A Year of Being a Choice Architect

Susan Friedman has a wonderful metaphor for shaping desired behavior in an animal: she says the trainer’s job is to be a choice architect – someone who makes the desired behavior easy and attractive, and the undesired behavior hard or impossible. Imagine putting a marble on a slope: it’ll choose to roll down – you don’t need to “make it.” As trainers, our job is to make sure the environment is slopy.

This way of looking at training has two elements I love: it emphasizes giving the dog choice (rather than “making them” do something), and it focuses on manipulating the environmental paths to reinforcement rather than the learner.

Soon after Game joined the family, I realized she would be a great dog to take places – if only I could shape her high sociability and environmental curiosity into laid-back confidence, and build her patience so she would choose to settle rather than pester people, whine or bark when she wanted to interact! Today, I want to tell you how choice architecture and patience helped Game grow from a dog who wanted to meet all the people and all the dogs all the time into a dog who is fun to take places.

Example: tracking group

When Game was an adolescent, I took her to a tracking class. I got permission to use the class as a distraction while doing my own thing. (I can’t say how much I appreciate my colleagues who let me do this kind of thing!)

I asked Game to wait her turn at a big distance from the group – a distance that made lunging and whining unlikely. Here, she had the choice to sit, stand, or lie down in the grass, or to wander and sniff within her leash radius. If she chose to sit or lie down, she got hot dogs and attention; if she stood up, nothing happened. The fact that after a while, she sat down and held her sit while watching the other dog/handler teams work showed me that I had chosen a good distance. Yes, I was the only one working at half a soccer field’s distance while everyone else was standing in a circle. But that was okay. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to my goal, and I wasn’t primarily there for the tracking.

Meeting friends

When we met friends – humans or dogs – I waited for Game to offer eye contact or a sit before releasing her to say hi. If she pulled on the leash, I just remained standing. If she whined or barked, I let her (and made a mental note to choose a bigger pre-release distance next time). If she briefly looked back at me, I marked and released her to say hi or go play. Once she started understanding the principle, she chose to look at me faster and faster.

Example: walking in public

The Siam Crown training fields came with lots of opportunities to take strolls on leash at a distance from other dogs who were pottied on leash, and learn to not run up to them, but just walk and explore. We could also walk off leash (Siam Crown is a gigantic park with a wall around it) while other dogs were training in the distance. I kept a distance where I trusted that Game was able to stay in her radius around me rather than being magnetized to the action on a nearby training field. With time, we got closer and closer to dogs working on their obedience or protection skills.

Eating out

I would find a spot at Siam Crown where I could read or cut up hotdogs with Game on a leash next to me. There were various dog training things going on in the distance. When Game lay down and stayed down, I reinforced her with attention and food.

We also visited Thai street food places – places where you usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes – and did the same things there. These were exciting! I had to up my treat value. I set the clock on my phone and rewarded every 15 seconds at first, then every 30 seconds, every 45 seconds … After a while, I was only dropping a treat between her paws every two minutes. This took work – but I was able to lower the rate of reinforcement surprisingly quickly! I set myself the goal to take Game to one of these places once every seven days. Once a week, I invested about 15 intense training minutes in this project. I didn’t find it to be a huge time investment, and loved seeing Game’s progress.

And … We did it!

Game just turned a year old in July, and I’m proud to say that we have met our training goal. Through making good choices easy and reinforcing, and preventing bad choices or making them difficult, Game has become a dog who can go places with me. She is laid-back and relaxed around people and dogs, and unphazed by commotion. (Not exactly a typical Malinois trait!) She makes good choices without me having to micromanage her.

Comfortable and relaxed in public:

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An enjoyable loose-leash sniff walk in a busy place:

Now that making good choices has become a habit, I am starting to increase Game’s level of freedom. In the past, I would have used distance and/or a leash to make walking up to people (a reinforcer for her) unlikely or impossible. Now, if I am with someone Game knows and likes, I don’t mind if she chooses to walk over and say hi. She won’t be over the top, and it’s not her default thing to do. Having been a choice architect in her first year of life is allowing me to increase the amount of freedom she has today.

Of course, I’ll keep reinforcing good choices rather than take them for granted: it’s fun to catch a dog being good!

Have you been a choice architect in your dog’s life? Tell me about it in the comments!

PS: Check out this blog post by Amanda Nelson. She is a choice architect for her dog in an agility context!

3 thoughts on “A Year of Being a Choice Architect

  1. Lee Anne Embry says:

    I love this article. I’m curious….you said you practiced the cafe behavior once a week, about how often did you practice dog distraction at park etc? I have a new pup 6 months old and I feel like I push too much sometimes wanting to train every day somewhere public. I think we all , especially me, have trouble keeping distances where the dog is TRULY calm and relaxed. Being still or in a down does not mean calm and relaxed all the time. This article is a great reminder!! Thanks

  2. Chrissi Schranz says:

    Dog distractions … about every second day. I went to Siam Crown (the park and training facility I mention in the post) several times a week. It’s a very big area with plenty of space, which makes it easy to choose an appropriate distance from distractions. For example, I might focus on playing or taking a walk in a distraction-free place, but build in a bit of distraction training along the way. Just a few minutes here and there rather than making it the main event of our field trip.

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