A Dog’s Choice – Does Your Dog Want What’s in Your Left Hand?

Remember ‘Does Your Dog Tell You “No”?’

Listen to small “no’s” to get your pup to say “yes”. This post was about training Rio to do a voluntary foot soak in the tub for when he has little paw injuries that need care. This is most similar to the start/stop button type behaviors that Eva and Emelie talked about in their 2018 ClickerExpo presentation. (I can’t believe I had to miss ClickerExpo this year! So sad!) This type of behavior can be used for training husbandry behaviors and veterinary procedures – administration of vaccines, blood draws, nail trims, application of medication, etc. Eva and Emelie also talked about using it in training behaviors that could be somewhat scary for a dog like going over the teeter agility obstacle. Super cool stuff.

Control as a primary reinforcer was a huge topic at ClickerExpo 2018 St. Louis and it is one that is hugely interesting to me!


In the same presentation, Eva and Emelie spoke about two other important ways that choice and control come up in our training plans. They broke it down into these three categories of control:

  1. Animals Can Make Requests – They can tell us what they want.
  2. Animals Can Make Educated Choices – Given a choice between A or B, they can communicate their preference.
  3. Animals Can Choose to Start and Stop Procedures – They can tell us “okay, proceed” or “pause, please”

Of course, these categories of communication do not come built in. Some of them may develop on their own and can be aided by us (especially the first category! can I go outside? fill my water bowl, etc.), but all of them require quite a bit of mutual understanding and clear contingencies. “In situation A, if I do B, then you do C.” This can be taught!

So the foot soak most closely resembled category 3 Start/Stop Button Behaviors. Although, not strictly. Maybe I will come back to discuss this category in more detail in another post.

But today I am going to share with you one of my first experiences with category two. This one is more fun, at least for Rio and me.

The setup: Rio has several toys he likes to play with in the yard. His favorites are his Frisbee and his ball.

The challenge: I’d like him to be able to indicate to me his preference of which toy he wants me to throw. Just for fun, really. And because I am very interested in the idea of enrichment through choice and control. And I just want to get to know my dogs better, what are their preferences anyway? It’s interesting, to me. Lots of reasons, I suppose. This could be a good foundation to other choice type behaviors we may train in the future – once he gets the concept!


Teach nose target to Frisbee = reinforce with Frisbee throw


Teach nose target to ball = reinforce with ball kick

Slowly start to present the two choices at the same time. Over time, Rio learns he has control over which toy I toss for him. I suppose he also has a third choice which is not to play. If he doesn’t pick one, then I know he is not interested in playing my games right now. Off you go then, Rio.

Check it out!

Recently Rio has started messing with me. There was one day he always choose whatever was in my left hand. I thought the behavior was broken! I could not figure out why he was just choosing my left hand, no matter which toy it held. I still don’t know and I don’t have a video of it so I can’t go back and scrutinize to see if I was doing something differently. Most days, he will have a strong preference for one toy over the other and it changes day to day. Some days he will go back and forth between the two without a clear preference. And apparently some days he just wants the one in my left hand. *Shrug*


May a good dog be with you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *