Let's Talk About Choice

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 BARKING


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.