Choice Training


Photo by Kevin Lowery |

Choice training involves catching actions and behaviors that you like in your dog and marking them with rewards your dog finds motivating. These actions and behaviors can then become your dog’s ‘default’ behaviors that he or she can choose to use in certain situations.

A default behavior gives your dog an alternative to unwanted behavior and makes her more positively confident in a situation that has previously made her insecure. She can then be gradually exposed to increasingly stressful situations and is observed to see what alternative behavior she offers. If the behavior is something that counters a previously undesirable behavior, she is rewarded. If she chooses negative behavior, she is quietly removed from the situation until she is in a place where she can learn again.

What Is an Example of Choice Training?
Choice training can be used in many situations where you want your dog to make the right choices. Here is an example of choice training a leash reactive/aggressive dog that lunges at other dogs walking by:

  1. Start by teaching your dog a variety of actions she can use, such as sit, 'walk on' or watch me and pair her success with rewards she likes. This will ensure her learning process is a fun and enjoyable one, especially if you teach her a combination of these actions.
  2. When your dog looks at a dog in the distance, say look and reward her for looking but not reacting.
  3. Ask your dog to 'watch me' and when she turns her head towards you, give her another reward.
  4. After many repetitions (ask a friend to bring a calm dog along to work with you), she will hopefully look at the strange dog and back at you because the action is now reinforcing for her.
  5. Fade out the out the food reward you gave her for looking at the dog and now use it only at the end of the sequence – when she looks back at you.
  6. As the other dog comes closer continue the sequence.
  7. If your dog reacts negatively at any point, turn her away and take her to a place where she feels safer and can learn again.
  8. Once you get to the point where your dog can watch the other dog walk past with no reaction you can repeat the sequence with a number of different dogs.
  9. When you think your dog is ready to make her choice, fade your cues out of the picture entirely.
  10. Give your dog a loose leash and stand still, as the other dog approaches. Do not say or do anything and wait for her to make her choice.
  11. If she looks at the dog and then back at you as the dog walks past, smile and quietly praise her.
  12. Repeat this exercise praising your dog’s choice to not react. You will gradually see how your dog’s confidence increases and her new ‘choice’ behavior becomes fixed.

It is wonderful to see a dog learn, think for themselves and grow in confidence through success. If you start the process by giving your dog alternative behaviors or actions she can perform and follow the training sequence, your dog will make the final choice a positive one.

Why Is Choice Training So Good For Dogs?

  • The beauty of choice training is that it encourages dogs to think for themselves while gaining confidence from the choices they make, without being pushed, punished or physically manipulated in any way. Your presence will still be important for awhile as it gives your dog confidence, but she will gradually be able to walk with other people and make the same positive choices.
  • Lunging and barking at other dogs is stressful for your dog and exhausting.   The more positive ‘choice’ in comparison, requires little energy and the rewards are much more satisfying for her.

Choice teaching is a great method for teaching all kinds of reactive and fearful dogs, but can also be useful when teaching pups and adults simple cues.

  • To teach a pup or dog to ‘sit’ on cue, first find out what motivates her – a toy or treat – and hold the motivator in front of her. Your dog then has to work out how she is going to get the reward out of your hand.
  • Your dog might try a variety of actions such as pawing, licking or nibbling at your hand but do not give the reward until she puts her bottom on the ground.
  • As soon as she sits, reward her and repeat this again and again until you are ready to put a cue word to the action of sitting.

Bottom Line
For too long, dog training has been about force, fear and physical manipulation, which renders the dog into some kind of performing robot and does not allow for the dog to think for herself. It might sound strange to those well versed in the more dominant style of training, but all dogs, regardless of breed and drive, have evolved to have excellent problem solving skills, and therefore have the ability to think for themselves, be guided to listen, take direction and make the right choices.


Read more about positive reinforcement.

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