Ok. Here’s the deal. If it’s not a reflex, it’s a choice. Got that? If you can’t help it, it’s a reflex. If it’s not a reflex, you get to decide what to do. Yep, that’s right. I just boiled over 100 years of behavioural science down to that little bitty bit. Sometimes simple is better, right? (Ok, there’s more to it than that but go with me on this for a few minutes.)
So that means that unless it’s something like drooling over an appealing scent or jumping at the sound of a loud noise, your dog is choosing how they will respond to their environment. For our purposes here, that environment includes you, their human. We can speculate all day about how your dog decides on the choices they make but B.F. Skinner researched this for years and his conclusion was, quite simply, that “consequence dictates behaviour.” The results of what I do will determine whether I am more or less likely to do it again.
Now it gets twitchy. Ready? Let’s say I routinely scold my dog when she doesn’t sit when I say “Sit” but I also sometimes reward her with a treat when she does sit. How does my dog decide whether or not to sit? Well, I suppose the first thing would be to determine whether she is avoiding being scolded or trying to get the treat. If consequence dictates behaviour, which consequence are we talking about? It can get more complicated than that, to be sure, but let’s stick to the basics.
The point is, it’s a choice. She is the one that decides whether or not to sit. You would think that is a fairly easy thing to wrap your head around. So why are we humans trying to “make” our dogs do things? A trainer will say, “She sits when I give her the command.” as if the word “sit” CAUSED the behaviour. What caused the behaviour was the dog deciding what to do with itself. The word “sit” just gave the dog a signal that something good or bad might happen related to whether or not they sit. But the dog gets to make the choice. Always. Every time.
So here’s a question. How difficult do you make your dog’s choices? That might be a bit more complicated that you think. What do you do when your dog does or doesn’t comply with your cue? Do you always do that? Do you sometimes not react at all? Does your dog think the cue means there is an opportunity for a reward or do they think they had better comply or else something bad might happen? Our dogs are always making choices.
The real question here is how easy or difficult you make that decision-making process for your dog. Maybe you limit options. Maybe you make the possible outcomes to hard to predict. Or maybe you are wonderfully clear at communicating and it’s all very easy for your dog. Whatever the case, it’s something worth thinking about. After all, we have a choice in how we work with our dogs. And they have a choice in how they respond. Make it easy and fun for both of you.