Choice is the degree to which we allow our canine learner to choose their direction, ideally with an understanding of all possible consequences.
“Do you want your nails clipped? If you opt in then you will get cookies. You will also get your nails clipped. If you opt out, you will get neither.” It is a choice, and it comes with consequences.
Excellent trainers structure situations so that the dog ops in reliably. For example, rather than attempting to clip all of a dog’s nails for a cookie, odds are good that this trainer will have the clipper make a sound and give the dog a cookie, progressing to clipping as the dog shows readiness. Over time, opting in becomes a habit.
Structure is where we remove choice and set the dog’s path for them. Ideally, the trainer understands the consequences of this decision.
“You will get your nails clipped. It is not a choice, but they are sufficiently long that your health is in danger or my chid is in danger when your paws land on him or you are ruining my floors. So in the best interest of you or my child or my floors I am going to clip your nails.”
Excellent trainers recognize when a situation suggests structure; there either is not time to train with choice or the situation is sufficiently threatening to either the dog, the handler, or society’s well-being that it is not a rational option. Rather than offering choice when it is going to happen one way or the other, trainers simply make it happen. There is no choice. Over time, the dog becomes resigned and hopefully cooperation takes place as the dog comes to understand the process. Or maybe the trainer comes to find that they actually can train for the situation and choice does eventually come into play.
Which one is right?
I offer as much choice as I possibly can. I work hard to set up my dog’s lives so that I don’t have to structure them very much over the long run because I find a cooperative dog who opts in to be a joy to engage. But there are exceptions.
My exceptions are as follows; if a bad choice will lead to harm to the dog, the handler, or to an aspect of society as a whole, then I remove choice and structure the dog. I set the path and the dog is taken in the direction of my choosing.
This has nothing to do with corrections. If my dog is moving towards another dog and I think the end result of the dog’s meeting is somewhere between a social greeting and a dogfight, then that meeting will not happen. I will use the leash to structure my dog and remove choice; there will be no approach. I do not risk a “bad” choice that could physically or emotionally harm my dog, the other dog, myself or some other aspect of society. I call that a function of good leadership and I take it seriously.
If you are a trainer who uses physical corrections or emotional fear in training, odds are good you use too much structure and not enough choice. The end result is that you will often get your way and your dog is likely to be ” less” than they could. Less empowered. Less confident in their abilities. Less personality.
Of course this is my opinion so before you get up in arms about your personality filled dogs, recognize that I am using a stereotype and a generalization based on my experience. Your situation may or may not apply.
If you are a trainer who is positive reinforcement based and who avoids physical pain and emotional distress at all costs, odds are good you use too much choice and not enough structure. The end result is that your dog will feel highly empowered and show plenty of personality, and you may be struggling to get your way when you need cooperation. Again, this is my opinion using stereotypes and generalizations based on my experience.
In all cases, you and your dog will not reach your maximum potential if you cannot find some balance. In all cases, the more excellent you are as a trainer, reading dogs well and taking care with your decision making, the closer you will come to a relationship that is as good as it can possibly be.
Dogs need structure in their lives. Dogs also need choice and freedom. One teaches the dog to feel confident in their decision-making and the other teaches the dog to rely on you and to know you’ve got their back. Together they strengthen both the dog and your relationship. If you find a place that make sense for your team then you will maximize your situation together.
My line in the sand is no pain or emotional distress but that doesn’t mean I won’t structure a dog as a part of living life. Sometimes my dog will not get their way. Sometimes they will experience frustration when I refuse to give choice because I decide it may not be in the best interest of the whole. That also doesn’t mean I don’t take chances occasionally, such as allowing my dogs to walk off leash or to greet the occasional unknown dog. I do that too.
Look at your situation. Don’t worry about your neighbor or your trainer or their dog. Look at your situation and your dog. What makes sense for you? Do you re-evaluate this over time? Spend some time thinking about you, your dog, your society, and your situation, and then see about maximizing the well-being of the whole.
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Your two recent blog posts about balancing choice have been so helpful to me, Denise. I was too far over in the choice area, when my dog needed me to provide some leadership and structure to help her. Now she is trusting me to make decisions that were too difficult for her to make given how she was feeling. This has been transformative, and she is showing me through her behavior that this is actually a relief for her. MANY THANKS!
Excellently put! I work with horses and the decisions made on the continuum can mean the difference between a horse safe to be around and handle, and one who can cause serious harm. I’ve seen dangerous horses because of “choice” done badly, and also because of “dominance” techniques.
Excellent thoughts on choice!