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What Is Choice? The Evolution of a Concept

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The concept of “giving animals choice” has become popular lately. ClickerExpo conferences have included presentations about choice by Susan Friedman, Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson Vegh, Peggy Hogan, and others. I recently attended an international zoo-training conference where the term “choice” was used in several presentations. It was a relatively new and confusing concept for many of the attendees, and several heated late-night discussions ensued.

“Giving animals choice” is an ideal that trainers arrive at in stages; we are all at different points along the continuum of implementing the concept. In my experience, there are five common phases that trainers can go through when it comes to giving animals choice:

Phase 1: “Choice” is not useful in training and entails lack of control for the trainer

Some trainers feel that animals work for them, and that it is the trainer’s job to teach the animals to perform specific tasks: locate explosives, guide a blind person, find lost victims, etc. These trainers worry that if they give animals choice, the animals may choose not to work—a realistic concern if training is not fun or is accomplished using punishment or coercion. This old-fashioned way of looking at the trainer-animal relationship still exists in some training circles today.

Phase 2: “Choice” is obtained automatically through positive reinforcement training

Some trainers believe that choice is an inherent component of positive reinforcement training. While the use of positive reinforcement greatly increases the odds that the trainer is working in a paradigm of choice, it is not guaranteed. If an animal’s lack of compliance means loss of reinforcement, the “choice” is sometimes a false or forced choice.

Phase 3: “Choice” is ensured through “start-button” and “default” behaviors

A new trend is teaching animals a start-button or default behavior that they can use to indicate to their trainers that they are ready to proceed with a behavior. Default behaviors create a better dialogue with an animal and give the animal control over outcomes, which is a powerful reinforcer. The use of these behaviors means nothing, however, if the behaviors are coerced. For example, when a chin-rest behavior is used to indicate that the animal is ready to proceed, if the trainer insists on the chin rest and refuses to provide any reinforcement until the chin rest is given, then the chin rest is being coerced and the purpose of the behavior is defeated. Instead, the trainer should retrain the chin-rest behavior and make it one that the animal wants to perform.

Phase 4: “Choice” is a product of an animal’s reinforcement history

In recent years, I have come to the realization that choice is a product of reinforcement history. When a behavior is reinforced often and well, the probability that the animal will perform that behavior willingly when asked is very high. It could be argued that animals never have true choice, but the feeling and experience of choice can be engineered by a skilled trainer who takes the time to build an excellent reinforcement history.

Phase 5: “Choice” is strengthened by a good relationship and a dialogue with animals

It is only when we listen and adapt to animals that we can give them freedom to choose.

The best trainers achieve a good relationship with their animals through the use of reinforcement and the absence of coercion. Relationships improve when we are able to read and respond to an animal’s body language and engage in a dialogue with the animal. It is only when we listen and adapt to animals that we can give them freedom to choose; a combination of a solid reinforcement history, a strong relationship, and clear communication gives learners the feeling of having choice.

Personally, I have never used the word “choice” to describe what I try to accomplish as a trainer. I think the word “choice” is the latest of many buzz words we use when we try to push for improved training and animal welfare. Ultimately, it is not the words we choose to describe what we do that matters most; the real test is an animal’s welfare, health, and comfort. The best trainers continue to search for improvements and are seldom satisfied with the status quo. There will certainly be new phases and phrases in the years ahead as we keep striving to provide the very best care possible for animals.

Happy Training,




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