Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Remember being a kid and not being able to make any decisions for yourself? I do! Our parents tell us what to wear, what to eat, when to watch TV, when to take a bath, on and on. I know now, of course, that my parents did this for my own good. But good luck convincing me of that back then! I can't help but think our dogs must feel like this on a regular basis.
Get off the couch
Hold still while I poke you with this needle
For pete's sake stop struggling and let me give you a bath
Be nice and let this total stranger stroke you
Put that down
Stop sniffing that and come on already
Can you imagine living that reality each day? How annoying! Always being told no, instead of "you decide" or even, "do this instead."
I think the idea of any animal in our care being an autonomous creature with the right to make its own choices is a strange one for many folks. Or perhaps it's a nice concept to ponder at night or discuss over coffee, but when it comes to the animals in our own homes, it can be a bit...inconvenient.
There's a lot of reasons we train using positive reinforcement. One of these is to increase the probability that our dogs will perform behaviors that we like and want more of. It's a nice way to teach our dogs to "do this instead" rather than blindly shouting no all the time. But when is it appropriate to take their perspective on things into account? The answer is always.
I find that allowing my dog to make choices happens along a continuum and is often context driven. Let's look at a few different contexts.
I'm a big fan of letting dogs "vote with their feet." If I'm trying to teach a dog to be comfortable with something inherently invasive, such as trimming their nails or brushing their teeth, I let the dog choose whether or not to participate. I don't hold them down and force them, but neither do I avoid these rather necessary procedures altogether because the dog finds them icky.
This is where it's important to find a nice balance. For instance, my dog used to absolutely hate having her nails trimmed. I have no choice but to do it, because otherwise her nails become overgrown and cause her pain. Instead, I choose to work on the issue with her as a willing participant. Removing the aspect of restraint not only makes her more comfortable, but knowing she has a choice in the matter allows me to effectively gauge how she is feeling about the whole thing.
I give her the choice to get up and leave the room anytime she sees fit. And I respect that choice. Sometimes that is hard. As a human being, I just want to get it done and cross another thing off my to-do list. This approach often doesn't work with animals. It causes them unnecessary stress and makes future attempts even harder.
Another great example of choice is the realm of veterinary care. Most of our dogs would be more than happy to forego doctor visits from here on out, but it simply isn't an option. It is our job, then, to make a choice for them. In this case, we must choose to make these experiences as positive as possible for our dogs. We must choose to take the time to train. We go for regular happy visits, we find a Fear Free clinic and we practice any relevant skills for upcoming procedures at home.
Even though our dog doesn't have a choice whether or not to receive veterinary care, it is important that we make some sort of choice in their favor.
Many owners are fixated on having their dogs obey commands. Even the language here is indicative of the relationship many people have with their dogs. They are the dog's master. There is an adversarial tone to the whole thing.
This is why you'll see many positive reinforcement based trainers use the term cue instead of command. We choose to see our dogs as willing participants in training. The word cue indicates that we are letting the dog know when performing a certain behavior will result in something good. The word command has a rather "or else" quality to it.
For instance, this afternoon I asked my dog to come to me by giving her a cue. She was, however, very comfy in her spot and not terribly interested in what I had to offer. In the past, this would have annoyed, and possibly even offended me. Now, however, I choose to recognize and respect her autonomy.
I didn't need her to come to me for anything urgent. I was simply going to perform a bit of husbandry that could wait until later. She didn't feel up to it, so wait until later I shall. It's truly not a big deal. Ultimately, it helps my dog have some sense of empowerment in our relationship. I do not keep her in the grips of my iron fist, willing every aspect of her life to be in accordance with my wishes. Instead, I let her have a say when it is reasonable to do so. I rather like it this way.