Choice in Dog Training Part 1: Reducing choice can be a good thing!

For many years we have understood that choice and control are imperative to the welfare of all living organisms. However, once this phenomenon was discovered, it was assumed that if choice is good, then more choice would be even better!

Many human studies have proven this to be incorrect. Indeed, too much choice may lead to ambivalence, frustration, confusion, anxiety, stress, drained psychological energy and reduction in self-regulation. Although this seems counter-intuitive, the phenomenon can be observed in even the most basic of marketing experiments.

When researchers open a mini-shop offering over 20 flavors of a particular product, and then close and re-open offering less than 10 flavors, the shop with less choice will sell far more product overall. Having greater choice, does not result in improved decision making; rather, reducing choice can be seen to facilitate the process of decision making and, in many studies, has been linked to a reduction in associated stress.

Some of the reasons for this are quite specific to humans, as we are able to feel ongoing regret for a perceived poor choice, and we have the capacity to continue to compare our selection to all of the choices we didn't select.

However, there are also some underlying principles that can easily be applied to our dogs. If we offer only a very limited number of choices in a given circumstance, then the decision process is less difficult, is likely to be made more quickly, with less frustration and/or ambivalence, and the "right" outcome is far more likely to be selected. We know this. We implement this in many of our training strategies. We set the dogs up for success. We limit the other options available (e.g., the item we want the dog to interact with is the only item in the training environment initially). Then of course in conjunction with this strategy we heavily reinforce the behavior we desire.

Limiting Choice in Training

Although most reinforcement-based trainers will advocate for dogs to have choice, they primarily are referring to a choice to participate or not, as opposed to suggesting that we provide the dog with unlimited choice in all circumstances. In fact, most training strategies are designed to limit choice, especially in the early training phase. This is not a bad thing. It reduces frustration for the dog, and achieves a "correct" choice more quickly, hence ensuring the highest rate of reinforcement for the dog. Sometimes this concept of strategically limiting choice, is not well-described to new trainers, who are left trying to offer the dog abundant choice in all circumstances, often resulting in a frustrated trainer and a frustrated dog.

Here are a few common examples of how we may limit choices when initially training an inexperienced dog:

  • Have no other dogs in the immediate environment.
  • Work in a sparse training area.
  • Work in a small training area.
  • Work indoors.
  • Limit equipment to items we want the dog to interact with (e.g., platform, etc.)
  • When outdoors, initially have a fenced area, or a leash on the dog.
  • Ensure no food or toys are freely accessible in the environment (if the dog has not yet been trained to ignore these distractions).

Of course, the dog should always have the choice to participate or not, but beyond that, we initially work to provide a situation where other options are limited. When training a specific behavior, too much choice will not help even the most work-oriented dog to rapidly access the reinforcement we have available.

Once a specific behavior has been established, then we will often steadily increase the number of other potential choices available to the dog (e.g., work in a bigger and busier environment; work with free access to distractions such as food, toys, and/or other dogs). Many new trainers, however, only have the opportunity to observe other partnerships at this higher level of training. This can lead new trainers to not fully appreciate that the behaviors they are witnessing, were likely initially trained with less choices available.

One of the training protocols that appears to give the most choice, is free shaping with an object (e.g., a box). Superficially free shaping appears to offer an abundance of choice, but if we look closer, we usually see a sparse, distraction-free environment, a conspicuous single object as the focal point of the session, other set-up strategies contributing to the likelihood of the wanted behavior occurring, and a dog with a big learning history that will heavily contribute to its understanding of the process. Yet even with all of this, we certainly do see dogs who would not choose free shaping as their preferred style of learning. Some dogs actively indicate that they would prefer more guidance to assist their decision making.

So, when training a dog, you can choose to limit your dog's choices or not, but if we look at the practices of almost all successful trainers, it indicates that limiting choice, but certainly not removing choice, is a highly effective training strategy. Watching the frustration levels of dog's who are given abundant choice, versus those offered limited choices, would also suggest that many dogs prefer this strategy also.

Are there times limiting choice is not optional, but essential?

