Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Two paths diverging

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shout-outs to Companion Animal Psychology for the post, The Right to Walk Away” which covers the effects of offering that particular choice in animal experiments, and encourages us to apply the concept to our animals’ lives. Also to Yvette Van Veen for her piece,  “A” Sucks “B” Stinks What Kind of Choice is That? , which definitely has some “rant” commonalities with this post of mine.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 is: The Dog’s Choice.

We positive reinforcement-based trainers often point out that our dogs have the choice not to participate in a training session. I think giving the animal “the right to walk away” is a good and humane practice. I also believe it’s only the first step of consideration of our animals’ self-determination.

Trainers who exclusively use aversives to train employ the language of choice as well. Shock trainers will say that the dog “is in control of the shock” and that the dog has a choice. In that case the choice is to comply–or not. Neither of the choices yields positive reinforcement. But these trainers too can honestly claim their dogs have choices.

Most of us would say that theirs is a pretty strained use of the term, “choice.” It’s a very stacked deck, and even the best option–successful avoidance–is not a fun one for the dog. But using the definitions of learning theory, neither of those situations–the positive reinforcement-based trainer giving the dog the right to leave, nor the shock-only trainer–would qualify as giving the animal a “free choice.” 

I’m going to argue here that limiting choices is intrinsic to the process of training an animal, whatever method we use. It’s the nature of the process. And it’s actually not “choices” or “no choices” that define a method’s humaneness.  It’s what kinds of choices are available within the structure we set up that determines how humane it is. 

We all stack the deck.

When anyone talks about giving their animal choices, I believe we need to ask questions.

  • What can the animal choose between?
  • What processes of learning are involved?
  • Is an aversive stimulus a focal point of the choice making?
  • What choices are ruled out?
  • Will the choices broaden later in training?

Not all choice situations are equal, and I think we need to knock off the instant happy dances anytime a person mentions “choice” in reference to training. Instead, I think we should ask, “What are the choices?”

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

How many times have you read one of the following instructions in a positive reinforcement group or forum? They are often addressed to new trainers, or trainers with puppies.

  • Be sure and begin your training in an area of low distraction.
  • Control other possible reinforcers.
  • If you can’t get the dog’s attention, start in the bathroom with the door closed and wait him out.
  • Don’t let the dog practice undesirable behaviors.
  • Watch out for bootleg reinforcers!

All of those are about limiting choices by removing the availability of reinforcers. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we do that. But there is no contradiction here. As trainers using primarily positive reinforcement, we are in the best position to look at the ways that this kind of choice management affects our dogs’ lives, and examine the ways we can move forward to a more choice-rich environment for them.

The Desirability of Choice

Many experiments have shown that animals and humans prefer having multiple paths to a reinforcer, and of course options for different reinforcers as well.

This is from a webpage that describes one of the important experiments with animals regarding choice. The experiment introduced some interesting nomenclature.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, “Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons.”

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.  Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

Another good article about the Catania experiments and other work on choice is, “On Choice, Preference, and Preference for Choice” by Toby Martin et al.

(In no way can this short post cover all the nuanced research about choice. For instance, abundance of choice has a downside, especially for humans. I am sticking to the issues of choice that are most applicable to the situations our companion animals find themselves in.)

“Forced Choice”

Note the definition of “forced choice” in the description of the experiments above. Nothing happened when the pigeon pecked the red key. The bird was not shocked or otherwise hurt. Forced choice was defined as a situation where only one behavior led to positive reinforcement (more correctly, a appetitive stimulus), and another behavior or behaviors led nowhere.

Having more than one behavioral path (in this case, multiple green keys to press) to get to the goodie was defined as “free choice.”

Now, think back to what we do in the early stages of training. Review my list above of the ways we remove “distractions,” i.e., other reinforcers. That type of training situation more closely resembles forced choice than free choice. The freedom to leave–especially in an environment that lacks other interesting stimuli–is not enough to designate a process as being free choice, at least in the nomenclature of this experiment and subsequent definitions in learning theory. But it’s a good first step.

Types of Choice

Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.

