Does your animal have control?

Many animal trainers, veterinarians and pet owners highlight the importance of controlling animals. Controlling them, as in restricting the animals’ movement, their choices and their opportunities to control their environment through their behaviour.

Sometimes you have to, for safety reasons.


But often you don’t – and more often than you might think. Actually, the trend in modern animal training is to deliberately and strategically shift control from the handler to the animal, while still staying safe.

Who’s controlling the cut? You – or the dog?

Giving control to the animal – or the illusion of control – has many advantages, including reducing fear and improving well-being. This concept of agency, of being capable of acting, making choices, and resolving problems, is of huge importance, for animals as well as humans. Empowerment has direct and measurable health benefits.

And paradoxically, by giving control to the animal rather than restricting choice and control, the situation often turns out safer, since the animal is less fearful and less likely to switch into defensive aggression.

This blog post is not about all the advantages of providing control to animals. Rather, I want to discuss some of the ways that you can increase control for animals during formal training sessions.

Actually, this blog post came about as an excuse to publish a film that I wanted to share with you. I just need to frame it, give it context.

But first, see if you can make sense of the infographic below.

Opportunities for giving control to animals during a formal training session. Version 2 (forgot the Saying “no” in version 1)

Say you do one short training session a day. Let’s dive in and look at all the opportunities of letting the animal in on the decisions to be made.

  • Starting the formal training session: can the animal choose the trainer, where training occurs, or when?
  • Ending sessions: can the animal signal to the trainer when it’s appropriate to end a training session, and have any say in what happens next?
  • Which method of training is used? How are you getting behaviour? Are you choosing techniques that give control to the animal, that are unintrusive and forgiving?
  • Within the training session, how are trials initialized – by the trainer, or by the animal? Can the animal choose which behaviour to work on? Which reinforcers to receive?
  • Are there any aversive elements in the training, as in: are you trying to help the animal overcome fear? And if so, are you giving the animal a degree of control over that fearful stimulus?
  • Revision: can the animal change his mind, and say “no”, or “stop, I need a break”? Is there a clear way to communicate that?

Now, some of my readers may be arguing that it’s preposterous to give animals control over all aspects of training.

That’s not what I’m saying that you should do. After all, you have options, too, and one of them is to choose when to hand over control to the animal – and when not to.

As always, it depends when and where it’s appropriate to leave the decision making to the animal. And often, the illusion of control works just fine. In other words: you decide which options you can live with, and you let the animal choose between those options. An example from my recent past would be offering two sensible long-sleeve t-shirts to the 6-year-old child, and letting him chose whether it’s to be batman or dinosaurs. He thinks he’s controlling what he wears, but you know that you just avoided the favored sleeveless top that would have been too cold.

As a trainer, you set up the choices so that the outcome is always one that’s acceptable to you.

Let’s have a look at a training session illustrating one of these choices during a training sessions, namely the choice to initiate a single trial within the session.

Yes, we’re finally getting to the film!

You need the back story before you watch it, or else you’ll be annoyed that I’m oooohing and aaaawing throughout the video.

You might still be annoyed, but at least you’ll know why.

Back in 2013, I was visiting my friends Carolina Fransson and Hedvig Zetterberg to watch some horse training. Not being a horse person myself, I was intrigued. And the training session you’re about to see was, without doubt, the most memorable moment of that day.

They said: “do you want to see some hoof lift-training?”, to which I enthusiastically responded “sure, yeah!!”

As they were setting up the training scenario and refilling treat bags, they brought out a red bucket.

I asked: “is that a target?” thinking that perhaps they’d used the bucket as a hoof target to teach the behaviour or lifting the hoof.

Carolina said: “mmm, she touches the bucket and then she lifts her hoof”.

I remember being utterly confused by that comment. Frankly, I didn’t understand a thing, I was entirely set on my hoof-target idea. But I just let it go, shrugged and started filming.