For dogs to successfully integrate in our society, we do place restrictions on their behavior. We require them not to harass unknown people or other animals, and we require them not to pose a safety risk to humans or other dogs. Of course, these rules are just imposed by humans; what we consider a "good" or "bad" choice, is not a reflection of anything other than our societal requirements. Many behaviors humans consider "bad", are in fact very logical, and in some cases appropriate, behaviors for the dog. It is for this reason, that we sometimes need to work with the dog to avoid them making choices that our society may consider "bad".

Some of the key times where limiting behavior is not optional, but essential, include when the dog may perform a behavior that poses a safety risk to others or themselves. For example:

  • If the dog is potentially going to perform a behavior that society would consider a "bad" choice (e.g., harassing or attacking a human or another dog), then as the owner, we should limit choice.
  • If the dog is escalating to an extremely high arousal level and is soon likely to lose the ability to make "good" choices, then as the owner, we should step in and limit choice.

How we limit the dog's choice will vary depending on the dog, and the circumstance. Ensuring dogs do not perform a behavior that is unacceptable to human society can be achieved through a variety of strategies. Some of these strategies are management oriented; that is, managing the situation to avoid the dog having the opportunity to make a "bad" choice. Whereas some strategies utilize training; over time, these strategies reduce the likelihood of the dog performing a behavior that would be considered a "bad" choice.

Management strategies may include the use of crates, ex-pens, safety gates, separated areas and/or leashing, as well as assessing the environment and being aware of potential issues. I purposely have not listed muzzles here, as even though they may form part of an overall management plan, they are primarily aimed at stopping a bad outcome, as opposed to stopping a "bad" choice on the part of the dog.

Management protocols essentially rely on not placing a dog in a situation where they are likely to need to make a "bad" choice. For example:

  • Don't have dogs with a history of dog aggression in free contact with other unknown dogs – (except when actively participating in a controlled behavior modification session).

Don't allow unknown people to be within reach of a dog that has demonstrated human-directed aggression – (except when actively participating in a controlled behavior modification session).

Photo: Using a Safety Gate

Owners should feel comfortable using management either as a temporary (but effective) strategy whilst further training is being established, or as an ongoing protocol to avoid the risks associated with repeated "bad" choices. Placing the dog behind a safety gate, in a crate, or in another room is an appropriate strategy for dogs that are likely to perform "inappropriate" behaviors (threat displays, aggression, redirected aggression, or even just jumping on people) when visitors are present. This type of separation is equally effective for dogs who may make "bad" choices due to fear, anxiety, owner guarding traits, property guarding traits, or over-excitement. One of the key features when employing management strategies, is that it is not necessary to determine the emotion or motivation driving the behavior, whereas this information is often essential when selecting an appropriate behavior-modifying training strategy.

Another area that falls under the banner of preventing dogs from needing to make a "bad" choice, is informing veterinarians, groomers, kennels, doggie day-care, walkers, etc., if the dog is fearful or may show aggression. Medications for these situations should also be discussed with a veterinarian, where appropriate.

Beyond management we may also choose to undertake training to increase the likelihood that the dog is going to make "good" choices. These training strategies will vary depending on the dog and the circumstance but will likely broadly fall into one of the following categories:

  • Impulse control - Many dogs struggle with impulsivity, especially when stimulated by movement and/or noise. Training can be undertaken to directly address impulse control issues. In addition, we can strategically reinforce an incompatible behavior; this incompatible behavior can then ultimately be cued by the stimulus.
  • Fear / anxiety - Some dogs perform "bad" choices due to fear or anxiety. Training with these dogs typically includes the use of desensitization / counter-conditioning protocols, together with free choice for escape from the stimulus if the dog desires that outlet.
  • Owner or property guarding - Some dogs perform threat behaviors and aggressive behaviors in certain circumstances due to a genetic predisposition to perform that behavior (breed-specific traits). These dogs are not reacting to fear, and hence can often be effectively managed by directly training and reinforcing a more "appropriate" behavior in the presence of the stimulus.

So, in Part 1 we discussed the advantages of limiting choice. Next week, in Part 2, we will discuss the benefits of offering increased choice. Offering choice and control remains a cornerstone of animal welfare; increasing choice in certain situations can have a significant role in the prevention and modification of a range of behavioral issues.

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