It’s Your Choice, BUT 

 October 4, 2021

By  Daisy

“If Fluffy doesn’t want to, Fluffy doesn’t have to”

In the past few years, I’ve seen an interesting trend with regards to dog training. I’m not sure where or how this trend evolved, although I have my suspicions. 

This trend involves the pretty basic game called “It’s Your Choice” – a name coined by a prominent dog trainer and agility handler several years ago. It’s a great game, and a simple way for trainers to get their dogs on board with the idea that their choices have consequences, both negative and positive. I start with this game almost right away with any puppy or dog that comes my way, and use it to branch out to all sorts of other games and behaviors, from teaching food bowl manners, sits and downs, to stays, getting a toy on cue, discriminating between two agility obstacles, and more.

The key with it’s your choice type games, and really, ANY choice based training, is to remember that you’re trying to create a situation where your dog gets to choose, but from a predetermined and limited number of choices created by YOU. And, this is where things have gone off in to the weeds.

A fair number of agility handlers that have come across my path seem to think that ‘it’s your choice’ means that the dog gets to choose what it wants to do from ALL the possible choices it might make. But that is SO not what It’s Your Choice means, at ALL. I’ve worked with handlers who have informed me that their dog “just doesn’t want to sit” and that’s the end of it, as though there’s no possible solution other than avoiding teaching the dog a sit entirely. Huh?

The key to choice based training is for YOU, the trainer, to create an environment (training space) where you have made available to your dog or puppy a set number of SIMPLE choices.

The idea is to keep choice making as simple and binary as possible in the beginning, until your dog is on board with the game of MAKING choices in an attempt to get you to pay out with some reinforcement. In the beginning, your dog or puppy may have no idea that its choices will produce any action whatsoever on your part. You may simply be another part of its environment in the beginning.


Let’s say that you’d like to go out to dinner with your partner/spouse. Which of the following two statements is most likely to yield the desired result for you?

  1. “Honey, would you like to go out to dinner tonight?”
  2. “Honey, would you like to go to the burger joint or the spaghetti joint tonight?”

Of course it’s entirely possible you know full well that question #2 is the better statement, USE it, and still get an answer that isn’t an answer to your question at all, such as “neither” – but, question #2 is a much different way of framing choice than question #1.

Similarly, when I take my puppy out to the potty area to potty, I do not do so with the idea that my puppy can choose between pottying outside or not, and regardless of the result, return to free time in the house. My puppy can potty outside and get some free time inside, or NOT potty outside, and return to her kennel for a little while, while I move on with my day, no matter how much I’d like to play with her.


So, why is it so difficult for so many trainers to avoid this trap of thinking that their dog must be able to choose from ALL possible choices, or, choices of its own design, or else it won’t be a fulfilled animal, and the trainer is an awful, constraining human being? Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that is absolutely what I have found consistently with this issue when I stumble across it. Handlers couldn’t possibly restrict their dog’s choices because that would mean they are being mean or unfair to their dog. If Fluffy doesn’t want to, Fluffy doesn’t have to. Again, Huh?

There ARE some assumptions:

  • The choices are simple
  • The choices are fair
  • You have something your dog wants as a reinforcement
  • You’ve limited other possibilities for reinforcement
  • You’re working to control the environment rather than the dog directly
  • You’re actually interested in changing your dog’s behavior, and are willing to change your OWN behavior to get from what you’ve got to what you want

That last point is one that also seems to be misunderstood. So often, trainers adopt one of two attitudes:

  1. “I will not change my behavior at all but you must change yours”
  2. “I will change my behavior so you don’t HAVE to change yours”

There’s a third door here that we really should be taking:

Change YOUR behavior to get your DOG to change behavior

One of the first things I work on with my puppy is a version of It’s Your Choice. I’ve included a lesson from that course below for you to watch for free!

Remember that positive training doesn’t mean permissive training.

There are still things that we need Fluffy to do that Fluffy may not inherently WANT to do. When that happens, it’s our job as trainers to make it worth our dog’s while to play our silly games! Just because Fluffy doesn’t want to sit doesn’t mean we should instantly abandon all our efforts and ask Fluffy just what HE would rather do – probably, he’d rather sniff dirt, roll in dirt, eat dirt…you get the idea.

