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When Choice Isn’t An Option

by | Jan 20, 2020 | 1 comment

I talk about giving dogs choices a lot. In fact, I think offering more choice to our dogs is something often overlooked and extremely important. Choice is anxiety’s greatest enemy, and control over one’s own outcomes is a hardwired primary reinforcer. The path to success in dog sports is paved with choice. Cooperative grooming and veterinary care stands on a foundation of choice. I love choice so much I might ask my dog which harness he wants to wear before a hike:


And yet, my dedication to authenticity begs me to share with you that my dogs have plenty of no-choice moments in their lives. The vital principle of choice-based training is this one: when there isn’t a choice involved, we must not give our dogs the illusion of choice. That means we must pay as much attention to no-choice moments as we do to the moments in which freedom to choose is apparent.

When my dogs have routine veterinary care, they can stand for vaccines and exams without restraint, and with full choice. Same for most routine grooming procedures. However, if any veterinary procedure is emergent or vital, I do not ask my dogs to cooperate even if I think they have the skills. The reason is that if I ask my dog to cooperate, she holds the cards, and it would break everything if she opted out, and I forced the issue. This is the key error we make as trainers: we believe the dog has the training to do the thing, and so we ask them. They prove us wrong, and opt out of the procedure, and then because the procedure MUST happen, we do it anyway. Teaching your dog that her “no” will not be honored wrecks any choice-based work you want to do. If you ask, you have to accept no as an answer. And that is why no-choice moments must also be taught, deliberately so that they are not all linked to traumatic episodes.

These examples will seem subtle, but they are very important. Watch the difference between these two videos, first a choice-based kennel up, and then a no-choice kenneling:

Ghost has the choice to kennel up.

Ghost is not given an option.

In the first video, Ghost is given a cue to kennel up, and she is reinforced with food. In the second, I guide her by the collar and put her in. I don’t give her food, but you could, as long as you didn’t use it as a lure. It’s more of an after-the-fact “I’m sorry” cookie than a reinforcer, in that case.

And here is a video in which I demonstrate both a no-choice grooming procedure, and a choice-based one. This is a procedure Felix is trained for, but if he has something I must cut from his hair, I don’t give him a choice. If I just want to pretty him up, I do.


All of this and more is covered in detail in my Teenage Tyrants course. Registration opens Wednesday, January 22nd 2020.


1 Comment

  1. Vickie Anderson

    I have a two year old Australian Shepherd and I have been listening to your podcasts for about a year. Thank you so much. Most of what you talk about is over my head, but I have persevered as a student and I love learning about how to work with my pup. It is great to have something to work towards and new thoughtful ideas about training!


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