“It’s Your Choice:” Teaching Self Control

The “It’s Your Choice” game was originally introduced to me by Susan Garrett. It’s a great game to teach self control to adult dogs and puppies.

My goal is always self rather than imposed control. This means that I don’t want to have to manage my dog forever, but rather teach him to manage himself and control his emotions.

Axel plays the It's Your Choice game with a piece of hot dog on the ground. By controlling himself, he may earn a click and a treat. Axel is available for adoption through Southern Star Miniature Pinscher Rescue.

Most dogs have relatively poor self control. While it’s normal for puppies and adolescent dogs to exhibit poor emotional control, it’s amazing to me how many adult dogs have no idea how to control themselves. These dogs often become hysterical when they can’t get something they want, lunging, barking, and throwing themselves around. These dogs need the “It’s Your Choice” game.

The premise of the game is simple. It’s the dog’s choice to control himself in the presence of temptation.

This game can be started with treats (we do this in all of our Beginning Obedience classes as a “leave it” exercise), but should quickly be transferred to real life situations. I’ll discuss how I use it in real life.

Let’s say I’m walking my adolescent dog, and a squirrel darts out in front of us. As soon as he sees the squirrel, he begins straining at the leash and barking loudly. He’s clearly not controlling himself, so this is a perfect time to use the It’s Your Choice game.

The first step is to start backing away from the temptation. I already mentioned that I use a Gentle Leader headcollar when training a dog, and it’s very important here. If my dog were on a regular collar, he could continue looking at the squirrel as we backed away. If my dog’s on a Gentle Leader, I use gentle leash pressure to turn his head away from the squirrel towards me as I back up. I back up 6-10 steps, then let the leash go slack.

This is the moment of truth. It’s the dog’s choice.

If my dog makes the correct choice and offers me attention or begins playing the Look at That game (more about this in later posts), I reward him. Remember that rewards can be whatever the dog is motivated by. In some cases I may click and treat, but with most dogs I’ll click and take a step closer to the squirrel, since that’s what my dog really wants in this situation. My dog quickly learns that by offering me attention and controlling himself, he’s able to get closer to what he wants.

If my dog cannot make the correct choice, I don’t get upset. Instead, I just start another round of the It’s Your Choice game, again turning his head away from the temptation and backing up 6-10 steps. I’ll continue to do this until we get far enough away for my dog to make the choice I want.

So, does your dog have good self control? Have you ever played the It’s Your Choice game, and if so how did it go? Let us know in the comments!

12 responses to ““It’s Your Choice:” Teaching Self Control

  1. Pingback: Just Say No? « Paws Abilities

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  5. How do you modify this for dogs who won’t use the head collars? I tried for months to get my dog to use it and achieved some measure of success, but she wouldn’t let anyone else use it and when stressed even reacted against it with me. The reactions weren’t the ones I’ve seen in other dogs I’ve used it with, she would literally claw her face until she had lacerations. After working with her with rewards and increasing time for the entire summer, we mutually agreed that life was too short for this kind of drama. She does pretty well with “Look” but in the past few months has started getting more dog reactive and less inclined to yield. Still awesome with people, heels well, gets lots of excercise, etc. but I want to work on the reactivity without having to spend another stressful 6 months with a head collar, if I can avoid it.

  6. I have two 2 year old rescue DDB one male one female (brother and sister) they have always been together and get very agitated when parted. she has been spayed but he has not been neutered. I was informed at the time of adoption that they were not very good with other animals and have had a few incidents whilst out walking them when they turn into what apprears to be wild animals and nothing seems to calm them. However, on stating that use of the Halti collars along with positive reinforcemet, they no longer really react to dogs barking and when out walking they are now better (most of the time) when they see horses whereas before they used to go nuts whereas most of the time. But I have found that when out or at home they are fine with humans who are confident around them but if someone shows the slightest hesitation towards them they tend to pounce and bark. there have been no serious incidents just a few sahttered nerves. Regardless of the improvement I am still not confident to walk the dogs as a family during daytime and find I often walk them on my own either early in the morning or very late at night when i am confident that there will be fewer distractions any advice welcomed x

  7. Hey this is somewhat of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you
    have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding skills so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  8. Is an approach toward the squirrel an appropriate reward for every dog? I have a very high prey drive coonhound. She’s not interested in treats or toys when we encounter squirrels or deer, so I’m struggling with a good way to reinforce appropriate behaviors when we do encounter wildlife. This sounds like it might work, but since her drive to chase is so high and the stimulus level somewhat uncontrollable I worry that approaching the squirrel when she starts to calm down may just increase her frustration and excitement levels. Also, chasing wildlife is never going to be an acceptable behavior for her since we don’t live in a place where she gets to roam off-leash, so is it counterproductive to let her approach (even politely) the squirrel when she is never going to be rewarded with a real chase and I actually want her to learn (as much as possible) to ignore critters.
    Thanks for the very educational blog!

  9. Hi Sara,

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful training info! I adopted a dog second-hand that had been born in a kill-shelter, then was taken from the shelter at about 3 months by a foster-to-adopt rescue. The people who adopted her from the rescue were clearly the wrong people for her because she was severely traumatized in the kill-shelter already and then the initial adopters never did anything to socialize her and help her through her fear stage once they took her home. They also had a precocious 3 year old on top of this. So, Sadie, as we call her now, came to us because she escaped her fence one day, where apparently she was spending most of her time, basically being ignored. We suspect that the male figure in that household may have been a negative trainer because she is very uncomfortable with males and warms up to females a lot faster. Sadie had a micro chip which is why we know where she came from, so we at least know her background. The people who had adopted her decided on their own after having her back for 24 hours to give Sadie to us. We were overjoyed! I love her so much! There was an instant bond between the two of us the moment that I found her!

    With all this said, Sadie has come a long way with her social skills and confidence levels since September 2013 when we took ownership of her. I am the owner of a natural pet food store so of course, she comes to work with me, and I have a very good customer who is an excellent positive trainer and behaviorist. So, I have the professional to work with locally, but I am always looking for information on how I can help Sadie to reach the most confident and calm disposition possible. Recently, she has started to exhibit reactive barking behaviors when customers come into the store. Also at home, she barks anytime she hears a noise outside or when someone knocks on the door or when a visitor comes into the house that she has not met before. She is by nature, shy and cautious, but she is showing promise. She used to run away to her kennel at home or run back to the office area to hide when visitors would come over. She wouldn’t make a sound. But she is evolving and now she is letting people know of her presence. I want her to be a calm, quiet and polite dog. Oh and she is also noticing birds and squirrels on walks and wants to give chase. She is a leash puller which I am working to train out of her as well. She loves other dogs and looses her fears when she gets to meet a new friend. At this point when a visitor comes into the store she will come and sniff them only if they pretend that she is not there. The moment a visitor looks at her she backs away. She is still very timid around people who don’t have a dog with them. However, the more the same visitor comes to the store, the more comfortable she becomes with that particular visitor. The reactive barking is the behavior I would like to redirect more than anything so if you have any other suggestions that could help with that, I’d appreciate it! I have read through your article “Training Your Reactive Dog” which is how I got here. Thanks a bunch!

  10. I don’t understand how moving towards the squirrel ( or dog, in my case) as being a good reward. In that my dog wants to bite the other dog, so I don’t want her to think she can be rewarded by her calmness by eventually achieving to bite the other dog. 🤔

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