Do you have trouble changing your behavior to get your dog to change its behavior?

Or are you one of those people who NEVER changes your behavior while your dog must change its behavior?

Or, are you in that magical THIRD category, one of those people who can change THEIR behavior to get the dog to change ITS behavior? Let’s hear it! #goals

  • Love this post! Your wisdom and eloquence will help steer dog training back on track from the extreme path of permissiveness!

  • I play lots of modified versions of “it’s your choice” type games, especially when building impulse control. I think freely making a choice is empowering to the dog and provides not only reinforcement of a specific behavior, but also a sense of control and a kind of “buy in” on the part of the dog for that activity. That said, I think it’s helpful to consider the question of how much choice a dog should have in different contexts. When I hear agility competitors saying “my dog *must* do X,” what they usually mean is that they cued (or believe they cued) something and that the dog must obey in that moment regardless of any other factors, such as disinclination, distraction, stress, anxiety, or whatever else. I disagree with that attitude. If competitors have not done their job teaching the skill and teaching value for that skill, or if their dog is unable to perform because of environmental or psychological issues, then it is unfair and also simply pointless to force the dog to comply. I think doing so only damages the relationship with the dog and poisons that situation, making it harder to fix later. So IMO it is not ethical and not efficacious to rely on forced compliance as a fix or a standard training option. Instead, if one’s goal is to play the game of agility with an enthusiastic canine partner, then one should go back to training and build better understanding of criteria and more value for the skill so that the dog chooses freely in future to play the game cooperatively. Playing agility is different from aspects of daily life where there will be some no-choice situations because the dog’s health, safety, or viability in the home are at stake. I think most of us today who emphasize that the dog should have a choice, especially a choice about whether to participate in a sport, are reacting to others who insist belligerently on instant compliance. I don’t believe any of the “pro choice” advocates would object to playing “it’s your choice” type games and managing the training environment to narrow the range of choices, as long as the consequences of the choices were not extreme (like work for your dinner or else go hungry). I for sure don’t have any problem with persuasion, just with coercion. I also think we can become better trainers and build a stronger partnership if we pay attention and respond to our dog’s natural predilections and choices in our training.

    • I’m not sure if you got my main point, though, which is that when it comes to engaging in choice based training with our dogs, we’re wise to limit the available choices in order to maximize success 😉 What the choices ARE is entirely up to you, based on the dog, the situation, etc. But providing UNLIMITED choice will never be as effective as providing carefully crafted choices when it comes to furthering the goals of training, which are to change or create behavior.

  • You have framed this concept with great clarity – thank you! While I try to live in category 3, occasionally, my ego, being overly ambitious with training goals, or just simply not planning carefully enough, shoot me I the foot! At least I now reflect on each session as an evaluation of me and an observation of my dogs, so I do feel like I’m edging closer as I learn.

  • I love this! I am the third type of trainer. I try to look at my dog as a puzzle. Sometimes a piece that used to fall into place got bumped off of the table and now I need to find it again so that part of the puzzle comes together. I don’t just leave the hole in that puzzle, otherwise I’ll never have the complete picture. I hope that analogy makes sense. And while I don’t do many actual puzzles, I know they are thought provoking and fun. Rushing through them doesn’t really work. I also know that putting too many choices on the table is overwhelming for me, so it would seem that it would also be the same for my dog/puppy. Start simple, advocate for success versus failure in training and I see a dog that wants to keep learning, keep playing, keep trying.

      • I didn’t mean to say I am always the third type, that’s for sure. I have morphed into the third type more now than say, 10 years ago, but it’s always a check and balance to make sure I haven’t had tunnel vision on something. 🙂

  • This is a great topic. I’d like to be in the third category, but I’m not there, yet. I set boundaries with my puppy and it is not always his choice. Iuse food and toys and It’s your choice and he is responding. I am enrolled in the Puppy ABC’s and we are working through the course.It is a good guide. I am a “work in progress”.

  • I am glad to see that you are addressing this problem. I have been an Obedience trainer for almost 45 years,and agility trainer for almost 35 years. I have seen it all,from training without any food or toys,to luring constantly. There IS a happy medium,and I am sure that you will be able to guide your clients properly. Kudos

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