One of my favourite dog training games is called “ItsYerChoice”. This game was created by my favourite dog trainer, a lady by the name of Susan Garrett*. ItsYerChoice is essentially a game about creating self-control in your dog.
When you see people out with their dogs, whether down the park or at dog training classes, you will notice that people spend an awful lot of their time trying to control their dog. It might be telling their dog to sit again and again or to stop sniffing, jumping up and playing with other dogs or just trying to get them to come back when called. In all these cases it’s about the dog’s owner trying to impose some sort of control over the dog.
ItsYerChoice is about putting the responsibility of correct behaviour back on the dog. So, rather than trying to control the dog, you control the consequences of the dog’s choice. The dog is essentially presented with a choice. If the dog chooses correctly, good consequences follow (reinforcement), but if it makes an inappropriate choice it will not get what it wants (no reinforcement). The consequences will never be you trying to coach or intimidate the dog in any way. This leads to a dog that has learnt self-control.
The ItsYerChoice game starts out with you teaching your dog to make easy choices when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Start out with some food rewards that your dog loves. Grab a handful of treats and then close your fist around them. Make sure that none can be seen or stolen through gaps in your fist. Sit in a comfortable chair with your arm resting on your leg with your closed fist in front of the dog. Anchor your arm onto your leg so that it doesn’t move around as your dog tries to get at the treats. A dog’s common response will be to try and steal the treats by licking, pawing and mouthing at your hand. This is because, at the moment, your dog does not have any understanding of impulse control. Resist the temptation to say or do anything whilst your dog is doing this and above all be patient! Depending on the dog it may take a while to get the desired response.
If the licking and pawing behaviours are met with no response from you, the dog will eventually back away from the hand. When he does back off, open your hand. By opening your hand you have reinforced the appropriate choice that your dog just made. For the majority of dogs, the hand opening will be all the encouragement they need to dive straight back in. If that happens close your hand immediately to prevent the dog from stealing the treats. Wait for your dog’s next response. If he continues to paw and lick your hand keep your hand closed. If he backs away from the hand you can open it again. Remember we are waiting for the dog to choose the correct response so the ball is in his court in order to get the hand to open. Keep this game of opening and closing your hand going until your dog will not move towards the food when he sees it in your open hand.
Only when your dog demonstrates this self-control should you pick up a treat to reward him. If you go to pick up the treat from your hand and the dog comes forward to get it then immediately put the treat back and close your hand again. Your dog should only get the treat if you can pick up the treat and move it towards him without him moving forward to get it. Once he can do this he gets the treat.
Some dogs pick this game up very quickly and others take much longer. Try and start out somewhere quiet where there are minimal distractions. For dogs that aren’t used to not getting what they want when they want you may be faced with all sorts of crazy behaviours such as jumping, giving up and trying to leave you, sniffing the ground, scratching etc. This is because the dog has been put in a situation where it does not know what to do as suddenly the rules have changed. Remember to be patient and allow the dog to work through the problem that you’ve presented him with. Once he gets the idea you will be off and running. I have just taught this game to my Puppy Foundation Class at the Agility Club of WA and to see the difference in the puppies after two sessions was amazing!
* Susan Garrett is located in Ontario Canada where she runs the Say Yes! Dog Training facility.