• Wanda Keightley

The Power Of Choice - Building Confidence and Training.

Updated: May 22, 2020

Jade is making some amazing choices today that beautifully display what modern dog training practice is all about, using choice to build confidence, communication and cooperative behaviors, and it has inspired me to write my first blog post.

Actually, eventually it will be the second. I really wanted to get this out before I lose my moment of inspiration. My life with Jade has many of these moments marking signposts in our journey of learning and development together, but mostly about my learning how to let go of outdated thinking that wasn't doing either of us any good. That's what the first blog will be about.

Choice Can Build Confidence and Resilience.

Dogs are very intelligent and emotional beings. Studies have been done to determine their brain physical and chemical make-up (see below for published study), which is very much like our own, also how the chemistry in their brains responds to stimuli like their owner's face, faces showing different emotions etc.

It’s important to be sensitive to your dog’s feelings and choices so you can respond accordingly and help them feel better, even slightly better, if needed. By helping them we can bring about graduated change, improving emotional reactions that help them feel better about existing triggers and to be more resilient to new experiences. This results in changes not only in their observable learned responses but also in their brain neural connections and chemistry.

Thanks to the study mentioned above we now know that behaviour isn't isolated. It is driven by chemical reactions and learned responses and we can use the knowledge of how the brain works to help our dogs do better in what is very much a world that can be challenging. It's all connected.

I'll cover it more in the the previous blog (when I write it), but Jade has many challenges and I've had to learn how to help her feel safe in a range of situations. These challenges are brought about by poor breeding, a lack of appropriate socialisation, fear and pain based training techniques and a lack of management. Choices, positive reinforcement training and appropriate management to avoid difficult situations have helped a lot. Behaviour medications, prescribed by the behaviour vet, have greatly smoothed the way for Jade to feel safe & learn new responses to old triggers and new situations.

Jade's Choices and What They Tell Me.

In this photo is Jade telling me she doesn’t want walkies. She ALWAYS wants walkies in the morning, but the way she is just laying on her bed, not standing up wiggling at me expectantly, tells me that something is worrying her. It doesn't take much for me to realise what it is.

Jade's choice to not walk was due to the council workers mowing lawns etc. across the road. I've spent time learning Jade's body language & responding accordingly, leading to her learning that she can make choices indicating preference for things she wants to do or not do. By reinforcing her choices, by responding appropriately, her confidence and communication with me has increased a great deal, meaning she is more trusting and resilient if there are things that she finds more challenging. It has also meant that she can communicate her feelings in a way that ensures she doesn’t need to escalate her communication up the Ladder Of Aggression to snapping, snarling and biting.

While the council workers were outside I watched how Jade coped, ready to step in with distractions and comforting if she was showing her usual strong signs of distress. While observing her I noticed that although she was concerned, she also seemed ok to just lay on her bed, and even fell asleep for a time!

Typically we would have spent the rest of the day resting at home after a stressful event, with me staying quiet so that she can sleep all she needs to. This is a habit we’ve built after stressful events in the past, not going out the day of the stressful event to give Jade's body time to deal with the cortisol that is released. This is often known as a Cortisol Holiday or vacation.

Cortisol can take up to three days to drain out of the body, and if I continue to expose her to stressful situations she will find it increasingly difficult to cope & recover. Typically later that day, or the next day, she is again expressing a choice to walk, and copes well with the environment. By giving her body time to recover I know she will do a lot better on our next walk, setting us both up to have an easier time.

We've been doing this, taking cortisol vacations, now for about seven years, when I first learned about them thanks to the Anxious Dogs of Australia Support Group on Facebook. We've practiced it consistently so that Jade will often choose for herself to not go out until she's ready. Up until today this has meant we wouldn't go for walks the day of the event, however Jade surprised me this morning!

Jade's Choice To Walk. It took me a bit by surprise when Jade stood up and looked expectantly at me near the front door after the workers left. This is her typical way of asking for a walk!

Then again, I’m not entirely surprised as she didn’t get as stressed this time as she had in the past.

Choice of direction. I will usually allow Jade to choose which direction she wants to walk in. I used to take her on grand adventures, exploring several parks, however a few years ago decided to let her choose for herself for a week to see what would happen. I was dismayed when I realised she was choosing the same route & that the route took us away from parks and houses where there were dogs barking behind barriers, frustrated by the lack of stimulation or access to what they wanted. She still enjoyed those walks when we went past houses, but found the barking dogs intimidating & preferred to avoid them if she could.

Choice to walk with me. If you watch the video, to the casual observer it would look like she's walking with me because she wants the cheese in my pocket. To this geeky dog trainer though she is making the choice of what reinforcement she wants.

This choice can change at any given moment, and I allow her to stop to sniff, roll etc. when she chooses. This is because the environment is full of competing reinforcement - smells, direction, dogs and people, cat poo etc. I'm using her offered cooperative behaviour as something I can capture and build on, while also ensuring her need to express normal dog behaviour is being met.

The moment where she walks out onto the road is information for me, I'm thinking she's avoiding something, especially looking at her body language - ears back, yawning, even the shape of the tongue - these are all signs of discomfort. I know she's not entirely happy with the phone being pointed in her direction, but she's happy for me to call her back off the road. My awareness of this means it's something I know we can work on to help her feel better, by pairing it with something really good!

Choice of how to deal with something she's unsure of. Then there’s a motorbike. She’s making several choices here. She could react by lunging and barking, although for her it would more likely to be wiggling for attention, but she stands and observes the motorbike then turns back to me. This is because we have worked on her being ok with unusual things in the environment and she anticipates good things will happen after she's checked out the "thing" and decided it's ok.


Modern dog training practices have evolved a lot in the past 5-10 years. Dog trainers who do Continuous Professional Development (CPD) to keep up with the latest in understanding and advancements don’t train dogs to be obedient, we instead teach you how to capture and build choice and cooperation with your companion dog. This sort of training recognises that dogs have physical and emotional needs, it builds confidence and resilience, ensuring that we can live cooperatively with them, rather than imposing our will on them.

The thing I love most about a dog trained with positive reinforcement is that they learn to communicate, that their communication will be heard, and they're safer for their family & community!

Further Reading:

Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs

(Gregory S. Berns, Andrew M. Brooks, Mark Spivak May 2012)


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Wanda Keightley

Cockburn area of Western Australia
Ph: 0416 295 138

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