  1. Choice between different behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. See examples below.
  2. Choice between handler-mediated positively reinforced behaviors and nothing in particular. This is the typical “they can walk away” type of positive reinforcement training session.
  3. Choice between different positively reinforced behaviors with an aversive present.  This can happen in exposure protocols if the trigger is close enough that it is at an aversive level. The proximity limits the value of positive reinforcement, and, if the aversive gets too close, eliminates it, because of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
  4. Choice between enduring an aversive stimulus and performing a behavior that allows escaping it. Most shock collar training exemplifies this, as do operant exposure protocols that put contingencies on escaping the trigger.
  5. Choice between behaviors that are positively reinforced and behaviors that are positively punished. A training situation such as “walk in heel position, get a cookie; surge forward, get a collar pop.”
  6. Choice between behaviors that are positively punished and behaviors that get nothing in particular. This would be across-the-board suppression of behavior.

In all that I listed, even #6, the dog can be said to have a choice. But none of them, with the exception of #1, would likely be called “free choice” in learning theory nomenclature.

Clara stops to smell the roses

Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:

  • Desensitization/counterconditioning with the trigger at a non-aversive level. The leash or other barrier prevents or controls the choice of movement towards the trigger, but there are no contingencies on behavior within the area and multiple reinforcers may be available.
  • Shaping, which can offer multiple choices of behavior along the path to a goal behavior.
  • Reinforcing offered behaviors in day-to-day life with an animal. (I’ll write about this in my followup post.)
  • Training techniques that allow the dog to leave in pursuit of another interest. However, these as well do tend to have a final goal of another behavior.

Note that we are not talking about using a variety of reinforcers. That’s easy to do in training. We are talking about different behaviors leading to reinforcement. When you are focused on a training goal, that one is a lot harder to include!

A Word About Preference

Preference is not the same as choice, though they are related.

From a review article about choice:

Preference is the relative strength of discriminated operants Researchers often measure preference as a pattern of choosing.  –Martin, Toby L., et al. “On choice, preference, and preference for choice.” The behavior analyst today 7.2 (2006): 234.

Pattern is a key word. I may not like my green tee-shirt very much, but I will choose it if my red ones are in the wash. It is only by observing my tee-shirt choice over time, noting circumstances and performing a bit of statistical analysis, that my choices will indicate my preference (red tee-shirts).

Observing our pets’ preferences, and giving them their preferred items, is a good and thoughtful thing, but doing so does not necessarily involve their making a choice.

In addition, determining an animal’s preferences in a formal way can be more difficult than it sounds. But scientists are developing ways to determine choice in animals. The following article covers some of these:  Using Preference, Motivation, and Aversion Tests to Ask Scientific Questions about Animals’ Feelings.

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

I think that when we talk about giving dogs choices, or describe protocols that supposedly do this, we should consider two things. First what are the choices? Are there multiple possibilities for positive reinforcement, or are there choices between positive reinforcement and nothing, or only crappy choices?

Second, we should consider how we are limiting choices. Are the limitations temporary or permanent? Are there ways we can give our dogs ways to express their preferences and make choices in their lives with us? Even in training?

There is no barb intended for positive reinforcement-based trainers in this post. Giving the animal the right to walk away is revolutionary in the recent training climate. We are the ones taking that step. Sometimes it’s the most control we can give them. But I believe we can do more.

Part 2 of this post will include my attempts–successful or not so–in giving my dogs choices in different situations.

How about you out there? In what ways do you give your animals choices–in day-to-day life or in training?

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21 Responses to Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

  1. Hi Eileen

    Great post.
    I teach my dogs and horses to make their own decisions and choose, so although I know their preferences, I can ask them which they would like. I think this is so important for emotional welfare, awareness, and self regulation. Not everyone understands the behavioural concepts behind training methods and explaining it in clear language is the way for people to realise what impact it has on the animal, how they view it, and if it was applied to the person how they would feel about it. I find clients change how they think when I give them an equivalent of what they are doing with their animal, saying if I did this to you, how would you feel? Then relating it back to to how the animal is handled, managed and trained really allows them to comprehend exactly what is going on, not just what they see on the surface.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Beautiful! Thank you so much for writing this. I love your examples of being proactive about it. It’s actually not so easy, especially when we get in the habit of reinforcing “good” choices all the time. (Which is also absolutely necessary if they are to live safely with us.) Thank you, Kathie.

