Does this sound like the situation in your house? If the front door is open, your dog bolts through it. If you leave some food on the counter for 5 seconds, you dog jumps up and eats it. If you open the car door to get your dog out, he tries to jump out onto a busy street. Unless you constantly reprimand your dog (“No!”) or frantically try to grab him he does not behave as well as you would like.
You can change those behaviors! It’s Your Choice (IYC), a phrase coined by noted trainer Susan Garrett, is about controlling the consequences of your dog’s choices rather than trying to control the dog. We start small and teach the dog she or he always has a choice. If your dog chooses correctly when working with you, good consequences will follow (the chance for reinforcement). If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the consequences will be clear (no reinforcement). But the consequences will never be a function of you trying to coach or intimidate your dog in any way. In the end we teach the dog self control rather then imposed control.
A dog with self control has learned to have impulse control when in stimulating environments. Rather than leave you to chase the squirrel, steal a toy, or investigate every crumb that may be on the ground, the dog will play your game knowing rewards will be earned contingent upon following your rules. The It’s Your Choice game starts out teaching your dog to make easy decisions when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Building upon successes, you can grow this game into any form of distraction training you can imagine.
Eventually your dog’s impulse control becomes so brilliant, you can trust her or him unsupervised with a roast on the kitchen counter within reach, or not to grab the chicken bones found on the street or in the trash. The dog will learn to want to make the right choice. This is self control and does not require your eagle eye scouting every training horizon for distractions that may cause your dog to leave you in search of alternate rewards.
Choosing correctly earns the dog the reinforcement and teaches a strong foundation for self control. The dog learns to control himself. If an incorrect choice is made we control the reinforcement (not the dog); we prevent access to the reinforcement if the dog makes an incorrect choice.
For example, if your dog is sitting at the door (a good choice) and he gets up as the door opens (a poor choice), the reinforcement goes away. What is the reinforcement? It’s the chance to go out the door. How do we remove the reinforcement for this bad choice? It’s simply that the door closes. Your dog quickly learns that in order to exit the door, the butt needs to stay planted on the ground. There is no need to keep telling the dog what to do such as “stay” or “no” when he tries to go out the door. The consequence of his actions teaches him very clearly.
Here’s a video illustrating a simple way to start teaching your dog good impulse control. This is Bryn, a 9 week old puppy. Notice how she works through her desire to get the treats out of my hand.
These are the rules to follow when playing the IYC game.
- Don’t move your hand (unless the pawing or chewing on your hand are painful);
- Give your dog a treat out of your hand only if he is not moving toward your hand and is patiently waiting (reinforcing the good behavior you are building);
- Quickly close your hand (removing access to reinforcment) as a consequence of your dog moving toward it.
- Try to stay silent and give your dog a chance to think about the consequences of his choices. The time to speak is to cue your dog to get the treat when you reward him for making good choices (using”get it” for example).
Now go and try this with your dog and start building a strong foundation of self control!