Friday, January 3, 2014

Premack: Making Walks More Fun for ME!

You’re walking down the street on a crisp fall day, enjoying life and your dog is, too. Suddenly the peace is shattered as your dog lunges to the end of the leash, yelping and straining to chase that foul, fuzzy-tailed yard-invader, a squirrel. You get dragged over to the nearest tree that smug little rodent ran up as your dog bounces, trembles, and wraps the leash around the tree faster than you can untangle. The next five minutes are spent trying to get your dog out of wild hunting beast mode, and your “walk” is now a weight-pull competition with a crazed hound (and you as a distinctly unwilling participant.)

Sound familiar? It was a common occurance for me, and made walks frustrating whenever the weather was “squirrel appropriate,” (aka all the time.)

Enter the premack principle.

Sniffing at something interesting can make a great reinforcer.
You ask your dog to do something for you first, and then reward him with that super fun doggie thing he badly wants to do. I ask Bug for a sit when there’s a squirrel in sight and then we get to chase it up the nearest tree!! We’re not there yet, but what I’m hoping to develop is an auto-sit when she sees a squirrel, and I’ll go to intermittently reinforcing it with a chase (that way when a squirrel is sighted across a busy road, we don’t need to play frogger!)

Another benefit to the game: an off switch! By chasing a squirrel and then continuing the walk as normal, your dog will get lots of practice coming down from highly aroused to calm. After just a few repetitions, Bug would settle down after a squirrel chase and return to “normal walking mode,” much, much more quickly than I’d ever seen her “turn off!”

Final benefit (probably doesn’t apply to sight hounds but here it is anyway): my squirrel radar is much better than Bug’s, so 2 out of 3 times there’s a squirrel, I will see it before she does. Awesome! I can ask her for a sit (to her, the cue is out of the blue) and then BAM I make a squirrel appear for us to chase, I must be some kind of god! Sitting when I ask is great, you never know when I can make a squirrel chase happen!

Super fun doggie behaviors (things like chasing squirrels, running over to sniff things, etc) can be extremely powerful reinforcers. Learning to harness just my little gun dog’s prey drive has made walks so much more fun! Rather than hoping to not see squirrels and groaning inwardly as my dog flies off the handle at the sight of one, I’m looking for squirrels, excited to challenge her obedience and know that we’ll both have fun at it!

Premack lets you and your dog enjoy the doggie things in life!