By Naomi Heck
In last month’s post, I encouraged you to think about the things your dog loves as well as things your dog does NOT like. This month I want to discuss how to incorporate those things into training your German Shorthaired Pointer. The biggest challenge I have with my dog Chase is getting him to come inside when he is out in the yard. Since the day I brought him home 5 years ago, I made teaching a reliable recall a top priority. I’m proud to say that when he is in an open field running away from me at top speed toward a flock of birds, he will turn on a dime to come back to me when I call him. But in his own yard? Forget it. Until I did some remedial training, he would just stand there and look at me as if to say, “Not!”
When I first noticed this blatant refusal about a year ago (after enjoying great compliance and patting myself on the back for being a good trainer), I felt frustrated and annoyed. I knew Chase understood what I was asking. I had trained him daily in this same situation using lots of positive reinforcement for several years. But now Chase was telling me, “I’d rather stay out here. What you have to offer (treats or play inside) isn’t as appealing as what I am doing right now.” He was testing his boundaries.
The control freak in me didn’t want to let him get away with this, so I would quickly go to him and bring him inside (without scolding, of course). If he tried to slink away, I just calmly followed him until he gave up and came with me into the house. He lost the privilege of being outside if he didn’t listen. But actually, he lost it anyway if he willingly complied and came inside! It was a lose-lose situation for him. I inadvertently created a negative association with calling him (this is called a “poisoned cue” in trainer-speak). I was unhappily aware of what I was doing at the time but I didn’t have an alternative plan. I also broke my own rule: never train when you are frustrated or in a hurry to go somewhere! His response deteriorated over time until he didn’t come to me at all in the yard. It only takes one negative association to create a poisoned cue. Several months ago I vowed to spend a few minutes every day undoing the damage I created. His recall has greatly improved, but it is still a work in progress.
My strategy employs a psychological concept called the Premack Principle. This principle states that when you set up a situation where performing a “less likely” behavior results in the opportunity to do a “more likely” behavior, performance of the “ less likely” behavior will increase. A less likely behavior is one that the dog would not typically choose to do on his own. A more likely behavior is something the dog would gladly do of his own accord. This is commonly referred to as “Grandma’s Rule”: eat your vegetables and you can have dessert. In order for this to work, you must be able to control the contingencies. You should not allow the dog access to the “good stuff” until he does what you ask. This is a very powerful training tool that I use whenever I can.
So in Chase’s case, the less likely behavior is coming when called; the more likely behavior is running out into the yard to hunt for bunnies. I have treats and his favorite squeaky mouse right by the door to give as a bonus, but the real reinforcement for coming is the magic word “OK”, which means “run back outside and do what you want”. I no longer use the word “Come” (which was the poisoned cue mentioned above). Instead, I say “Touch” and hold my open hand out to my side, which means “put your nose to my palm”. This was a game I taught earlier that Chase loves. When he comes to me with the “Touch” cue, I give a treat or the squeaky mouse for a few seconds, then release him with an enthusiastic “OK!”. I can now call him from inside the garage with him in the driveway 20 feet away
(our most difficult scenario). He loves this game and always has a happy grin on his face when I release him back outside.
He occasionally thinks twice about coming, but his average compliance time has decreased from infinity to several seconds. If he doesn’t respond promptly to my first request, I make the exercise easier by moving closer to him and trying again until he is successful. I release him back into the yard 90% of the time. The other 10% is when I really need him to come inside. He doesn’t seem to mind anymore and I always thank him with a special treat or another fun game.
I’ve also used the Premack Principle with nail trimming, which is an event disliked by many dogs. I trim Chase’s nails at the front door, giving a small treat after each nail. I then say “OK!” and immediately open the door so he can go flying out. This works well for us. Think about various ways you can apply this principle to train your own dog. I’d love to hear your ideas.
Next month I will talk about crate training – Do’s and Don’ts and tips to make the process go more smoothly.