Each year we go to a large Chinese buffet restaurant for a family event.  This particular buffet offers a plethora of choices.  This apparently is good because “everyone can find something that they will like.”

Unless you hate greasy Chinese food.  What draws me to this restaurant is not the food, but the company.  I enjoy visiting with extended family.  My little foodie rant is rather trivial.  It goes to show that having choices is not the same as having good choices.  Children understand this.

“Sweetie – blue pants or red pants?
“I want to wear a tu-tu.”
“You can’t wear a tu-tu.  You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”
“I want to wear a party dress.
“You can’t wear a party dress.   You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”

It doesn’t take long for a kid to realize that choices have been limited.  Beneath the guise of choice lies the ultimatum of “You will wear pants.”

Not all choices are good choices.
Not all choices are good choices.

Dogs also get limited choices during training.

Sit = cookie – Don’t sit = no cookie.
Come = praise – Don’t come = correction.
Pee = treat – No pee = stay out in the cold until you do.
Bark and lunge = scare away other dog – Flee = avoid the scary other dog.
Choose to do anything you want, but you are doing rehab setups today.

Choice sounds good creating the assumption that all choice based programs must be good.  Choice sounds good unless you ask, “What are the choices?”

Just because a dog made a choice, it does not mean that the dog enjoyed it.  Dogs can pick the best of the worst.  What other choice do they have?

Choice is no gift when A sucks and B stinks.

When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, “A sucks.”  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that “A sucks” through our actions.

I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.

I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.

When we make an error – when the dog tries to retract, retreat and refuse – we should respect the dog’s wishes.  Apologize, do not let the dog suffer.

Listening to the dog once during an error is not at all the same as planning and creating scenarios where the dog is stuck between many lousy, unpleasant or irritating choices.

When our dogs communicate that we have erred, it is our choice whether to adapt the training plan or continue forcing the issue.   Humans should not dump the responsibility of our own behaviour onto our dogs – our lack of listening and adapting to feedback – by cloaking it in a guise of choice.

Once is a mistake, twice is stupid.  It is a human choice to engage in the same scenario that triggered the retreat, retraction and refusal in the first place.

Which choices are available is up to the human.  There may be 2,3, or 100 of them.  Owners can create choices the dog avoids, tolerates, or seeks out.

Shrugging one’s shoulders is akin to saying, “They can always leave.”  It is an example of hearing rather than listening and responding to the dog’s attempts at communication.  Listening means that I alter the training plan so that the dog wants to stay and participate.  Signs of retreat and resistance disappear.

We can choose to take responsibility for our own technique.  We can swear to better our skills, trying to provide choices that the dogs not only want but enjoy and love.  We can promise to look for signs of refusal, retreat and retraction.

Some may argue that we really cannot fully know what the dog wants.  Perhaps that is true.  We can make educated guesses.  Researchers are finding ways to test choice and preference.  It seems cold to not try to listen to our pets.

Why put a dog in a position where it has to chose between one aversive and another?  At the very least, it’s really not so hard to lay out the dog’s choices, like a buffet table of behavioural menu items.  Take a good look and ask yourself if there is anything on the menu that your dog actually likes – or are you giving the dog a choice of A sucks and B stinks?