Elusive Illusory Choice

Much has been written, discussed and preached about choice in training in recent years. Those of us who use positive reinforcement consider “choice” to be one of the benefits of doing so. I say that my animals have choice because I use cues, instead of commands, a distinction which to me means that I give a cue, and if the animal chooses not to respond, the only consequence is a lost opportunity to earn a reinforcer such as a treat. I do not repeat the cue (unless I think the animal has not perceived the cue for some reason), or punish, or apply any pressure to get the animal to do what was cued.

The importance of that is the information I receive when I observe the animal’s response. If I say sit, and the dog does not sit, there are many possibilities for why including distractions, pain, unclear cues, and stress among other things. So I have to then try to figure out what the issue is, and work from there.

A recent example was when I purchased a new dog bed for Eloise. A little background: when we moved here three years ago, I put a lot of energy into making the dog kennel in the barn be a very reinforcing place to be. I knew from experience that the dogs needed to feel safe from horses’ feet, and everyone else needed to feel safe from doggie mayhem. I included a dog kennel/feed room in the barn design, complete with a dog door out the back to an enclosed area so they could see me in the arena while teaching. I put a steel framed dog hammock in the kennel and fed lots of treats over long periods of time when the dogs went in and stayed in, while leaving the door open so they had choice of whether or not to be in. The training worked like a charm so that Eloise practically begs to be let in there and, until this winter, stayed in there happily for hours at a time, even with the door closed, which after all, was the point: to securely separate dogs and horses.img_8356

So why, this winter, did I keep finding her curled up in a hay bale in the wash stall, instead of in the kennel? This was after horses had been turned out and I left the kennel door open, both so she could choose and so I had easy access to tools that were kept in there. Sadly, I think not having her Beetle friend to curl up with meant she was not as warm as previous winters, even though she had “his” sleeping bag and fleece blankets just as before. My daughter clued me in to some reflective beds, designed to reflect a dogs heat back to them. I ordered one and when it came, Eloise was very, very, pleased with it when I put it on the floor next to me in the house . She started curled up but soon was sprawled out like a summer day (see photo at top!). When she got up, I put my hand on it and was amazed at the heat! Happy with the result, I took the new bed to the barn and set it up on the hammock (on top of the sleeping bag and fleece as further insulation).

But she continued to curl up in the hay. I thought it might just be a new habit, so I closed her in the kennel…and her response was to stand very sadly by the door looking out. Hmmm. I could not figure this out. Luckily, we then had a warmish day and I did not putimg_8349 her little blanket on when we went to the barn. That morning, she was on her new little bed. The next morning, with her blanket on, she was back on the hay bale. I can only deduce that she was getting static electricity or some other reaction when wearing the blanket combined with the new bed. When I cued her to get on the bed while wearing the blanket, she would stand perched on edge of the hammock, next to the bed, not in it.

When I look at photos of her, she looks much warmer without the blanket on the new bed, than curled tightly in the hay, so I have decided she’s better off that way. And when it’s bitterly cold, she can choose to go out the barn dog door, and into the dog door to the house…and she’s curled up in MY bed, warm as can be, when I come in from chores.

What is important to me is that Eloise can choose between several good options. Too often we say an animal has choice but it is similar to the choice given to a child when she can eat her dinner or go to bed hungry. Yes, that’s a choice, but not a great one. If the meal is truly unsavory to the child, she must choose between the lesser of two evils. I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing. Sometimes we may need to set that up in order to keep an animal or ourselves safe. But we need to be careful of how often we do that, and if we do, we need to admit that the animal may not truly be choosing to stay with us, but we’ve made it uncomfortable or scary to do otherwise. In some circles, this is known as “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”.

Because Eloise has these options, I was able to notice when something made her uncomfortable, as opposed to a situation where she was just locked in the kennel, or “commanded” to go in and stay in. I am much happier knowing that she has choices of where to be. She usually chooses to be with me, but if it’s too cold, she can choose to go in the warm house.

Another interesting situation of choice is when I let Case, the young Border Collie, out for a noontime break. He is a very busy boy and the only time he relaxes is in his crate (I actually tested this the other night. My husband was reading in front of the wood stove, I was reading on the couch, Eloise was curled up with me. Case was loose in the house for a rare Christmas event. He did not stop moving. For an hour. He walked around the house, sniffing, investigating, walking. When he approached a person his tail and his whole back end wagged happily. He’d get a distracted stroke on his side for a moment and then he’d be off again, wandering around. There’s a reason he lives in a crate!) He goes to the barn for chores in the morning and afternoon but I like to let him out at noontime when I’m home. I open his crate and he shoots outside through the dog door. I return to the kitchen. He has free run (I don’t recommend this and I do keep an eye on him from the windows but he doesn’t leave the property). He wanders around like he did in the house the other evening: sniffing, investigating, leaving yellow stains in the snow. When he is ready, he comes in the house and finds me. Rather than deal with his restlessness, I go downstairs and he goes right into his crate, at which point I hand him a bully stick and close the door.

His choices are between being outside loose, or in his crate. Yes, he gets a bully stick when he goes back in, but I feel that’s a fair trade. If, instead, I didn’t feed him his meal until he went in, that would be less fair. He needs to eat so that wouldn’t be much of a choice. But the option of being outside, for as long as he’d like and coming in when he’s ready, even though it means being confined to his crate for several more hours, tells me that when he comes in, he’s perfectly comfortable being confined.

I think the conversations on choice are good. I think we learn a lot by having them. Giving an animal choice does not mean they get to do whatever they want all the time. I could cue Eloise to go in the kennel and she would, even when the hay bale was preferable. If Case is outside, and a car arrives, I can open a door and call him in. But remaining open minded about what truly are fair choices is on an ongoing thought process and listening to their responses can teach us a lot about them.


Indoor Training


If this photo of our weather station is any indicator, winter has arrived. With complete snow cover, temperatures well below freezing and wind chills around zero (Fahrenheit), it’s time to get creative with our training opportunities.

For the horses, that means training which can be done in the barn and in short enough training sessions that hands don’t freeze. I continue to hunt for gloves which can keep my hands warm, dry and also allow me to manipulate my fingers well enough to extricate a treat or two from my pocket or pouch. So far, they elude me (if you live in temperatures similar to, or colder than above, and have any you recommend, please let me know!).

img_8227For the dogs, it simply means finding activities which don’t take much room so that we can continue to train indoors where it’s toasty and warm, (and pretending to hibernate in a hay bale during chores).

One thing which I find very helpful to work on during winter downtimes is husbandry skills. Whether it’s teaching a dog to do a chin rest in preparation for ear ointment, getting a horse comfortable with a deworming tube, or teaching a dog to file her own nails, all can be done in super-short sessions and all will make life much easier in the future.

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To give myself some new projects, I’ve just signed up for a fun, 12 Days of Christmas training series from Donna Hill. Check it out!