      • Thank you foor a lovely reply Eileen. You are so right, it is not easy, but it is easy to automatically reinforce the ‘good’ choices and forget to hear what we our dogs are saying. Sometimes there is no choice, if for example your dog was about to step into the road. As you said, the key to making this really as free choice as is possible, is how you teach, what your choices are and how that fits in with living with humans, whilst recognising that a dog is a dog and doing what goes with his species, and not against it is also important.

  2. I check my dogs’ preferences in terms of their preferred food reinforcement. So, I know, for example, that one of my dogs, over time, established a preference for my homemade liver brownies over chicken, beef, and even hot dogs. I utilized this while training the “leave it” exercise. Using a hierarchy of her preferences, she gradually learned that to “leave” one food meant that she could earn a food she preferred to that one. My dear sweet Sioux walked over many piles of different foods at class demos to get to the all important (to her) liver.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Yes, knowing those preferences, both for enrichment and for help in training, can make it more pleasant for everybody, can’t it!

  3. KDolnick says:

    Last year I started to let my one little dog choose a toy from the “toy drawer” everyday when I got home. He is a little anxious, and at first was tentative about approaching the drawer. Now, I ask him if he wants to pick a toy and he usually runs to the drawer waiting for me to open it. He will sift through the toys, sometimes digging deep, sometimes picking up a toy and mouthing it a bit or tossing it around and still decides that is not the one he wants at that time. It can take him several minutes to decide, and every once in awhile he will walk away without choosing a toy. But, usually he finally makes a selection and then prances away. I do know the toys that he usually prefers, but every once in awhile he will surprise me and pick one that he has never chosen before. I have seen this simple daily ability to choose a toy actually bolster his confidence in other ways – and it is a lot of fun!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      How wonderful! That is a lovely mental picture of your little guy making his choice. I believe it about the confidence. And I love your thoughtfulness and patience!

  4. You’re pulling some things into small enough pieces that I’m not sure here. I don’t know what shaping has to do with multiple choices, as there may (or not) be only single, incremental choices along the path. And in Choice #3, it’s unclear what the different reinforced behaviors would be, although I agree with your conclusion in this one. And in DS/CC and non-aversive levels, that can easily be either free or forced choice, depending on how it is done.

    Regarding freedom of choice in general, that’s typically used during initial rehabilitation. Where it’s far less important which of the acceptable choices the dog makes (including walking away), as long as he chooses one, and his free choices set not only the initial direction, but we follow this if they change. Over many dogs and many years, the results strongly endorse the value of choice, in both very scared and also aggressive dogs.

    As for later on, this begins to blur when moving into specific obedience training. One aspect would be if free choice is used to provide multiple paths to the same goal, which could be useful. But if multiple acceptable reinforced goals are allowed, the future results become less certain. Regarding your question at the end, in day-to-day life my dog is allowed a variety of free choices. But not when a rabbit or road runner scoots across the street in front of him. So, I think that I agree with you, but I’m not entirely sure what that means.

    Finally, I love kethiegregory’s comment, although I have found some people who still don’t get it, perhaps because that’s how they treat most others.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      All those points in the “free choice bucket” are up for discussion for sure. I’m on the fence a bit about the shaping thing. I was thinking of the micro choices on the way to the goal. I cut out a section on reduced-error learning and the irony that a technique that reduces extinction frustration is much more “controlled.” (Have you seen Mary Hunter’s amazing video on that? Errorless teaching of a conditional chain. So elegant.) The situation with shaping does seem analogous to the last item, which dfenzi describes so well, of allowing other behaviors to be reinforced as part of a whole training system.

      Thanks for your other good points. There is so much to discuss here.

