You’ve got a young woman preparing for a party. It’s her first one. She’s incredibly nervous, so rather than doing productive things to prepare, she’s moving around the house, a little wild eyed, picking things up to start one project but then putting it down as she thinks of another thing that needs to happen, etc. She’s anxious! And she’s working herself up into a tizzy.
You want to help this lady. You can either ask her what she would like to do and give her a couple of choices, or you could direct her. For example, you could say to her, what would you like to do? Do you want to fold napkins at the table or do you want to make the signs for the cars? Or you could tell her, sit here at the table. Do you see these 20 napkins? Fold them into squares. And then put them here in this pile. Then I will bring you another pile.
Stop and think about that for a minute. An anxious person whose brain is working too fast and she’s getting nothing done.
Structure is the better answer. Of course, either one of the above is better than doing nothing but at the end of the day? Specific and concrete direction is the better answer. Then give her another task. Maybe at a future party she will be able to handle some choice. Maybe not! Some people are temperamentally better off being told what to do – they like it! They do not want to make choices!
Now, there’s a child in the same house. The child has never experienced a party, and is very excited! As a result, the child is running around the house, inconveniencing other people, and making mischief! What should you do?
Tell the child sit here and fold napkins, and then place them in a pile? Or asked the child…what would you like to do, make signs for cars or help with the napkins?
In that case, odds are pretty good that the child is going to be more receptive if you give them choice. That’s because excitement and enthusiasm are driving the child’s behavior rather than anxiety.
And a dog?
You are in a new place with your dog and the dog is anxious. Now stop and think about this for a second. You could tell your dog to stay on a mat where they have to exercise a degree of self-control and thinking, and you can feed them constantly to try and keep them there. Or you can place them in a crate, take choice off the table, and get on with your life.
Really think about this. Which is in the dog’s best interest?
I’m a fan of choice. I really am! Within training I always give my dog a choice if I think that is in their best interest. But sometimes it is not in the dog’s best interest! Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a dog is to step up, tell the dog what you need them to do, and then make it happen. The dog knows that you will take care of the situation, and of course you need to do so!
It’s that simple. Direction is the kind answer.
Choice is both a blessing and a curse. Choice is an awesome motivator when the animal in question is in a place to be motivated and positively involved in the game. When the dog’s head is clear and they are engaged in a positive interaction with you. When they are actively working and thinking and doing something.
But direction is the correct answer when the animal in front of you is anxious and distressed. They are not in a good frame of mind to make choices. It adds to their distress! And direction is also the correct answer when you simply want the dog to relax. Nothing is happening! They are NOT working!
The pendulum is swinging! I love choice. I also love direction. Look at the dog in front of you and choose wisely. And if you don’t like the result? Change something!
When you add a behavioral intervention you should see progress quickly in the majority of cases. If not, then something went wrong. Re-evaluate the situation and try again.