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Decisions, Decisions

This morning as I let my dogs run down a secluded hiking trail ahead of me, Bodhi spotted a bunny. He froze in place, all of his focus on that white cotton tail. The trail we were on was at a higher elevation than the bunny, so to chase it, Bodhi would have had to scamper down a steep incline and then sprint to close the distance. I could see him weighing his options. After a few seconds, he decided not to give chase after all. The energy he would have had to expend, combined with his chances of actually catching the bunny, probably factored in to his decision to continue down the path. (Don’t worry about the bunnies; Bodhi never catches them.)

Dogs make decisions constantly. While I believe they may do things for selfless reasons like “because they love us,” dogs more often base their decisions on what’s in it for them. You really can’t blame them. Besides, it’s part of what keeps them safe in the world. Should I go into that thing that looks like a trap, or retreat? Should I let that menacing-looking person approach me, or avoid him? Is it a good idea to chase that coyote?I’m not suggesting that dogs reason these things out the way we do, but there is some cognition involved along with instinct.

When it comes to training, those “Is it worth it?” decisions come into play. If a dog is sniffing something wonderful (disgusting to us and wonderful to them, no doubt) and we’re calling them to come, is it worth it for them to leave the smelly prize and return to us? That depends on the value of the smelly thing versus the value of the perceived outcome. If the dog has been rewarded in the past with something he absolutely loves for coming when called, chances are he’ll feel it’s worth his while to comply. If, on the other hand, the consequence of coming has been being reprimanded for having run off, he might not comply so readily.

Since dogs do what works for them, if we’re using reward-based training (and why wouldn’t we?), we’re in luck! All we have to do is teach dogs what we’d like, and teach them that compliance is worth their while. Of course, non-compliance has consequences as well; not physical punishment, but perhaps the loss of something the dog values, such as a bowl of food going away when he refuses to sit to be fed. Dogs are not automatons, and thank goodness for that. They have free will. Since we know that their days are filled with on-the-moment decision-making, let’s help them to make good ones. _____________________________________________________

©Nicole Wilde

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