Party with Premack!


One of my clients recently adopted a sweet, 70 pound, two-year-old mixed-breed from the shelter named Nicky, and I’m thrilled to be working with her. We don’t know much about her past other than that she has clearly had a litter of puppies, but she is delighted to be in her forever home with her Beagle pal Koby. After a nasty initial bout with Kennel Cough and intestinal parasites, Nicky got back on her paws and was ready for some training. We mastered basic skills inside her home and conquered problem barking and moderate separation anxiety. She did well with her “Watch” focus exercises and was definitely motivated by treats indoors. Training her to “Watch” and “Sit + Watch” inside was a precursor to using it outside on walks in her neighborhood, where her owner reported that she pulled on leash, “flipped out” at squirrels and other dogs and was extremely difficult to check-in with.

 As time went by, due to her owner’s schedule, I began to take Nicky on training walks by myself to work on the issues. Initially she seemed impossible to reach outside on walks. Her “Sit” inside her home was perfect, but we couldn’t get one easily, just outside the front door or anyplace out in the world. Even the highest-value dog treat was meaningless to her, and she wouldn’t even entertain the thought of eating one that she would beg for once back inside.

After a couple of sessions observing her, it was clear that delectable treats were not her motivation on walks—but squirrels were! Enter the Premack Principle, which states that a high probability behavior (such as chasing a squirrel up a tree) can be used to reinforce a low probability behavior (such as a boring old “Sit”). And so it was for Nicky. Once we decided to “Party with Premack” our sessions turned into magic! I began by stopping the use of food altogether and working hard to get her to sit for a brief second and then sprinting and being really fun on the way to the nearest tree. It progressed from there. Now all it takes is one quietly spoken “Sit” cue from me and Nicky immediately plants into a sit. Then we run fast to the nearest tree and look up in search of Mr. Squirrel. She can even sit first after she sees a squirrel now and waits for me to give her the go ahead to chase it. That’s big progress. She no longer pulls on leash for walking sections nor barks and lunges at squirrels or dogs. She will “Sit + Watch” and check in with me too. Her big reward is to jump up on the trees as if trying to climb them while being taunted by squirrels from above. At one point her “Sit” behavior degraded and I had to ask for it more than one time. I quickly extinguished that nonsense by covering her eyes with my hand when she ignored me. The sequence went like this: “Sit” followed by no actual sit, followed by covering her eyes, followed by a lightening-fast sit, followed by me immediately uncovering her eyes while she remained sitting so she could see if any squirrels were in view. Problem solved!

I know the neighbors think I’m wacky as they watch us sit and burst out running to look up a tree, but I’m fine with that. Anything in the name of training. Thank you David Premack for throwing this powerful party we can all attend while loving the use of positive life rewards in modern dog training.

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