Making Choices

This post is from the Tucson Dog Magazine September-October 2017 issue.

Is obedience training always the answer to pet behavior issues? The idea behind obedience training is that if we control the pet then we can control the problem. Obedience training has long been a traditional way to resolve pet behavior problems. What if instead you could improve your pet’s behavior by simply giving your pet more choices and reinforcing the good choices he or she already makes? Contemporary approaches to behavior change involves giving animals choice and control, which fosters more confident, mentally enriched and thinking animals.

Why is lack of choice a problem?

Pets who lack enrichment, confidence and choice are at a higher risk for developing behavior issues. Humans control nearly every condition of an animal’s environment. We control what and when they eat, when and where they may go outside, and all their activity or lack thereof inside the home. Most decisions are made for animals. Pets consistently living with lack of choice may have increased stress levels, which is often an underlying cause of many behavior issues. Scientific research with animals has shown that animals with more control over their environment excel at learning complex behaviors, making decisions, increasing attention, lowering arousal levels and better health. When animals feel in control they are likely to feel safer in situations that might be new, difficult, or potentially frightening. It is important that animals always perceive they have safe options. When presented with unsafe or undesirable options, the choice factor is just an illusion. For example, if a dog is trained to come when called using an electric shock collar the choice options are limited: come to me or get shocked. That is not a true choice.

Why do we limit choice for our animals?

Sometimes it is just habit or it is easier and faster. For some situations, it is faster for the human to force an animal to comply with our wishes. The dog who doesn’t like baths or cat who doesn’t like nail trims are often tricked, dragged or held down to accomplish the goal. Although it may have been an unpleasant experience for the animal, the human feels relieved to have achieved the desired outcome. The dog was bathed and the cat’s nails were trimmed. Pet parents will often say that once the experience started the pet eventually tolerated it and let it happen. This is a phenomenon called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when an animal endures aversive experiences that it is unable to escape or avoid. The animal is not learning to tolerate it. He or she is shutting down. However, when we take the time, allow an animal to have a choice in the interaction, and teach an animal how to truly tolerate an experience, the long-term results are exponentially better.

The opportunities for creating enrichment and choice for your pet are endless!

  • Ditch the food bowl! Use your pet’s food to fill treat dispensing toys and puzzles made for dogs and cats, or make your own food toys. Hide food around the house and play “find it”. Cat food can be hidden at varying heights around the house to encourage your cat to climb, get exercise, and forage. You can also use food for training reinforcement.
  • Create sanctuary space in your home for your pets. This should be a place where they choose to go and they will not be bothered by other pets, children, or guests in the home. This can be a room or simply a crate. Use a space your pet enjoys and where he or she feels safe.
  • For cats, create a “catio” or indoor window perch where they may watch the world outside. Cats should also have lots of vertical space throughout the home to escape children or other pets.
  • Use walks to allow your dog to explore at his or her leisure. Keep the leash loose as you follow your dog. Take food with you and reinforce your dog for checking in with you by looking at you. This highly reinforced head turn toward you will build a strong connection between you and your dog that will translate to other situations. Check ins become a helpful skill for dogs who lack confidence or experience new and stressful situations. The check in then allows you to give your dog the information they need to proceed with confidence.
  • Capture your pet doing something you like and reinforce it with praise, play, food or other highly valued item your pet loves. The more you reinforce what you like, your pet will choose to offer it more.
  • Always ask for consent from your pet when physically handling them. If they refuse you, know that you will need to build more trust to allow handling them in the future.
  • Use positive training techniques to gain cooperation from your pet rather than coercing them. Clicker training or using a verbal marker such as “YES!” is very effective. Animals should always have the option to choose to end a training session. Avoid the use of training techniques that involve the animal avoiding discomfort or pain to get the desired behavior.
  • Use positive associations with aversive situations to change how your pet perceives the experience. If your cat does not like his nails trimmed, start pairing a tasty treat when you touch his or her paw, pick up the clippers, and cut his or her nail. You may have to start slowly with just one nail at a time.
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