Choice and Control : Why is this an important training concept?

All sentient animals function best when there are choices and a sense of control within environmentsThis applies to our dogs, too.  

Shaping Behaviors

The more we know, the more effectively and humanely we train our dogs.  Shaping has always been a wonderful way to teach dogs real life skills.  The idea is – catch your dog in the act of doing the right thing and reinforce it.  He WILL repeat that behavior.  There is a movement away from continually telling the dog what to do via obedience cues.  Of course, certain situations call for additional support and guidance, reminding the dog he has choices with a reinforcement history. One example of shaping is giving your dog a treat while there is slack in the leash. “Look at you.  Walking like a champ!”  Follow with a treat.   

Reduced Stress for Dog and Human

Giving the dog a choice in his behaviors takes a lot of guesswork out of his determining what “works” for him.  Dogs don’t land in our homes knowing our human routines, and they do not understand our expectations.  It is frustrating for all when the dog is guessing incorrectly and neither human nor dog knows the next move.  Calmly interrupt the behavior.  Give the dog a chance to try something else.  Four feet on the floor looking at you can be reinforced.  (A more desirable default than jumping, right?)  The more often we proactively reinforce behaviors we like, the easier it is to replace the unwanted ones.

Improved Functionality

We all function at a higher level of mindfulness when feeling less stressed.  Dogs do too!  Guardians who give their dogs choices see improved functionality because the dog is feeling sufficiently calm to learn and display life skills.  This concept is especially valuable in behavior modification for anxious and fearful dogs.  These animals can find themselves in situations where there is no consent, choice, or control.  Their emotional state renders them dysfunctional.  They are not productively learning or processing what we might ask of them.

Efficacy of Learning

When we reinforce our dog’s correct choices, she learns fast which behaviors result in good outcomes.  These turn into default behaviors, and there is little need to cue.  She has skills!  Thankfully, many styles of engagement and protocols are useful.  Teaching skills and behavior modification becomes significantly more effective with these protocols and pattern games – all developed with the dog’s choice a priority.  Your dog can “tell” you when he is ready for greater exposure to stimuli.  Arousal escalations and fear responses are signals that he is losing functionality.  Give him a choice and see how readily he returns to mindful interaction.