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The Premack Principle

A number of clients have issues with leash pulling. Quite often these troubles are related to one specific situation – the spotting of their dog's arch nemesis, the neighborhood squirrel or cat.

Some dogs go insane when they see a squirrel or cat - barking, lunging, shaking. My dog Mae actually starts to tremble and shake when she sees one. This is not her fault. We bred many breeds of dogs to hunt and reinforced this trait over many, many generations.

The first thing I try is CC&D (Counterconditioning and Desensitization). I have an article on Getting your dog to love your cats a little less viciously using CC&D that is great for getting your dog and cat to get along.

When it comes to squirrels in the park I often turn to the Premack principle. It is one of the most effective but unusual ways to overcome squirrel chasing.

So what is the Premack Principle? David Premack, PhD defined it as "any response A will reinforce any response B, if and only if, the independent rate of A is greater than that of B."

Sadly, this isn't a very helpful definition for most of us. The Premack Principle is more easily understood as using a more preferred behaviour to reinforce a less preferred behaviour. Our grandmothers understood this rule long before David Premack came along.

"Eat your peas and you can have dessert." 

What is truly fascinating about Premack is that the less desired behaviour (eating peas) takes on the emotions associated with the desired behaviour (getting dessert). You actually start to like eating peas. Grandma was smart!

There is a risk to keep in mind with Premack. If you ask for a behaviour that is repulsive to the individual, they will actually start to hate the preferred behaviour. So if Grandma made me eat regurgitated brocolli in order to get dessert, it is likely I would grow up avoiding all brocolli as well as all desserts.

So how do we use this with our dogs and squirrels?

We ask our dog to do the smallest thing when they see a squirrel. In most cases I just ask my dog to look at me. They don't have to hold my gaze. They just have to tear their gaze away from the squirrel and glance in my direction. At that point I mark the behaviour with a "yes!" and drop the leash. Let the chase for the squirrel commence!

Note: If it is not safe the drop the leash, I run with them after the squirrel. Yes. I am the crazy guy chasing squirrels with my dog. But it works!

PROTOCOL:
Look at me (less desired behaviour) and I will let you chase that squirrel (desired behaviour.) 

I approach the park and when my dog locks onto a squirrel I come to a stop and I say her name. Then I wait. I might make a kissy sound after a few seconds but I am just waiting for her to glance at me.

The first few times you do this, your dog will not look at you. So you just wait. No moving forward and no chasing squirrels. You may even have to turn and walk away from the park after a few minutes if your dog can't manage to glance at you. But one of these days your dog is going to glance at you and they second they do so, you are going to mark this behaviour with a "yes!" and start chasing squirrels!

You keep doing this until your dog is automatically giving you a glance every time she sees a squirrel. And now comes the critical part of this protocol. We raise our criteria slightly.

We approach the park and when our dog glances at us nothing happens. This should cause them to give you a double take at which point you ask for a sit. If they give you a sit, you shout your "yes!" and the chase for the squirrel is on. If they don't sit, you are back to waiting. And you may have to abort and walk away from the park just like at the beginning. But pretty quickly your dog should be offering you sits in order to chase the squirrel.

This protocol does a number of things.

First it allows our dogs to develop the ABILITY to offer behaviours in the presence of something as insanely arousing as a squirrel (or whatever stimuli is setting your dog off.) Many dogs are too aroused to think straight let alone offer you a sit or a down. But as you start slowly playing this "game" with them they will start to be able to offer you more calm and complex behaviours in the presence of the squirrels.

The second thing this protocol does is it slowly works to lower the arousal level of squirrels. At first we are letting our dogs chase squirrels for the merest of glances. With time our dog is learning to look at us, hold our gaze and go into a sit or even a down. Some squirrels are going to be long gone by the time your dog has finished their ritual. But the real power of Premack is that the ritual starts taking on the emotions of chasing the squirrel. Looking at you and doing the sit or touch or other tasks starts to be AS fun as the squirrel chasing was. At this point you can start to remove the squirrel and just reward with a treat.

OF INTEREST: A lot of people (trainers included) get confused by Premack or by using a marker without having a food reward. What Premack actually proved is that reinforcement is relative and that behaviours can be as effective as any other type of reinforcement. Here is a published paper for those who would like to learn more

[Image credit: Matthew Cua]

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