And after the first hoof lift, comprehension dawned on me – I finally understood what Carolina had been saying. And I got really excited.


Jumping-up-and-down excited.

So there I was, filming and trying to keep the camera level, and trying desperately to keep quiet and not ruin the recording by blabbering excitedly.

And of course, after a while I cracked and ruined the recording by blabbering excitedly. I’ve edited out most of it, but there’s still a fair bit of oooohing.

So, you’re warned. Perhaps you want to watch this with the sound off.

Quoquette with trainer Hedvig Zetterberg and instructor Carolina Fransson (OHR education – a Swedish site).

See what happens?

Giving control to the animal doesn’t mean that the whole training session goes haywire. Rather, it shifts the nature of the interaction from an authoritarian focus on obedience to one centered on collaboration.

This was the first time I witnessed a so called “Yes-target” or a “start button behaviour”. Quoquette initiates the hoof lift. In the infographic above, this corresponds to the animal initiating the trials in the training session. She presses the start button, as it were.

She touches the bucket with her nose, indicating that she’s ready.

Hedvig then offers her hand in response to Quoquette’s signal.

Quoquette lifts the hoof.

Hedvig holds on for a few seconds, sounds the clicker, releases, and gives a food treat.

Hedvig mentioned two things that have really stuck with me. Earlier, they used to train the hoof lift without the bucket, and she noted the following difference once they added it and Quoquette learned that she can initiate the training trials:

  • Before adding the bucket, Hedvig used to lift the hoof. Now Quoquette lifts her hoof and places it in Hedvig’s hand. You may think that’s a minor thing, but it’s huge! Quoquette not only says when she’s ready, but she’s the one actually controlling the hoof lift, not Hedvig. The behaviour is more enthusiastic, as it were. If you look again, you’ll notice that she’s still chewing when she’s starting the next trial. Scientific studies have shown that control is fun, leading to a positive emotional state.
  • Hedvig’s noted that sometimes, when she holds the hoof for longer-than-average trials, the latency to the next start signal from Quoquette increased. In other words, Quoquette has a way of communicating to Hedvig that she didn’t really like what just happened: she does that by waiting longer before she decides hoof lifting is worth the effort. That’s very valuable information for the trainer.

Revision: One additional tweak that could be used in addition to the “yes”-target would be some way of communicating “no” or “I changed my mind”. The bucket game concept, introduced by Chirag Patel (Domesticated Manners) is one way of doing that.

Initiating or saying “no, I changed my mind” to the training trial are but two of the many things you can offer your animal during a training session! Also, there are 24 hours in a day and training only occurs for a negligible fraction of that time.

So. How much control are you giving your animal outside of training?


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10 Replies to “Does your animal have control?”

  1. I Use recorded audio buttons as a yes button and I found that like you mentioned, the horses use it (but not often) to stop the offered behavior, it became a “stop” or “too long” button because I listened and I also reinforce NO’s,
    even though they don’t use it often to stop the behavior, is it possible that a horse will accidently view the second press as a chain of behaviors? I don’t mark the behavior but feed the request to stop.

    1. Not sure I understand your question, Mickella, could you elaborate? Does the horse press the same button twice, the first being “yes” and the second “no”, like a light switch? I would probably try to disambiguate that somehow to ensure that both parties know whether the lights are on or off… Either by changing the behaviour, or by actually having some type of change in the environment come about to signal which “state” we’re in. But again, I might have misunderstood your question..?

