with each other, are not allowed to socialize freely. I have a couple of neighbors who bring their dogs over once in a while for a playdate. It's better than nothing, but they're still confined to the back yard, so other than on leash walks, they don't get to go out and explore the world. Sometimes I sneak them onto soccer fields and run them on a 100-foot leashes, and I dream of finding a large, fenced in area with a willing owner who would let me rent it just so my dogs could run wild. Not very likely unfortunately!

Posted by: GiftofGalway | February 19, 2019 4:03 PM    Report this comment

Interesting article. I have done this on my own with my various pets (and children) including parrots, dogs, cats and horses for years. I just did it because it seemed a natural and respectful way to interact with other creatures. Glad to read it is being studied and greatly expanded so that others can learn these fun techniques.

Posted by: Dolly2015 | February 19, 2019 1:50 PM    Report this comment

Great article! I’ve been offering my dogs choices from as far back as I can remember: toys, direction of our walks, food dish (metal, ceramic, plastic), etc... I respect the animals that share their life with mine and it simply seems “choice” is part of any relationship. I’m always pleased when we venture off onto the trail less traveled, one “best buddy” of a horse was offered the same respect and chose exploration...

Posted by: MightyMilo | February 19, 2019 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Love this article. I spend a lot of time explaining to customers, we are trying to get the dog to make his own decision. Whether it's an automatic sit to get the ball thrown or door opened, or deciding which way go on a walk etc. I played the which hand is it in game with my pup and we still play it today and again customers love it when I teach it to them to play with their dogs. Games

Posted by: Diamond Dog | February 19, 2019 12:26 PM    Report this comment

When I had my 2 elderly Kerry Blues I used to let them choose which of the many local walks around the heath near our home they wanted to do. When I mentioned this to my husband one day he thought I had lost the plot and replied "Did Parker go one way and Izzy the other?"!!
However, I had found this informative with my first Kerry Blue Cherry who suddenly decided that she always wanted to do the same walk. We later found out she had developed cataracts at a relatively young age (9) and that she felt reassurance in doing the same walk each day.

Posted by: Kerryowner | October 10, 2017 4:57 PM    Report this comment

Great article and an important one too. I run a dog school in AZ and we provide creative thinking activities to our students several times a day. When dogs are rewarded for making choices, it builds confidence, helps with problem solving, focus and impulse control. I LOVE the bucket game-will be incorporating that into our syllabus immediately!

Posted by: What Dogs Want | October 30, 2016 11:31 PM    Report this comment

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