Every time our dogs listen to us (or not), they make a conscious decision. In order to understand how to make them decide in our favor, we have to understand how decisions work.
All humans and animals make decisions hundreds of times a day (note that this only applies to voluntary behaviors – involuntary behaviors such as panting, shaking, urinating etc. are not based on decisions but reflex processes). What drives these decisions is the evaluation of the value of the outcomes. We try to decide in a way that we will maximize our resources and well-being, and in a way to minimize unpleasant things.
The more similar the outcome of the choices is, the more conflicted will the creature be about what decision to make. The more different the outcome of the choices, the easier the decision will be.
Here are some examples:
- You drop your mail while you take it inside. Do you pick it up? Choices are yes (outcome upside is having your mail, outcome downside is having to bend down) and no (outcome upside is not having to bend down, outcome downside is loosing your mail). Very easy choice since the YES upside and the NO downside are very strong. All people will make the same choice here.
- An item at the grocery store you really want is twice as expensive as you think is reasonable. Do you buy? Choices are yes (outcome upside is acquiring food (HUGE primary reinforcer), outcome downside is spending too much money) and no (outcome upside is saving money (huge secondary reinforcer), outcome downside is not acquiring food). That is already a harder choice to make because acquiring food/saving money are both desirable actions for us. People might make different choices here depending on how valuable the food is for them.
- Buying a house (a decision we have been thinking about for quite some time now). Possible choices are buy now (outcome upside is owning a house and not paying rent, outcome downside is possible money loss because of unstable market, not good water situation, not being flexible in our place of living anymore), buy later (outcome upside is being flexible now, not having to worry about repairs, etc., outcome downside is “wasting” rent money, being at landlord’s mercy) and never buy (outcome upside is unlimited flexibility, no worries about housing market, water situation, outcome downside is not acquiring real estate and “wasting” rent money forever). People make very different choices here, it is a complicated decision.
The decision in scenario (1) took a split second to make and was very unconflicted. Scenario (2) might already take a minute to decide. Scenario (3) can take years for some people (like us!).
For our dogs, we went the decision making process to be as EASY and clear as possible. The outcomes should be very clear, unchanging and stacked in our favor. The dog should make the decision to listen in the same split second it takes you to decide to pick up your mail. There should be no hesitation – because they know exactly what they want and go for it!