The difference between constantly managing a dog’s behavior and teaching them to manage their own is night and day — when given the choice between a dog they constantly have to tell what to do and a dog that is constantly trying to do the right thing, most dog owners naturally choice the latter.
So, where do you start and how can they teach their dog to choose control?
Introducing It’s Yer Choice
It’s Yer Choice was popularized by agility competitor and online dog trainer Susan Garrett. The concept of the game is simple: teach a dog that in order to get what he wants, first he must do what you want.
From a more scientific standpoint, it’s using the Premack Principle (the idea that a dog will perform a less desirable behavior for the chance to do a more desirable behavior) as a game.
Usually when I teach this in a dog training class, I teach it in 2 stages using food:
- Food in the hand
- Food on the floor
This is a great game to demo with in front of the whole class; people are always impressed by how quickly their dogs get the game and then you can use this to teach them leave it, stay, and all sorts of other self control behaviors!
It’s Yer Choice: Food in the hand
Usually I start out with food in the hand. To start, hold several treats or something that can easily be broken up in your palm and close your hand around it. Present your closed hand with food in it to the dog; try to keep your hand about level with the dog’ s nose when they’re standing up.
If you put your hand too high, your dog can’t check it out or get to it – you’re forcing control by controlling the environment instead of teaching the dog to control himself. For this reason, always err on the side of holding your hand lower rather than higher.
Now, let him sniff, chew, paw, etc. at your hand. Whatever he wants. Ignore any interaction with your hand; if he backs off, however, start to open it.
Most dogs will immediately return when your hand starts to open. When this happens, quickly shut your hand again.
If they back off again, open it again. Continue this until the dog is intentionally staying away from your hand while the treat is sitting on your open palm. At this point, use your other hand to reach over and lift a piece of the treat up and give it to your dog.
Continue the game until all the food in your hand is gone.
You can make the game a bit harder pausing a bit longer between rewards, essentially asking for more self control for the same reward.
Video of Katie Brennan and her dog Bubbles (AOM CH Finkkila’s Kupla) demonstrating It’s Yer Choice
It’s Yer Choice: Food on the floor
Once the dog has mastered the game with food in your hand, you can move the food to the floor. I usually start with food on the floor by covering it with my hand; then, once the dog is doing well with this, I stand up and use my foot to cover it.
The concept here is the same — the dog can fuss at the covered food as much as he wants; when he backs off, you uncover it. If he goes back toward it, you cover it back up. If they stay back, you bring food to them.
You can make this harder by slowly putting the treats on the floor closer and closer to the dog.
This can eventually be used to teach a dog to leave food on the floor alone entirely and is an easy way to teach a dog to ignore food even if you place it on their paws or between their front legs.
Video of Katie Brennan and her dogBubbles (AOM CH Finkkila’s Kupla) demonstrating It’s Yer Choice
Problem solving: teeth and nails
The most common problem I’ve run into playing this game is when puppies with sharp teeth or dogs with long nails choose to insistently chew or scratch at your hand — hard enough that it hurts!
Usually when this happens and the food is in my hand i just rotate my wrist, removing their mouth in the process or sliding my hand out from under their paw. This tends to communicate pretty quickly that that method will not work to get them the food, and they quit.
This concept — do what I want and you get what you want — can be used to teach all sorts of games involving self control. How have you used it?
Special thanks to Katie Brennan for the videos of her and her dog Bubbles (AOM CH Finkkila’s Kupla). For more from Katie, check out her youtube channel, Red Fox Dog Training, or her pet business in Levittown PA, Boundless Pawsibilities.