“A” Sucks. “B” Stinks. What Kind of Choice is That?

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?

9 thoughts on ““A” Sucks. “B” Stinks. What Kind of Choice is That?

  1. Pingback: Not All “Choices” Are Equal | The Pet Professional Guild

  2. Pingback: Not All "Choices" Are Equal - eileenanddogseileenanddogs

  3. “Pee = treat – No pee = stay out in the cold until you do.”
    If I controlled the weather, this would be my fault. Luckily we have a fenced backyard, so I can let Badger in and out until he decides I’m not going to turn the rain off, and pees. I really feel for people and dogs who have to walk out on a leash every time!

      • Awesome answer, Genevieve.

        If we look to humans for guidance, there are many idioms that indicate how distasteful we find choices between A sucks and B stinks:

        Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The lessor of two evil. Better the evil you know than the evil you don’t know. Hobson’s choice. Between the Devil and the deep blue sea. It’s as broad as it is long. Catch 22 Horns of a dilemma.

        General PEOPLE do not like being given a choice between two things they don’t like. Why do that to a dog? I prefer MY dog be spoilt for choices.

    • Newer trainers are often taught behavior modification protocols inadequately, and that, I believe, is responsible for their willingness to jump quickly on to the next new bandwagon, or to admire those who write books or do research regardless of how well either of those are undertaken. Many of them have a lot of “theory” but little actual dog handling experience (and by dog handling, I mean hundreds and hundreds of dogs, of all breed groups, over many years).

      Despite learning about quadrants of operant conditioning, they’ve never really learned how to do an accurate quadrant analysis, so they can be convinced to believe that “adding distance” is a positive reinforcement, when, in fact, it is negative reinforcement because the real reinforcement is ESCAPE or AVOIDANCE of the stimulus, since that is the immediate consequence of the behavior of moving away.

      They assume that a dog is “over threshold” when it has simply “noticed” a stimulus despite the fact that the dog has taken NO action and exhibited NO behavior that clues the practitioner that the dog is feeling anything but neutral. If I’m scared of spiders, and I notice one, perhaps it could be at a distance where I understand that I’d prefer it not to come any closer, but I can tolerate it being in the environment.

      How would I feel if my friend took me by the hand (leash) and started leading me or encouraging me toward it? There would invariably be a point at which I’d want to escape. Ever have that feeling of discomfort at going close to the edge of a cliff? Would you rather feel THAT or have someone hand you a few hundred dollar bills for letting that spider get a few inches closer?

      Listen, when you’re scared of something, there’s really no way to remove that fear instantly. However, there ARE ways to make the fear less meaningful in the face of being reinforced some other way. Escape gets you nothing but escape. A few thousand bucks (or morsels of chicken) might get you to actually want that spider to keep showing up so that you can collect. We fear things because we assume that they predict bad consequences for us, or they are so novel that it’s better to leave them alone. We learn to accept things that predict good things for us, especially once our experience (we call it padding) starts to suggest that nothing bad ever happens.

      They accuse other practitioners of “forcing” a dog to be in the presence of a stimulus “without choice” when in fact, during DS/CC the dog actually is free to leave, but if the distance is right, prefers to stay and eat chicken. In fact, the willingness to consume food is one indication that the dog is not as upset as if his adrenal glands were deciding to impose the fight/flight response on him. What they never seem to get is that distance is NOT the only parameter a practitioner can manipulate. And, they think that if the dog refuses food they cannot condition the dog. No dog that is too anxious takes food. But, that’s the reason practitioners spend quite a bit of time with creating opportune set ups that do not stress the dog, and why they go to great lengths to do so without making excuses for why they can’t. They get in the car and drive to the big field, or they find a way to present a dog as a stimulus, without the dog’s person appearing, just so that they can insure that the dog being trained understands that he’s getting chicken for spotting a dog, not for spotting a human and dog together – for some dogs that can be a major difference. Sussing out your real conditioned stimulus is important.

      In some protocols, which I don’t use, the dog is much more likely to leave – why? One possible reason is that new practitioners seem to find something wrong with the use of food in training. It’s one reason the Pet Professional Guild wrote “The Proper Use of Food in Training.” The promulgation of the “food is bad” idea is one of the most dangerous in dog training. That’s because a positive reinforcement is something the LEARNER wants. If the learner thinks food is better than toys, or toys are better than food, that’s relevant. It’s not important what YOU want the learner to want. If the learner WANTS to stay and eat chicken, I’m gonna feed chicken in the presence of the stimulus, yesirree Bob.

      If you want to know about choice, tell me what you’d prefer me to give you:
      A. The ability to walk away from something that scares you.
      B. A thousand bucks in exchange for you to stand far enough away from that scary thing so that you can just barely notice it.
      C. After a few thousand bucks and some more trials, the ability to walk by the scary thing, no matter how close it gets, without fear, because you’ve changed your own mind about how scary it is (or, in this case, isn’t).

      Just as with Cesar Millan, or any other guru, author, trainer, behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or blogger who posts videos, watch with the sound off. Which dogs have a positive conditioned response to the scary thing?
      The ones who walk off with tails down, sniffing the ground, or using other displacement behaviors, OR the ones who have open mouths, squinty eyes, and wagging tails, as if they were looking expectantly for something good to happen.

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