Training A Dog With Distractions

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Do you have a dog that does not listen to you around distractions? Do you have a dog who loves to stop and sniff around every mailbox post and fire hydrant when you are on a walk? Does your dog like a good game of dog sniffing a fire hydrant chase the rodent, or think playing in the sprinkler is amazing?

Oh my.

And so, let me ask you this. Does your dog see you as an obstacle standing in the way of that fun or does your dog seemingly refuse to listen when that fun is lurking in the forefront of his mind?

If you try to compete for your pet’s utmost attention against such over the top reinforcers, I have this to say to you…Good Luck!

Let’s take a different perspective instead. The truth is, you really have no reason for needing to compete. You’ve got all the cards. You just need to learn how to play them.

Stacking the deck: Introducing the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle states that the more probable behavior (like getting freedom to go outside and run) will reinforce the less probably behavior (like sitting at the door as it opens until being released). Another way of looking at it – “If you eat your brocoli, then you can have your desert.”

It is a powerful concept when we talk about setting ourselves and our pets up for success. Rather than your dog thinking, “if I pull hard enough on my leash, then my owner will give in and let me smell the flowers,” you can teach him, “if I walk by my owner’s side, then I’ll be given the opportunity to smell the flowers.”

How do you use the Premack Principle effectively?

Well, first, know your goals. Do you want your dog come when called? Do you want your dog to walk with a loose leash? Do you want your dog to sit until released when you open the door?

Now think about what it is that your dog REALLY likes. Sniffing, chasing a ball or a human, being massaged, having his leash clipped to his collar, freedom to play outside, swimming in a body of water…the list can be lengthy.

TIPS:  During training, only use activities on your list that YOU want to reinforce. If garbage raiding, poop eating or furniture chewing is on your list, you may want to avoid it as a reinforcer for a behavior…unless you want to see more of the garbage raiding, poop eating or furniture chewing that is.

Also, keep in mind that what an animal finds reinforcing can easily change depending on the environment. After a long walk an active dog may much more prefer laying on a mat to a game of fetch. However, in the morning, that same dog would love to play 20 games of fetch rather than being told to lay on a mat.

Putting your lists into action is the fun part.

Now it is time to combine those lists. Here are some examples of how I may use the Premack Principle.

If a dog that I am walking stays at my side, I may click for him doing a ‘wanted’ behavior and then use a release word fdog sniffing grassollowed by ‘go sniff’ and walk him to a mailbox post or just a grassy area. After a few few minutes, I’ll use the release word that tells him the sniffing behavior should finish, and I’ll say, “let’s go” and we continue our walk. I may mix things up and sometimes after the click give him a piece of meat, and other times send him to sniff.

If I call a dog to come while he is the middle of playing or smelling something (remember to ONLY call your dog when you know from your prior experience training the dog) AND he comes, I may then click him for coming and then immediately release him to go back to doing what he was doing before.

The combinations are endless here. The effects are powerful. The biggest lesson here: don’t go to combat against competitors for your dog’s attention. Instead learn how to tie access to those competitors to you.

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  1. Nice list to train a dog. Actually a trained dog is an assets to any pet-lovers. Love this article.