Giving Your Dog the Power of Choice


You know how people claim to be equals in a relationship? I really don’t think such a thing is possible. There’s always going to be one party who gives just a little bit more, whose wants and preferences are satisfied just a little more frequently, and even one party who loves just a little bit more than the other.

When it comes to parents and children, there’s even less equality. That’s the kind of relationship where someone has to be the boss, and smart parents don’t allow their children to fill that role. Of course it’s something like that with humans and dogs as well – you love your dog and want him to be happy, but if you’re smart, you won’t let him be the boss.

Not letting your dog be the boss doesn’t mean that you can’t allow him to make choices, though. It’s like with kids – why wouldn’t you, for instance, let them choose between their red pajamas and their blue ones at bedtime? Why shouldn’t they be able to decide between an apple or an orange for an after-school snack?

I give Janice and Leroy a lot of opportunities to make choices, allowing them the full run of the house and access to whatever piece of furniture they choose to nap on. I also leave the door to the fenced-in yard open in good weather so they can choose whether they’d like to be indoors or out. But I never actually though of taking it further until just recently – further meaning to the point that they actually get to make decisions about what we’re going to do together.

Positive Reinforcement

If you think about how dog training methods have changed over the past couple of decades, you’ll see that we simply don’t train our dogs the way our parents or grandparents did. Even the language is different now – what they called “obedience,” we call “manners.” We “teach” as opposed to “training,” and we don’t “command.” Instead, we “cue.” And we use positive reinforcement instead of punishment, because we want our dogs to feel good about doing what we ask, not to respond out of fear.

You’d probably think that this shift in how we deal with our dogs would result in a world of happy, well-adjusted canines, but animal behaviorists tell us otherwise. They point to the large number of dogs who are anxious and stressed and who seem to have a very high arousal level and little in the way of impulse control. So, positive reinforcement alone is not a cure-all for what ails the modern dog.

Story Time!

I told you a bit about my call center days in Veterinarians, Vet Techs and Job Burnout. I’ve worked in good centers and bad, and I can tell you that the absolute worst center I ever worked in was an outbound center where everything was scripted. You couldn’t deviate from the script at all. And by “at all,” I mean that if you were supposed to say “This offer is only available for a limited time,” you couldn’t say “This offer is available only for a limited time.”

Oddly enough, this was one of my more lucrative call center positions. With sales bonuses, I was actually making a respectable income as opposed to the usual poverty-level wage. But I was miserable. Why? Because I had no control at all. I was well-rewarded, but I felt powerless.

I wonder sometimes if our dogs feel that way – they know we love them, and when they do what we want, we reward them. But maybe they’d just like to be a bit in control of their own destiny once in a while. Maybe they’d like to make a few decisions.

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Why You Should Let Your Dog Make Decisions

Dr. Susan Friedman is a Utah State professor of psychology who has pioneered the use of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in dealing with companion animals. ABA is based in human learning and focuses on correcting behavioral problems in children by empowering them and using positive reinforcement. Dr. Friedman is very much of the belief that the ability to control outcomes is vital to good behavioral health. She also believes that as much as possible, companion animals should have a similar level of control. The lack of control that most dogs have, she theorizes, is what leads in large part to aggression, separation anxiety and other behavioral issues.

So just maybe, we would have dogs that are more emotionally healthy if they were permitted to make decisions. Of course you’re not going to be able to communicate verbally that you’re giving your dog more power than he’s used to – you’ll need to teach your dog to make decisions.

Shaping Exercises

One of the best ways to show your dog that he can have a little more power and control over his own life is by setting up a problem, and then helping your dog figure out how to solve it. This is called “shaping.”

With shaping exercises, the goal is for the dog to figure out what he has to do in order to earn a treat. It can be something as simple as asking the dog to sit, and then rewarding him. I know, now you’re shaking your head and thinking “But you just finished saying that isn’t giving the dog a choice!” And you’re right; it’s not. It’s just the position that you start from. You’re beginning with a very simple problem for the dog to solve – the problem is that the dog knows you have a treat for him, and he has to figure out what to do in order to get you to give it to him.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you could try something along the lines of hiding the treat behind your back before putting it in one hand or the other. Then extend both closed hands, and tell him “You pick!” A dog’s sense of smell being what it is, he’s almost certain to nose the hand holding the treat. Then give it to him, and tell him, enthusiastically, “Good choice!”