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  6. dfenzi says:

    a topic near and dear to my heart. I will reward (reinforce) my dog’s choice to work with me, even if their actual training choices are not the ones I was hoping for. Over time, they get it – they want to please me so they make choices more in line with what I’m hoping to see, while at the same time I am willing to reinforce (at a lower level) any decision to stay with me and just play at my training game. So…hang out with me on the lawn and ask for a cookie? I’ll give it to you. Hang out with me and select a scent article that happens to be sitting in a pile nearby? I’ll give you a cookie and a toss of the toy and my heartfelt appreciation. Leave to wander around or chew on your toy? That’s fine too – and over time, that third choice is going way down. Fascinating stuff – worth our attention.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Ha! I decided not to name names, but was thinking of you in that last bullet point of training techniques that include more choice! This topic is fascinating to me as well. Thanks for the comment!

      • Yes, yes, yes what Denise said and does. I’m doing exactly the same thing with Scout (lab puppy). You can sniff everything, walk away, chase the leaf but when you choose to look at me, follow me, or run to me you will be reinforced. Funnily enough, There is less walking away, less sniffing, less leaf chasing over time and more looking at me, following me and running to me! Another (very in depth) article Eileen. I need to read it a few times to get the full benefit.

  7. M says:

    I’ve been thinking about the importance of self-directed choices when working with my dog-reactive dog. He’s very people oriented, very eager to please, and very trainable. He would like to do what you would like him to do, just as soon as he can figure out what that is. Which sometimes takes a while, but he’s willing to keep engaging until some inter-species communication finally kicks in. Even in stressful situations (strange noises, unfamiliar places), he looks to humans to tell him how to act or even whether to worry. If a problem is in human hands, he feels like everything will work out.

    This all makes him a great dog–fun to train, and a joy to live with.

    Except when it comes to other dogs. When he’s in the vicinity of another dog, all his faith in humanity just flies out the door. Which, fine, he’s probably right that a barky dog across the street is a bigger threat to us than thunder. Well done on the threat assessment.

    But because he doesn’t ever practice problem solving or threat management on his own in any context, he doesn’t have any way of managing a situation where he doesn’t trust people. He’s like a pilot with a stalled engine and no parachute. For about a year, I’ve worked on a DS/CC protocol with him to reduce his reactivity to other dogs. And he’s come a long way. A hugely long way. But he’s pretty much plateaued, and he still gets very anxious about dogs as much as half a block away–even calm dogs that aren’t even looking at him. And I’ve come to believe that a big part of his anxiety comes from not having his own coping strategy. Or even a way to think of coping with the world that doesn’t involve dependence on a human. His problem solving flow chart has one path: Find human. Alert human to problem. Follow human’s lead. And for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work for him when it comes to other dogs. He needs another choice to make.

    So, we’ve recently started a nosework class. Canine-driven problem solving, no human assistance. Even though it has nothing to do with dogs, I’m hoping that regular experience in figuring things out for himself starts to spill over to other areas of his life. Our first few times with a pile of boxes and hidden hot dogs, there was lots of staring at humans, waiting for a command. But now that he understands the game, he searches with gusto, all on his own. We’ll see how it goes once we start searching in more challenging contexts.

    I don’t think I ever imagined I’d be trying to instill *more* independence in a dog, instead of less!

  8. Amy says:

    I have a game I like to play with my dog I call “toddler racetrack.” I call it that because I started playing it with my godson when he was a toddler. His parents’ house has a “racetrack” where there’s a circular path you can take through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, with plenty of opportunity to double back, change direction, stop and hide, etc. My current home has a similar configuration.
    My “rules” are that the chase can’t be easy or boring, and my dog’s rule is he wants to always sneak past me to jump on his bed that acts as home base, thus restarting the game. We usually play it that I chase him, because I’m not fast enough compared to him to make the reverse interesting. He gets reinforced based on how entertaining his choices are. An especially creative choice gets cheers and faster chasing. I make sure the game doesn’t create a dog who just runs away and can’t be caught by asking hum to bring me the toy every now and again. If he doesn’t or the give isn’t clean, we’re done.

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