Letting Dogs Figure Out Choices

SwimmingwJazzatSTwin 003aI’m an It’s Yer Choice kind of trainer. I control the rewards as best I can and let the dog figure out how to get me to let it have them.

Example: yesterday I had hold of a leash as the dog’s family opened their SUV’s doors. The dog made a fast lunge for the vehicle, which was 10 feet away. I acted like a post, a completely stationary and non-vocal object, and locked my hands down, elbows to my sides, knees bent and weight back.  We didn’t go forward. The dog continued pulling steadily at the end of the leash for maybe a minute, maybe less. No need for words or action on my part, I waited. She decided to sit and loosened the leash for herself. As soon as she did I, let out the coils of the leash and said, “Let’s go!” to let her now have access to the vehicle (her focus, her desire, her life reward).

Why? Impulse control, letting her make choices that will work for her in the larger scheme of things, another layer in the idea that she can ask permission by offering a controlled rather than wild stealing behavior.

Why not try to actively get her to sit? Because being able to make choices is much more powerful than being forced to do something. I’m sure you’ve all seen people yelling at their dogs and pushing at their dogs. Some of those dogs – the ones who are shy and lack confidence – submit and succumb, but those dogs won’t end up doing more, they do less. On the other side, the rowdy dogs usually just keep pushing through or get surrendered (lots of these at shelters), but these dogs remain marginally impulse controlled … they don’t actually control themselves and they’ll steal rewards whenever they get the chance (those are the houses where everything must be put away, covered, protected otherwise the dog will take it/eat it/chew it).

So how many layers of It’s Yer Choice does it take? Lots. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a relationship that is brilliant, amazing, interesting. A conversation and a puzzle. A game of choices.

This morning I played ‘Can you walk over a road kill turkey? … the permission/life reward my  daughter’s dog wanted was an intense sniff, which he got after proving he could do other things in close proximity (he did have his head halter on since I wanted to control access). Last night I played “Will you play with this not-very-special tug toy when there’s food on the floor?” I had to move slightly further away and then he could. And we played ‘can you sit while you’re in motion to get a treat?’ He could, yay!

With Jazz (the heeler in the  photo) I’m working on choices about toys – she really likes toys and so it’s hard for her to make choices that don’t include them, hard for her to control her impulse to get them especially when she’s already running. So I’m starting with less liked toys to make it easier. But I want her to be able to stop herself, it’s a safety, impulse control thing, which could be life saving. Being hard on her might wreck her joy and confidence, and tarnish our relationship. This is all about choices and clarity. Some choices increase play with toys and others end/stop the game.

From reading the above do you understand the difference in controlling the access to the reward rather than trying to command and control the dog?

If not: the start to this concept can be the game with food in your closed hand. What you want is having your dog become still and wait for you to offer the treat and not try to steal the food treat.

Your dog can be in any position they choose (sit, down, stand) but they must become stationary and not be trying to lick, chew or paw the food from you hand. Hold your hand still (anchor it on your leg to keep it still) and closed if the dog is trying to take it. Open your hand flat if the dog isn’t trying to take the food. Close it again if he tries to take it. When he’s still pick up a piece of the food and offer it to him (if he rushes in or tries to grab, reclose your hand and no offer, start again).

During the pawing, licking, chewing phase say nothing. When you offer, after they have become still and polite, you may say “take it” or “get it.” And express pleasure, if you want to. Depending on where you are, it might be good to have a leash on your dog so they don’t decide to just leave you because initially they may decide to give up and go do something else…you want persistence when you are training. This is a game that teaches the fundamentals of how to learn from you,  how to get permission from you, to get something they want.


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