It’s Your Choice: the game of self-control

Teach your dog to make the right choices!

Do any of these sound like the situation in your house?

  • The front door is open, your dog bolts through it.
  • You leave some food on the counter for 5 seconds, your dog jumps up and eats it.
  • You open the car door to get your dog out, he tries to jump out onto a busy street.

Your typical, but ineffective response, may be to reprimand your dog (“No!”) or frantically try to grab him when he does not behave as you would like. There is a better choice: you can change those behaviors!

Teach the choice game

It’s Your Choice (IYC), a phrase coined by trainer Susan Garrett,  is about controlling the consequences of your dog’s choices rather than trying to control the dog. We start small and teach the dog that she or he always has a choice. If your dog chooses correctly when working with you, good consequences will follow (the chance for reinforcement). If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the consequences will be clear (no reinforcement). But the consequences will never be a function of you trying to coach or intimidate your dog in any way. In the end we teach the dog self control rather than imposed control.

A dog with self control has learned to have impulse control when in stimulating environments. Rather than leave you to chase the squirrel, steal a toy, or investigate every crumb that may be on the ground, the dog will play your game knowing rewards will be earned contingent upon following your rules. The It’s Your Choice game starts out teaching your dog to make easy decisions when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Building upon successes, you can grow this game into any form of distraction training you can imagine.

Eventually your dog’s impulse control becomes so brilliant, you can trust her or him unsupervised with a roast on the kitchen counter within reach, or not to grab the chicken bones found on the street or in the trash. The dog will learn to want to make the right choice. This is self control and does not require your eagle eye scouting every training horizon for distractions that may cause your dog to leave you in search of alternate rewards.

Having impulse control broadens your dog’s world and creates more freedom, confidence, and fun!

Good choices earn reinforcement

Choosing correctly earns the dog reinforcement and teaches a strong foundation for self control. The dog learns to control himself. If an incorrect choice is made we control the reinforcement (not the dog); we prevent access to the reinforcement if the dog makes an incorrect choice.

For example, if your dog is sitting at the door (a good choice) and she gets up as the door opens (a poor choice), the reinforcement goes away. What is the reinforcement? Simple: it’s the permission to go out the door! How do we remove the reinforcement for this bad choice? It’s simply that the door closes. Your dog quickly learns that in order to exit the door, the butt needs to stay planted on the ground. There is no need to keep telling the dog what to do such as “stay” or “no” when she tries to go out the door. The consequence of her actions teaches her very clearly.

Here is puppy Bryn learning to wait in her crate and not dash out when the door opens. This is the same concept as at your front door or the car door. In the early stages of the training, Bryn was reinforced with a treat given to her inside the cage every time she sat patiently. Now I have moved on to reminding her that if she gets up she loses the ability to exit the crate  by quickly closing the door (the consequence of not choosing the correct behavior). When she demonstrates self-control she is given her trained release word, Zoom, and is allowed to exit. Soon it will become a habit.

Below is another video illustrating a simple way to start teaching your dog good impulse control. This is Bryn again at 9 weeks of age. (Yes, you can teach a dog of any age.) Notice how she works through her desire to get the treats out of my hand. Sure she gets a little confused and does a roll-over to deal with her frustration, but then the light bulb goes off!


These are the rules to follow when playing the choice game.
  • Don’t move your hand holding the treats (unless the pawing or chewing on your hand is painful);
  • Give your dog a treat out of that same hand only if he is not moving toward your hand and is patiently waiting (reinforcing the good behavior you are building);
  • Quickly close your hand (removing access to reinforcement) as a consequence of your dog moving toward it.
  • Try to stay silent and give your dog a chance to think about the consequences of his choices. The time to speak is to cue your dog to get the treat when you reward him for making good choices (using “get it” for example).

Now go and try this with your dog and start building a strong foundation of self control!