Letting a Dog Choose its own Outcome

I’ve often talked about the fact that I rarely believe attitude, dominance, or willfulness are possible reasons a behavior I’ve cued doesn’t occur. To me there are far more plausible explanations that don’t involve a conscious decision by the dog to misbehave. However, there are times when it seems a battle of wills is joined and the outcome usually depends on one thing— patience.

My girl, Tosha, is pretty laid back, especially for an Aussie. She loves to meet people and is generally not suspicious of them. She does not feel the need to herd and control everything in her environment like my male Aussie Gavin does. And unlike all my other dogs, she picks a quite spot away from the clamoring crowd and patiently waits for any treats that come her way.

In fact, she is so laid back that we’ve never really gone too far with her training. She knows the basics like sit, down, stay, wait, leave it, and a few others. Her recall is good enough that I can call her back when she has escaped the fenced yard and gone “walk about” from more than a hundred yards away. But there is one area where she gets a wee bit worked up, when she can see dogs and other animals walking around outside her house.

Our house is surrounded by hay fields on three sides and for a good portion of the year a Shetland pony could be standing five feet away from you and you would not be able to see it. But when the fields are cut, not only is everything visible, it seems to be a cue for all the neighborhood free roamers to parade around the outside of our fence driving Tosha crazy. By the way, this really sucks at the crack of dawn o’clock.

Actually, I don’t have a problem letting her go out to bark at them, at least some of the time. I figure that never letting her go out to do what comes natural could turn the window into a huge frustration barrier.

This approach seems to work. She doesn’t bark and make a fuss every time she spies something. She doesn’t come running to get us to let her out.  And while I may have to rumble a “quiet” or two her way, it’s rarely a battle. The battle of wills actually comes when letting her out to do her barking.

I require of all my dogs to sit and wait while I open the door for them to go out. My experience is that dogs can hurt themselves and people when stampeding out the door. My first Aussie, Sundown, blew out her ACL by charging out a door and jumping of the porch.

I put the dogs in a sit and then tell them to wait. I then slowly open the door and release them with an “okay.” The sit part is where Tosha sometimes has the problem. She gets so wound up she ignores the cues and looks right through me towards the door, ready to bolt through.

Now at this point I have many choices including repeating my cues, raising my voice, walking away and using a no reward marker like “too bad” along with many others. But the one I find most effective is to give the cue once and simply wait her out. If she walks away, that’s her decision, but I will stand there for as long as it takes for her to sit, settle, and calmly exit the door. If she tries to bolt when I release her I simply block the door and we start all over again.

I am choosing to let her know that her actions are affecting the outcome she wants. She makes the choice to comply or walk away. All it requires from me is a little time and patience.

I don’t see her behavior as mindful or willful or any such thing. I simply see it for what it is, a temporary lack of impulse control and a chance for me to reinforce the rules of the house by simply letting her choose to comply or not.

So what would you do in this situation? How do you view this type of behavior? As always we’d love to hear how you would handle this. Let’s learn from each other.



8 thoughts on “Letting a Dog Choose its own Outcome

  1. In a situation like this, I use food rewards to remind her what she is supposed to be doing at the door. This is not a willful moment or anything to do with ignoring you. She is simply on a one-track mindset and having a hard time accessing the part of her brain that tells her “door=sit”.

    Training is almost always about teaching a dog to ignore natural impulses and/or replacing those impulses with a behavior of our choice. There are three types of cues we rely upon to communicate with them what those behaviors are. Verbal, Visual, and Environmental (there may be subtler ones I have not mentioned but those are generally the big three).

    In your dog’s case, she has learned that doors, as an environmental cue, mean wait until there is room to jet through. You did a great job in initially teaching her to sit and wait, but all training sometimes needs a refresher course.
    By taking a few steps back and retraining her that doors=sit, you can polish up on her training.
    Spend one or two weeks consistently retraining her; lure or signal and food reward her when you walk up to the door.. The food is an important tool for this because it will generally help her switch tracks from “go out the door” to “if I sit, then I get food”.

    And I am of the same mind set with my three dogs. My house rules are pretty basic: Don’t tear up my stuff, don’t hurt others, don’t hurt yourself. Any other behaviors that present themselves become my choice to train an alternative or prevent with better management.

    • I totally agree that most training deals with supplanting natural impulses with ones we find acceptable and I would not consider Tosha to be blowing me off. I know that she see’s the cues, a verbal sit along with the upward hand sweep, and I know she understands them. We do back up and do refreshers with all the dogs from time to time in both low and high distraction environments. In this case though, Tosha just loses her perspective for the moment.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is much appreciated.


