Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 

Choice

Author: Kay Laurence
Dogs rarely say ”never”, often they say “give me a moment …”

When they are ready they will let you know. This is a small way but important way of giving them choices in their activities, responses and interactions.

It is not easy to see that choice is a reinforcer, but it is easy to recognise that a lack of choice can be inhibiting and often punishing. I want to magnify its importance since traditional training and patterns of living with dogs often completely strip the dog of being able to make choices and learn the skills they need to live with us.

Once of my course participants is a carer in a home for elderly folk. After we talked about choice as part of the immeasurable power that our style of reinforcement training encompasses, she changed the morning routine of getting the residents up and down stairs for breakfast. Instead of the established protocol of encouraging prompt dressing, each client was given a choice between two items of clothing: the pretty pink dress or the favourite green dress. Between two different tooth brushes, between two different pairs of shoes. What had become a difficult and stressful routine even with reinforcement for activities, it began to get quicker and quicker when choice was involved. We can see how some control over the immediate environment and the sense of control are effective reinforcers.

Too much choice can diminish the ability to make the choice. One of my favourite restaurateurs re-vitalised their business by reducing their menu. Coming down from a choice of 14 main courses items not only improved the menu reading time, but increased their turn over. Too much choice was daunting, minimal choice between A or B maybe sufficient to bring reinforcement to the activity. In reality a limited choice is preferable over extensive choice.

How many times does your dog rummage through their toy box to choose what to play with? One of my poor eaters improved his enthusiasm after being given first choice on the bones. They all looked the same to me, but a couple of minutes of head in the box sniffing and assessing each one perked up his appetite no end.

Many different types of training have developed in the boom over the last twenty years and it now demands us to describe what type of training we employ. We look for precision learning, with the dog making the choices along an error-less path. The power of choosing adds immeasurable reinforcement to the process of learning. Young puppies from 8 weeks old love to make choices, and thrive on this guided learning. Older dogs, and people, who have had their choices limited can struggle with making decisions. I believe that given a choice the dog or person will stick with it for longer by ownership of that choice or preference. When dealing with a problem I will set up the person with the opportunity to make the choice between solutions. By dictating what they should do there is a high risk of them not doing, not “buying into” it.

Having choice, and learning from choices, builds the learner. They acquire the skills of puzzle solving, risk assessment and the ability to analyse is developed. These skills diminish through lack of use, and it is wonderful to see a dog blossom when they understand the concept of shaping. The whole process, our devoted attention and focus, and the dog puzzling out how to get the click is immensely reinforcing.

Choice is about having three beds and sunshine to enjoy a morning snooze.

Exercise : Small, realistic choices

You play some wonderful games and learning activities with your dog.

If you have several toys, make sure that each toy has a specific game.

  • A toy for tugging, but not thrown, retrieved or chased.
  • A toy for sharing and carrying
  • A ball for chasing but not catching
  • A disc for catching but not chasing

By associating different games with each toy, we can allow the dog to make a choice as to which game they want to play.

When going for a walk see if you can ask your dog to make a choice to turn left or right, see which way their nose gets interested in following, where the best scents are coming from.

Ask if your dog is ready to be groomed? By grooming at a specific location, or by lying a certain way we can use their complying as a choice of consent, not compulsion.

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