The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.[1]Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a … Continue reading I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a downside, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making
In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous—to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one—to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that they come with a price. Please comment!

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015


1 Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”

22 thoughts on “The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

  1. Love this Eileen! In some ways, I think you are essentially talking about tolerance and respect in this piece, and simply allowing dogs to enjoy their lives as dogs, within the limits of safety and good manners and health. (And perhaps about letting go of our very human, control-freaky nature…. 🙂 ). One of the “choices” that I give to Cooper is that while he adores retrieving he also likes to do large, running circles with his toy in his mouth. If there are jumps and tunnels set up, he will jump and go through the tunnels on his loops. Rather than insist that every single retrieve involves Cooper running out and returning to me, we intersperse these with “Cooper Loops” around the training floor. I allow him to usually decide when he would like to do this, and then simply throw in a “Cooper come” when I would like to start again. Love your game of gardening and allowing Clara to retrieve on her own schedule. Thanks for another insightful post that addresses everyday, living-with-dogs training! Linda

    1. Love the “Cooper Loops! Yes, it is so hard to let go of the “THIS IS THE WAY WE SHOULD DO THIS” recording in our heads. Also, for me, knowing when it’s appropriate to do that. I didn’t give any examples, but I also tend to relax things that I shouldn’t at times! Thanks for the comment, Linda.

      1. Totally agree that it is about respect for the dog and letting go of some of our goals / guilt. By doing this, I’ve discovered that Jarah is happier and I’m happier too. Her joy improves my life. Also have discovered that she is OPINIONATED about lots of stuff, such as what side of the street we walk on, which route we take, etc. LOL

        1. I love finding those kinds of things out about our dogs! Jarah is a card in any case.

  2. Another great article Eileen.

    When my children were very little, at bedtime I used to say ‘do you want to walk upstairs or shall I carry you?’. This is a bit as I aim to do with my dogs, not always successfully owing to external factors.

    I set parameters and they can choose within them.

    1. Yes, that is a nice example, Theo. I think it’s one that is harder with dogs (due to some verbal limitations), but one that I have my sights set on as well.

  3. This is not a training choice, it’s just a “nice life together/enrichment” choice. When Barnum and I go for a walk, we can go to the right or the left out the driveway. (These are largely off-leash walks, so he has a lot of choice already.) Sometimes I have a reason to want to go one direction or the other, but if I don’t, I let him choose which direction we go. He will go in one direction or the other and then stop and look back at me. If I need him to switch, I’ll tell him, “This way!” But if not, I’ll follow him and give him his release cue. He always seems so joyful when I do that.
    In the name of enrichment (for both of us), I also sometimes try to find a new route to take on walks so that we get a change of scenery (and sniffery for him).
    Also, sometimes — if I have time — on a walk I will acquiesce to a request to play with the neighbor dog or go sniff something. Sometimes I’ll call him back and then release him to do that thing he’d rather do. I do this mostly because it’s fun and enjoyable for us to see him get all happy at having freedom to explore, but I do it partly because it puts more pennies in the “good will” piggy bank when I have to say no to something he’d like to do.

    1. What lovely examples! I especially like the interplay where he “checks” with you. I am not surprised at that level of communication between the two of you. Love the “good will” piggy bank. One that is always good to try to keep topped off.

  4. I LOVE this! I particularly love the video of you working out in your garden and playing ball with Clara at Clara speed. This is a great answer to my dilemma about obsessive, repetitive fetch games where the dog only does one thing over and over again at top speed. My boy Tucker usually demands top speed, repetitive play, but I also put out a pool which encourages him to take cool down breaks as needed, and am now inspired by your video to see if I can’t devise other super enticing enrichment choices out in the yard to help him learn to slow the pace of his play more on his own, rather than me always dictating when it is “off-switch” time. With my own dogs I strive for good communication where you actually listen to your partner rather than always thinking about what you are going to say next. In my household I do many of the same things you do, trying as often as possible to phrase things as questions rather than demands. Although we can’t have free access to toys all day for safety reasons, when it is officially toy time, the ritual is for me to open the toy drawer and let Tucker choose the item he wants to play with that day. If he chooses a tug, we play tug. If he chooses a ball or rubber dumbbell we play fetch. At the end of the games, since he often expresses conflict about giving up the toy, I always offer him a trade for a favorite food item, then leave it up to him if e’s ready to be done. If he prefers to keep the toy a few minutes longer, no contest. It’s always fine with me. I also avoid short leash walks on sidewalks as much as possible, preferring instead to take the dogs on long-line park trips where the majority of the time, they set the agenda in terms of where and what we explore, what pace we move along, etc. At home, dogs have choices about where they want to sleep. There are several beds in every room, crates tucked in corners, couches available. If I notice a clear preference in sleeping location, I sometimes rearrange the beds so that choice can be even more comfortable. We have a dog door, so dogs can choose indoors or outdoors much of the day. One thing I’ve always wanted to incorporate is more choice of food types and flavors at meals, but haven’t done it yet. Thanks for the inspiration–as always!