You could also put out a selection of toys, and ask your dog to “Get the green ball.” If he brings you the rubber chicken instead, just say “Wrong choice” in a neutral tone, and ask again for the green ball. Encourage him verbally, point to the green ball, and when he finally delivers the green ball, give him an enthusiastic “Good choice!” and a treat.

This might not sound like much in the way of “choice” since the dog still has to do what you want in order to get a reward, but you’re still laying groundwork. Basic problem solving is just the start, and there is a sort of choice involved – bring the right toy and get a treat. Decide on the wrong one, and there’s no bad outcome, but there’s no reward either. What the dog learns here is that he is controlling the outcome.

The Bucket Game

Chirag Patel is a London dog trainer who has developed what he refers to as the bucket game, which takes the concept of choice to another level. The trainer chooses an activity that is to be done with the dog – perhaps nail clipping or ear cleaning. If it’s going to be nail clipping, the trainer touches the dog’s toes to indicate what is about to happen. If it’s going to be ear cleaning, the trainer will signal what is intended by touching the dog’s ears. The dog is encouraged to focus on the bucket while all this is happening.

Of course it doesn’t have to be a bucket – you can use a toy, a mug, or an anvil for all it really matters. What does matter is that the dog is positioned in such a way that he’s looking at the object.

“What in the world is this going to achieve?” you ask. Well, it’s just this – if the dog doesn’t want his ears cleaned or his toenails clipped, it’ pretty much a given that he’s going to react, and when he does, he will inevitably look away from the bucket. At that point, you stop doing what he doesn’t like. You’re letting him make the choice. Then you try the activity again. With patience, eventually the dog will allow you to clip his nails or clean his ears. Don’t force the issue; just wait until he’s fully focused on the bucket.

Of course you won’t always let your dog have his own way. But with the bucket game, you’re showing him that he will sometimes be allowed to make his own decisions. He’ll feel empowered.

Which Hand?

Another way that you can get your dog used to making choices is by using treats. Put a high-value treat in one hand and a less desirable one in the other hand. Show the dog both treats, but don’t let him take them just yet. Now, close your hands, extend them toward the dog and ask “Which hand?” Whichever hand he sniffs first, open it up and let him have the treat. Repeat several times, and make sure that you’re not always holding the more desirable treat in the same hand.

You can play this game with toys, too. Pick up a couple of his toys, extend your hands, and ask him “Which toy?” Then reward him by playing with the toy that he’s chosen.

By now, your dog should pretty well have the idea that he’s going to be able to make decisions and control outcomes. You can introduce all kinds of choices every day. Maybe let him choose which sweater he’d like to wear while you’re out walking or visiting the dog park together. Or let him decide whether he wants to nap on the sofa or on a chair. Would he rather get in your lap or lie beside you? The possibilities for choices you can offer are pretty much limitless.

Building a Better Relationship

The whole idea behind allowing your dog to have the power of choice is to help him be happier, more confident and better adjusted. Rather than simply ordering him around, you’re giving him a certain measure of control – allowing him to influence outcomes. Your relationship will become less of a “master/servant” pairing and more one of mutual respect and companionship.

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The Final Word

Obviously, you’re not going to stand by and watch your dog make choice that could have bad outcomes. You’re not going to, for example, ask him if he would prefer to play in the yard or out in traffic. You’re not going to ask him if he’d rather walk through a really bad neighborhood or keep to safer, familiar surroundings. You can, though, give him the choice of playing indoors or in the yard. And you can let him choose which safe neighborhood to walk through. You simply want to give him a few options.

Of course you still have to be the final authority, the same as you would with a child. But wouldn’t it be fun if, say, you went for a walk, asked your dog “Right or left?” and let him make the decision? Dogs that are confident and have a sense of control are less prone to anxiety, nervousness and undesirable behaviors. So think about letting your dog make decisions, and then show him how to go about it.

I can’t wait to get started doing this with Janice and Leroy! I think it’s going to open up all sorts of exciting possibilities for the way we interact with one another. So next time we’re out and about, instead of me deciding whether we’ll walk through the forest or head down to the river, I think I’ll let them make the decision. I’ll let you know how it goes, and I’d also love to hear from you – have you tried allowing your dog to make choices? How did it go? Leave a comment!