The Importance of Choice

Posted On Mar 02, 2024 |

What is choice?

We often talk about choice, but what actually is it? Choice can be described in multiple ways, for example, “a variety from which to choose, the act of choosing and an alternative”. It can also be described as “ the power or liberty to choose” (Matin et al, 2013).

Having a choice is reinforcing

Having control and choice is reinforcing to dogs in the same way we find it reinforcing. Choice is known to elicit an increased perception of control. When we take choice away we are not allowing dogs the opportunity to have control over their own lives, which is essential to their overall well-being and health.


A lack of choice means we have no control

A lack of choice means we have no control, which for dogs and humans can be debilitating and emotionally stressful. It can also cause depression and helplessness. However, too much choice or choice overload can equally have its problems and be detrimental to choice. It can lead to adverse consequences, for example, a decrease in motivation. Uncertainty of choice has also been shown to increase the negative emotional states of dogs (Tchilingaryan et al, 2010).



The Science Behind Choice

Research has shown that opportunities to choose enhances interest, enjoyment, effort, and persistence in a task. Studies also suggest that we feel more competent, in control, motivated, and perform better when we can make choices. Choice is often a more preferred and potent reinforcer than no choice across a variety of species and populations. This is demonstrated across a number of studies, for example, a study by Tiger and colleagues (2006) evaluated the value of choice with preschool children. Their results showed that providing a choice of reinforcers and the opportunity to choose were both independently reinforcing. The children even continued to choose choice when the work was increasingly more difficult. Voss and Home (1970) conducted an experiment using a maze and 24 rats. Their results showed that when given a choice of two pathways, the rats preferred the alternative pathway which provided an opportunity for further choice behaviour. A different type of study by Leotti and Delgado (2011) examined which neural substrates were recruited when anticipating the opportunity of choice. The anticipation of choice was associated with the regions in the brain involved in affective and motivational processes. These areas are assumed to be involved in reward processing. Their findings suggest that having the opportunity to choose may be inherently valuable in some situations. These studies show that choice has more value and is a more potent reinforcer compared to no-choice conditions.

Dogs have limited choices

Dogs have limited choices in their lives, we control what they eat, when they eat, when they can go to the toilet, who they get to play with, and where they sleep. We can support dogs and their wellbeing by creating an environment that empowers them to make choices. Once our dogs understand that they do have a choice we can start to implement more choices within their life. This helps them to trust, feel safe, and feel more confident. If we don't give dogs the opportunity and choice to think and process information they can get frustrated and confused. We may think we are offering our dogs a choice, but in reality, it's often not a choice. This can be seen in Hobson’s Choice where it’s either this choice or nothing.

How can we offer choice?

There are a variety of ways we can offer dogs choices, which can help alleviate stress and give them a sense of control over their environment and life. ACE Free Work is one such way we can invite dogs to make their own choices. Giving dogs this choice within the safety of Free Work can give the dog a voice, which is powerful. The dog has the choice of whether to participate in Free Work or accept an invitation to engage with us. The dog is free to move away at any time, and we can reward this choice, which can be empowering for some dogs.



Strengthening Bonds and Well-Being

By providing our dogs with opportunities to be able to make choices we can strengthen the bond and connection between us. It also increases the dog's overall wellbeing and happiness. By respecting our dog's choices and rewarding education we can build dogs resilience, confidence, and optimism. When dogs perceive they have a choice they are more likely to trust and feel connected to us, this can help to strengthen relationships, create deeper conversations, and create a relationship that is built on trust and respect.