    1. Thanks! That video looks so simple, but it took my silly human goal-oriented brain a couple of years to figure out. Picking out of a drawer is a good idea. Item choices involve a loss, and closing a drawer is so much nicer than offering two or more things, then taking some away after the choice. How much do you feel like Tucker “gets” that he is making a choice? Would he grab more than one if he could? Do you observe that he understands that he is choosing an activity as well as a toy? I’m full of questions! Sounds like you have some really thoughtful ways of giving your dogs agency.

      1. Great questions Eileen! Because Tuck is mostly interested in getting the fetch game going as quickly as possible, I don’t feel he is giving himself much of a choice. He grabs whatever toy is most conducive to that preferred game and often ignores the rest. So it may not be an example of choice so much as agency. He’s in charge of the toy. I don’t even try to control it in any way.

  5. I love this, too! And I love the sweet game that you and Clara and Zani play, especially Clara’s solicitation of attention and wagging despite her desire to keep that ball for a little longer, please. It reminds me of the other day when Nala and I were playing a bit of fetch in our backyard. She chased the ball, brought it back, and stood in front of me, proudly chewing and throwing her head around, even when I had given her a piece of kibble and a ball toss for dropping the ball before. So I decided to roll with it, admired her ball, and offered to pet and play with her. She thought that was terrific fun, and, yes, eventually she dropped it for more throwing. I think she likes chewing it as much as she likes chasing it! I also pretty frequently let her win at tug and decide when to start the game again–sacrilege, I know. She usually shoves the toy back into my hands, believe it or not–and I think we both enjoy the game more knowing that she chose it rather than is doing whatever I’m forcing upon her.

    I try to give Nala a lot of options for making choices and deciding what she’s going to do with herself throughout the day. Heck, I’ll even concede to her requests for our activities a lot of the time–for instance, if I’m sitting in the living room reading and she comes and squeaks at me that she would like me to come and cuddle her on the bed, I usually will. So selfless of me, agreeing to cuddle the puppy. 🙂

    I’ve been trying to let Nala tell me when she’s ready to work consistently. It’s hard–how can I possibly expect her to decide that I’m more fun than staring at squirrels and terrifying them? But she is, consistently, and it’s really cool. Really, she’s just such a polite, sensitive dog! Letting her make these choices makes her so much more confident and enthusiastic when we play and work together, more resilient and less likely to wilt. I’m sure I’m screwing up all kinds of things in giving her as many choices and being as laissez faire as I am, but, fortunately, Nala is a very easy dog to live with.

    1. Oh yes, admiring the ball! Isn’t that just the cutest thing when they enjoy that? Zani is my only dog who will just shove a toy at me–bless her! So nice to have one who came out of the box wanting to play WITH somebody rather than preferring to chew things up.

      So lovely that Nala is lowkey enough (in these ways!) that you can say “Yes” to requests for attention. I am so enjoying reading comments from you and others who put so much thought and time into enriching their dogs’ lives.

  6. Would you believe on my whiteboard is the word “choices”? A topic that has been going around in my brain too. I approached it with a similar bent: that during formal training we limit choices to avoid frustration and get the right “choice” (not the right word really!). But then, once a task is trained, it can be used to actually give dogs more choice. Like learning to ring a bell to go out without being prompted, or bring the collar to go out. Brilliant and respectful of our relationship with dogs as ever x x

    1. I thought of you, especially when making the movie. (The little speech bubbles!) On the same page as usual!

  7. Thanks for another great post, Eileen. I learn so much from your posts and videos!

    Like, Sharon, I allow Roxy choices on our walks most of the time on which direction we will go and if she wants to keep going or turn back (cold or hot weather often dictate her wanting to go back). In thinking about this, I realize that she has so many choices inside and outside. One that I’m very conscious of, also on walks, is whether she wants to walk near me or not (she’s off leash). If she chooses to be by my side, then I give her treats at some irregular internals. If she chooses to stop and sniff, then that’s her reward. She’s slowing down as she’s aging, so sometimes it means just moseying along at her pace, at which time I may go back to her and see if she wants to walk with me again. I’m lucky as she is a very calm and easy dog which makes giving lots of choices easy for me!

    1. Your walks with Roxy sound absolutely lovely! Thank you so much for sharing that.

  8. I think you are having a kind of nonverbal communication with both dogs through shared understanding and respect of each other. Relaxed and happy.

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