David Premack’s work with monkeys is pretty important to dog training. Have you ever asked your dog to sit before feeding him? If you notice how fast and perfect that sit is compared to sitting at other times, then you’ve applied Premack’s Principle. The idea is that trainers use a valuable activity to reinforce a behavior that needs to be strengthened. The most interesting part of this principle is that no food or leash need be involved.
Protection dogs are trained this way. Puppies are chosen based on their desire to play with a ball, fight with a costumed strong man or be with a handler. Puppies motivated by specific activities are very easy to train to do anything because they will do anything to get to that desired activity.
One of the reason that food has become so prevalent in dog training is that most dogs naturally work for food. You don’t have to test a puppy to see if he will eat. If he’s alive, he eats. But this has turned into a short cut for evaluating what else our dogs like as well as a replacement for a working relationship with our canine partners. Teaching a new behavior to a puppy or dog is easier if you offer food whenever your student performs that behavior or an approximation of it. But food is just the tool with which you explain what behavior you want. Once a dog offers the behavior to get the food, then you name the behavior so you can ask for it at will. But you also have to reinforce the behavior with more than just a jerky bite; a chance to be with you, go outside, chase a ball or it’s nothing but a circus trick. Our dogs will work for food so many of us do not even know what part of our relations interests a dog at all. In fact, we don’t need to have a relationship with the dog, at all.
If I teach my dog to sit on cue by offering him a tidbit every time he happens to sit and then use the word sit often enough that he understands my saying “sit” means there is a treat available should he decide to sit I am training him. But that’s all it is. If I want a dog who sits with purpose, whenever and where ever I ask, then I have to create that purpose. That’s the Premack Principle in action.
What does your dog want more than anything? Most of us hope it is to be with us but why? Activities involving us must exist or our presence is not needed for anything other than opening a jar. You’ve all heard the argument that if your boss stopped paying you tomorrow and expected you to work anyway, there might be a problem. Dogs do need to be paid and some are paid with our very presence but that is almost always because our presence includes ball chasing, walks, massages and yes, treats. But somehow we’ve completely replaced our relationship with our dogs with …..just treats. We’ve stopped at minimum wage.
When I move a leash hanging on a hook out of the way to reach something else, my big dog comes flying from anywhere in the house to see if we are going out. That tells me that going somewhere can be used to reinforce whatever I like. If instead, I call my dog to me, ask him to perform a list of tasks, and hand him a biscuit, I am keeping him at the trainee level of employment. But if I were to ask him to figure out some puzzle and then, out of the blue, grab the leash and go, then I would be using the Premack Principle.
Here’s the catch. Jiggling the leash and then asking him to do something he doesn’t normally like is not the same thing at all. And that is where training has gone wrong. Dangling the treat bag is the most common mistake we make. That’s bribery and it is corrupting to us all. It can also poison the treats by making the sight of the bag indicate the impending boring, uncomfortable, unnecessary tasks to come. You can actually teach your dog that food is not worth working for. Exactly what has happened when people claim their dog is “not food motivated”. Any animal who is not food motivated is no longer alive. But we certainly can teach a dog not to accept food as payment for work.
A second problem in dog training today is that work has become a dirty word. When work meant planting potatoes so there would be food all winter or making a chair we could sit in, no one considered how much money the potatoes or chair were worth. We weren’t planning on selling them. Dogs don’t need to deal in currency so “work” is not a chore. A dog works for anything he needs; exercise, you, games, puzzles.
So I challenge you to find out if this is true. Consider taking your dog to a Canine NoseWorks course. Cari Messick, CPDT at Fithound in Buckeystown or Jacy Kelley and Rachel Binfield at YourDogsFriend in Rockville can tell you more.