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The Power of Choice

Stress happens every day for many reasons, including learning new things or practicing known behaviors to perfection. Without stress responses, your dog would probably not learn.

But beyond the comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your dog’s mind and body.

The idea of choice immediately invokes the idea of a self directed intelligence analysing options and engaging in benefits analysis over some span of time. However, in working with our dogs and what we wish them to do, it takes two to make a choice. Most of what we wish from our dogs is not part of their evolutionary make-up. The behaviors we ask for may have some correlation to natural behaviors but the use we wish our dogs to put those behaviors to is part of our invented world, not the world of the wild. The choice is made both by the human and the dog. The human decides what behaviors and what outcome, the dog decides that the rewards are sufficient to do those behaviors in the manner the human is asking for.

On the other end of the specture, behaviors the dog chooses to do without consulting our wishes, those behaviors most consider naughty or disobedient, are due to a lack of willingness, a lack of affinity and a lack of communication between the human and the dog. This is mostly evident when the dog's behavior as a whole is disconnected from the human's vision of what should be. But there are always holes and weaknesses in our relationships with our dogs that are easily spotted by looking at the choice points of the dog.

Training should be an endeavor of setting goals, overcomeing challenges and turning failure into success. This can't be done if we are not invested in and taking responsibility for the process. When I run into a training difficulty I know that I wasn't paying complete attention. Had I really been paying attention, I would have noticed the tell-tale signals well before my dog disengaged. Even just plain engagement involves both the human and the dog.

From a dog's viewpoint, giving him the knowledge that he can choose to engage with us, instead of being forced to endure a training session, is nothing short of empowering. Establishing a foundation of choice establishes a foundation of trust. Trust cannot be earned any other way then being trustworthy and not "surprise" the dog with corrective measures.

Most people want their dogs to "listen" to them, basically meaning they want the dog to obey. But is that the best choice of how to work with our dogs? Dogs do what gets them things and don't do that which threatens their survival in any way, which means pain and fear. If the dog isn't cooperating it's imperative to ask ourselves what we might be doing wrong or not communicating. Communication is the most important reason why a dog doesn't "obey".

But by viewing training and behavior through the need for control and compliance, we ignore the more important areas of choice and self-control.

Rehabilitating the Power of Choice

In looking through some lectures I have about choice, I re-found this quote that is particularly appropriate with dog training.

"I don't think homosexuality is a choice. Society forces you to think it's a choice, but in fact, it's in one's nature. The choice is whether one expresses one's nature truthfully or spends the rest of one's life lying about it." - Marlo Thomas

There are many tools that can be used in dog training and many actions that one can choose to perform in teaching or correcting a dog. Your choice whether to use certain tools or action really depens on whether what you've chosen is in line with your true nature or you will spend the rest of your life justifying it, parroting what others say about it, or resting easy because you know what you did was part of you and not externally motivated or justified because you needed to be right.

Your choice should always be in line with your own purposes, intentions, ethics and integrity. If it's not, then in order to be right in your own and others eyes, you will be justifying it, sugar coating it and basically lying about it; mostly to yourself.

The second quote I re-discovered is also applicable in every way to how you live with and train your dog.

The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect your life in every way. - Alice Waters

It's easy to say that you love your dog, that your dog loves you, that the decisions you make are right and fit and humane and good for the dog. What most don't seem to understand is that actions are what actually define your belief system to others. Those actions are based on the decisions YOU make about how to treat another species. Those decisions and the resulting actions define you.

Social media makes it so easy to say anything and rarely have to back it up with actions. Most people rarely post video of what they are actually doing and expect others to believe only words. It's become normal to only believe words.

But is this reality? "The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect YOUR life in EVERY way." Those decisions reflect your actions.

Sadly, many people don't have a choice in what they do, how they do it and the people they're being manipulated by. Too many people have lost the power of choice. Too many have no idea that they can judge and choose for themselves.

Often the loss of choice is due to a lack of information, a lack of education or a lack of experience. Because of this, many feel they can’t make good decisions and so rely on others that they see as authorities to make those decisions for them.

Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

Although our inattention can contribute to our lack of total well-being, we also have the power to choose positive behaviors and responses. In that choice we change our every experience of life.

Choice is more than picking 'x' over 'y.' It is a responsibility to separate the meaningful and the uplifting from the trivial and the disheartening. It is the only tool we have that enables us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow.