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Choices: Free the Dogs!
April 1, 2008

So I was talking to a friend about her dog and it got me to thinking about the choices we give dogs in training. I like to let dogs have the freedom to make choices, and then watch to see what they choose and then give them feedback based on that. I'd rather tell the dog "this is something I don't want you to do" and then let him figure out how he wants to meet that. I like for the dogs to retain their initiative. So, for example, when I take a dog to sheep, I don't ask him to heel and I'm really not all that picky about the dog letting me go through gates first. What I want is for the dog to not take off and work without my saying to go, to not sneak to work. I don't care if the dog chooses to heel, bounces around, stares at the sheep, whatever. Just don't sneak off to work. If he does sneak off, I'll quickly meet him at the sheep and let him know working isn't allowed until I say so. I try to catch him when he just starts to think or commit in his mind to sneaking off though, and then tell him "no" or just let him know that's the thought I don't like. It's a whole lot easier to break that incorrect thought than to have to break the actual action once the dog's mind and body have both committed to sneaking off and he's right in the middle of the sheep. Anyway, the point is to let the dog make choices from the whole range of options and tell him which ones you don't like. That's the beauty of a border collie. Tell him you don't like a particular thing and he'll offer you 3 new things to see if you like one of those and it gets him what he wants (to work). "Oh, you don't like it when I think about sneaking off? Well, how about if I bounce around over here? Or over here? Or walk next to you? Or stand on my head?" They're bred to offer behaviors until hitting on the right thing. You just have to be clever enough to allow them to use this decision making and then give them feedback so they know the good from the bad. Add in a little positive reinforcement ("good dog!" or a flank command or "walk up" or whatever it is he's trying to get from you) when your dog hits on the action you're really looking for and watch how fast he'll learn. Take our sneaker-offer. Tell him "no" when you see the thought of sneaking off just forming in his mind. Now watch him closely, and if he makes a move to follow you, or stands calmly next to you gazing at the sheep (or whatever behavior you'd like to see) give him a quick shhhh or whatever command you use to send him. I'll bet you the next time he will try that same action to see if he managed to train you to send him to his reward - working the sheep. Yes, he's trying to train you at the same time you're trying to train him. (More on this another day)

Now, imagine the dog stuck at a firm heel and not allowed to make those same choices. All he's learning is to walk at heel, not to do the whole give and take of his handler training him and him training his handler.

Pick your battles. And make sure you're actually teaching the dog what you think you're teaching it.

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