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 puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” 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
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.
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.
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.
We 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!
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015
Notes [ + ]
|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.”|