  2. Sounds like you have done a great job and have a really good understanding of what your dogs need from you. I think it can be hard for owners to be sympathetic/empathetic towards their dogs because we view the world with such different senses and impulses. Relationships between canines and humans could be so much more improved if we just took a step back from what our agenda is at the moment and help them along. I often tell my students that its about the journey, not the destination. That is true for going out the door, putting a leash on, or learning to wait while a food bowl is put on the floor.

    Liked your article Kevin, really good topic. 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree more with Stephanie’s statement “Relationships between canines and humans could be so much more improved if we just took a step back from what our agenda is at the moment and help them along.” In my uneducated opinion, we must take the time to know and understand the dog first before really starting on the road to a wonderful relationship we all wish for with them.

    I was privileged to have lived with Maggie for 14 years she only knew 3 basic commands sit, wait and stop (stop the same as look at me) the rest she picked up, in my way of thinking, is by thinking things out in her own mind and my patience to let her do so. True, when she hit on the right action to be taken I’d praise and treat her but she was the one that had worked it out.

    I recently adopted a young male Aussie Shepard, please pray for me, that knew sit verbally if the command was given but not on his own and would stand waiting for whatever I had for him, treat, ball or just a pat. After a lot of patience he finally thought out the fact he needed to sit on his own without any prodding and he’d receive what he wanted. It does take time, but the results are awesome, at least with this guy and Maggie.

  4. Your comment, “I don’t see her behavior as mindful or willful or any such thing. I simply see it for what it is, a temporary lack of impulse control and a chance for me to reinforce the rules of the house by simply letting her choose to comply or not.” I so totally agree with. It’s incredibly easy, it must be because so many humans do it, to view our dogs as having the same exact rationale and thoughts/feelings as we humans have but as the vast majority of people who choose to embrace what a dog is and that their dog is a dog already know that we can’t apply human rationale to our dogs. I grew up in a household where my mom didn’t understand that dogs don’t automatically know what they can or can’t do around the house. Because of that I saw many puppies grow into adults and then disappear, either ‘given away’ to a new home or surrendered to a local shelter. I’m not dissing my mom, she only knew what she knew, but because I grew up with such short and not always so sweet relationships with dogs today I work very hard to maintain a healthy relationship with my dogs that not only pleases me but also pleases them.

    I like what Stephanie Collingsworth (Hi Stephanie) said about having those important general rules around the house and whenever the dogs exhibit unwanted behaviors it’s viewed as an opportunity to help her dogs learn that isn’t a wanted behavior. I think our relationships with our dogs, when they are healthy, are always going to be a work in progress. Dogs are not automatons that can be programmed and will always be giving us those new opportunities to help them correct unwanted behaviors in ways that go along with nature, as dogs would help other dogs, and that help our dogs gain as much freedom as they possibly can through being well-behaved attentive dogs.

    In our house with our two pit bulls usually a quick, calm, assertive, “That’s enough!” will stop my dogs from whatever unwanted behavior they are exhibiting and helps them calm down so that they will then listen to my redirection. It works like a charm, it works anytime, anywhere and it couldn’t be easier. I’m no dog trainer and I haven’t studied anything beyond my dogs and other people’s dogs in general but I have a great relationship with my dogs that is getting better every day…not because they are behaving better everyday but because I am learning more from them everyday.

  5. Me again Kevin. I forgot to add that in addition to making my dogs wait and sit at the door until I tell them to go out, always AFTER me, also inside the house I make them follow me through all doorways and up and down the stairs. There are times when I allow them to run ahead of me through the doorway but I’ve found through experience that when I require them to follow me around the house they remain more attentive and are much calmer which means that they are much easier to deal with in the long run.

    I’ve learned through my experience with these dogs and my previous two dogs that it’s very often the ‘little’ things that make a difference in our dogs behavior. When we set up a routine that they are expected to follow as well as seemingly small and insignificant rules, boundaries and limitations they must follow life in general for both the dogs and the humans in the relationship seems to go very well. All I know is that it feels like MAGIC whenever by dogs behave and even more so like a MIRACLE when other people compliment me on my calm, well-behaved, well-socialized pit bulls!

    • I think it’s easy for us all to forget, from time to time, that we are dealing with dogs that don’t necessarily think or understand in human terms. Our proximity to them and our tendency towards anthropomorphism makes it easy to ascribe our emotional reasons to them.

      There are times where I want my dogs behind me when exiting a room or door for safety reasons and I guess I could see where It might hold their attention to follow me but it’s not why I do it. I also let the dogs run out the door from time to time as a functional reward to appropriate to their doggyness.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts with us.

Comments are closed.