Part 4: Solutions for Dog Training Success

Solution #4: The Power of Choice

As any parent of a toddler knows, if you give a young child some simple options, they begin to feel more in control of their life and are therefore calmer and less prone to meltdowns. As

Giving your dog the freedom to make choices in many situations can create more confidence and less stress.

adults, if we have agency over our own choices at our workplace, it makes for a more satisfying and less stressful experience.

Today, I want you to consider providing more choices in your dog’s life to create a better-adjusted and more confident furry pal. Allow your dog to have influence over certain outcomes and be sure to reward their good decisions.

What happens when no choice is allowed?

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Learned helplessness where they no longer attempt to improve their situation.
  • Negative effects on the immune system, digestion, general health, and the overall ability to learn.

Of course, we often must limit our dog’s choices for reasons such as safety. No, they should not have the choice to run out the front door whenever they choose, for example. We must structure their environment in a way that keeps them safe but allows decisions to be made by the dog.

What are the benefits of choice?

  • Less stress
  • Building of independent thought
  • Allows the dog to influence the outcome so there is more enjoyment
  • Increased confidence
  • The offering of new behaviors
  • Better impulse control
  • A better, more satisfying relationship with the pet parent
  • Happier; better adjusted

Here are ways to provide choices

  • What treat do you prefer?
  • Which toy would you prefer to play with?
  • Which direction on our walk do you like, or would you rather go home?
  • Do you want to be petted or left alone?
  • Which bed do you prefer?
  • Do you want to continue our training session or are you done?
  • Are you need to stop the medical treatment or grooming session? Are you ready now?

Which of these choices do you consistently offer with your dog? Can you come up with additional ones?

In this video, Zander chooses which ball he wants to use for our play session.

Choices during grooming or a medical procedure

Cooperative care has become very popular in the last 5 years. You teach your dog a method to indicate when they need a short break and when they are mentally and emotionally ready to continue with a procedure.


Choices when training

Provide an opportunity to think

When I am working on a skill with a dog, I build in the ability and space to allow the dog to think. If I think he may understand what I am asking, but does not immediately respond, I will pause to give him time to process my request. I do not nag and keep repeating the cue; that is a mood-buster for both of us.

Build in the opportunity for mistakes

Don’t avoid common mistakes that your dog may make; instead, strategically create the opportunity for the wrong response so your dog can learn from it. Appreciate mistakes; they mean your dog is trying, plus you’re learning more about how your dog thinks and learns. If you have raised your dog with the gift of choice, just waiting quietly and allowing your dog to think and try something else, will often be the best course correction. Be sure to reward the attempts and the successes.

  • Be sure there are more wins than losses.
  • Don’t allow your dog to stay stuck. Know when to help.
  • In the learning phase, make the exercise easier if he fails. If your dog makes the same error twice in a row, take a step backward in training so that it is more likely he will be correct.
  • When he understands the exercise or skill better and has built up confidence, allow your dog to strategically and safely fail.
  • If you are immediately helping your dog, he does not learn to figure things out.
Be patient

Your dog is attuned to your mood. Train with calmness and purpose.

Recognize what your dog enjoys and does not

Petting consent test

Dogs should be allowed to choose when and how they want to be handled. It’s become much more common to teach cooperative care for veterinary visits so it’s clear when the exam should stop for a moment and when to begin again with your dog providing the consent.

One of my own dogs does not like to be physically nudged to move over on the bed; he will growl. Instead, I taught the cue, “move over” which he willingly and happily does when requested.

The same is true for petting, either by you, the pet parent, or a friend or stranger who is wanting to pet your dog.

  • Use the 5-second rule for petting. Pet your dog for 5 seconds and stop.
  • If he comes back for more, nudges your hand, or leans into you, continue for another 5 seconds.
  • If he turns or moves away, leave him alone or play a game without touching him.
Body language hints that your dog is not enjoying an encounter:
  • Lip lick (dog licks their lip or nose)
  • Yawn
  • Turn away of the head or body
  • Showing their belly
  • Growl

In the above video, Finley clearly lets us know that he prefers not to be disturbed right now.

Try adding choices to your dog’s life and let us know how it’s working!