What do phone poles and fire hydrants have in common with a leash, the front door, greeting another person or dog, or playing a game? All of these things are seen as super cool by many dogs – yours may be included. And, all of those things can be sources of frustration for dog owners who can not get their dog to focus on them in the presence of those competing reinforcers.
Know this. Although in the beginning you will want to teach your dog without the presence of ‘super cool’ distractions (also known as competing reinforcers), with practice, those ‘super cool’ distractions can actually help you to teach your dog the behaviors you want to see.
Introducing the Premack Principle
The Premack Principle states that a high probability behavior will reinforce the less probable behavior, and this does not always have to be positive, just more probable. As an example, watching a webinar from a recent dog training conference I attended is a much higher probability behavior for me right now. I have told myself that as soon as I finish this post, I can watch that webinar. Therefore, my writing this post has become more probable right now because I know it will be followed by something else I want to do.
It is important to note here that this is all about consequences. When a behavior is followed by something of value to the animal behaving, then that behavior will increase in frequency. It will strengthen. This is called operant learning.
Understanding these concepts is important to your dog training. It allows you to teach your pet in the most positive way without having to use force.
A first step is to get to know what your dog values. What food and activities would your dog put in his/her ‘super cool’ list?
Then set up the learning environment with minimum distractions for teaching the behavior you want to see. Do you want your dog to turn back to you when you say your dog’s name? That needs to be taught first without distractions. Do you want your dog to sit when you cue your dog? That needs to be taught first without distractions. Do you want your dog to understand the concept of walking on a loose leash? That needs to be taught first where your dog can succeed.
Then you can begin incorporating distractions into your training, only at a distance and intensity where your dog can continue to succeed at doing what you are teaching. You can add in the opportunity to do or get closer to those ‘super cool’ items as a consequence to the behavior, after your dog already understands the behavior.
In your mind you can be asking your dog these questions:
- Can you sit for me?
Awesome! Let’s go smell the fire hydrant together!
- Can you walk a step or two by my side?
Super! Let’s go sniff the grass!
- Can you come when I call for you?
Yay! When you get here, you can chase me or we will play another fun game!
The list can go on and on.
Note that you need to be careful as to just HOW ‘super cool’ that something is to your dog and how close you are to it. Keep in mind that you want your dog to succeed. If your dog is too focused on the environment and can not do the behavior you asked, you need to give yourself more distance from that distraction.
Take whatever time you and your pet need to teach the behaviors, and work up to levels of difficulty. And have fun doing it!
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.