  2. Hello this is lovely, i am using a slimier method in my work on separation exacting – on something i call “separation dialogue” in which i make a step to the door and wait for the dog to turn her head before i make the next step. this way although she can not control the outcome of me leaving, she can control how long will it last. and most of the dogs that are offered this power take and use it wisely.
    her is some demonstration :


  3. I love the whole article, and the video of course. I have one question that might be obvious but I’m missing it… the real purpose of using the *bucket* as a pre-indicator of “ready”, when the horse is already indicating readiness by initiating the behavior itself. If the horse is going to lift his foot — why wouldn’t *that* just BE the “ready” indicator? (Though I can see it’s convenient for the handler, and for an especially worried horse, it would be better than having the person holding their hand down near their foot the whole time *waiting*, but here the handler IS holding their hand down by the foot waiting).
    In this *specific* example, there doesn’t seem to *be* a lot of added benefit between horse-lifts-foot-when-ready and horse-touches-bucket-then-lifts-foot, assuming it’s the horse that IS doing the lifting. Perhaps in the beginning it was an indicator that it was OK for the handler to lift the hoof?
    I still love the idea though, because how useful this could be for behaviors the HUMAN takes — behaviors where the horse is NOT able to initiate it through his own actions– for example *an injection*. And in that case, having the horse indicate, “OK, I’m ready for YOU to take action now” would be extremely meaningful. Now this just makes me think of 100 other ways I’m sort of “micro-rude” to my horses. Nonetheless, I look at treat training as there are only so many treats in my daily budget (nutritionally, mentally, focus time, etc.), and I’m always prioritizing what I’m going to ‘spend’ them on that day. I work with horses that have many physical problems (and resulting behavioral issues), but I don’t work with severely traumatized or anxious horses. I can see how this could become far more important in those situations. Thanks for this.

    1. Hi Kathy!

      Great question, and thanks for bringing it up. And you’re absolutely right. This film was shot in 2013, and Hedvig was just starting to experiment with yes-buttons. A specific “button” is useful in situations like you describe when the human initiates whatever is going to happen, otherwise the behaviour per se might be what initiates the chain of events.

      Having said that, I discussed it with Hedvig and Stephanie Edlund, and together we came up with a couple of situations why it still might be a good idea:

      – establishing an external “yes-target” can easily be generalized to other behaviours later. (as long as the setting is distinct enough so that the animal knows what it’s saying yes to),
      – also, will previous learning history impact behaviour? If the behaviour was taught with anything that might have been unpleasant (and moulding as in touching and lifting a hoof certainly might be for some individuals sometimes; just imagine being a little off balance…) having no yes-target but the hoof lift initiated by the horse – it could be negatively reinforced. So the horse might lift the hoof to avoid having the handler initiate the lifting. Not lifting the hoof would lead to the human initiating the horse lift (or at least that’s what the horse thinks because that’s how it was trained). In contrast, when adding the bucket, not touching the bucket will have no such consequence.
      – additionally, if there’s no bucket it might be difficult to bring the behaviour under stimulus control, if that is desirable. As you mention, the trainer may have to be prepared to continue the chain of events.

  4. Yes giving our horses control is one of the most important things that we can do for our horses – it can be argued in this clip that the actual foot lifting is cued by the handlers arm in position but some are always going to say that but the fact that the handler does not go to pick up the foot when the horse signals ‘not ready’ by not lifting the hoof up and then the horse goes back to touching the bucket is quite strongly in favour of the horse having the control – so I am now going to be cheeky and this is a clip of me trying to give control to my mare who at the time was a rescue and was fearful of people and just could not cope with lifting her back feet – I worked allot before I received my hoof jack on establishing a dialog with her – letting her know it is coming and asking through ‘are you ready’ and providing a finish and end point for her- not quite the same I know but again another way to allow the horse to have some control over the process and this works so well in health care issues where we do ‘have’ to take the lead (e.g. vaccinations)

  5. This was very fascinating. I have a very damaged horse who is terrified of being haltered.
    Now he seemed to initiate something like this touching a target on the ground
    while I then touched him with the halter. However I failed to get the concept totally
    and I stuffed it up. Do you do private consultations? I have signed up to get information on
    your course.

    thank you

    1. Hi – great that you’re looking into this concept as a tool! I don’t do private consultations, unfortunately, but I could connect you with Carolina and Hedvig if you want – they also know horses, which I don’t..! 🙂

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